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Understanding landholder willingness and capacity to respond to dryland salinity: findings from the Goulburn Broken Catchment

Allan Curtis

Johnstone Centre, Charles Sturt University Albury, 2640 NSW Phone 02 60519945


This paper draws upon the author’s recent research in the Goulburn Broken Catchment of Victoria to explore the social factors affecting landholder management of dryland salinity. The primary data collection instrument was a mailed survey to one thousand landholders. Survey work generated baseline information on key variables at the land management unit scale that was unavailable from other sources. Data analysis provided a coherent explanation of landholder adoption of best practices. For example, research findings emphasised the importance of low on-property income as a factor constraining change in management. Comparisons of expert maps and landholder identified salinity sites suggested that landholders in the upper catchment had excellent knowledge of the current extent of salinity on their property. At the same time, the expert maps failed to predict half of the saline affected sites identified by landholders. It seems that the extensive community education effort undertaken in this region has been successful in raising salinity awareness. Nevertheless, most landholders were not concerned about the impacts of dryland salinity and appeared to believe they could “live with salt”. This is an important issue because the small, diffused amounts of salt exported from properties in the upper catchment are/will have a substantial impact downstream. The research methodology and findings have important policy and management implications and these are discussed.


The initial stimulus for the research discussed in this paper was the realisation by stakeholders in the Goulburn Broken Catchment (GBC) that adoption of best practice natural resource management had been slower than was required to arrest dryland salinity. This catchment has been the focus of one of the most sophisticated and sustained efforts in Australia by government, community organisations and landholders to address dryland salinity. One measure of the level of investment in this and other issues is that in recent years around sixty per cent of federal and state funds expended on natural resource management in Victoria has been invested in the GBC (Curtis and Lockwood 2000). Findings by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission’s (MDBC) Salinity Audit (MDBC 1999) suggested that the impact of dryland salinity would be far greater in the GBC than expected and reinforced the need for action. Lessons from the GBC would therefore seem to have wider national relevance.

Research discussed below was a collaborative effort between researchers from Charles Sturt University (CSU), Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) staff, the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority (GBCMA) and landholders. The principal data collection instrument was a mailed survey to landholders during 1999. A second survey was conducted in 2000. Socio-economic data from both surveys was combined with other data layers in a Geographic Information System (GIS). Research findings have been published in a comprehensive report (Curtis et al. 2000) and three papers addressing the adoption of best practices (Curtis et al. 2001a), awareness and concern about dryland salinity (Curtis et al. 2001b) and the impact of stronger cost sharing for revegetation work (Lockwood et al. 2001). This paper draws upon each of these publications and other subsequent work by the author.

The GBC is located in North East Victoria and includes the Goulburn River and the Broken River catchments. Irrigated land in the GBC has produced export earnings worth $4.5 billion per year, about 25 per cent of Victoria’s total (GBCMA 1998). The catchment covers 2.3 million hectares (17 per cent of Victoria), including approximately 1.9 million hectares of non-irrigated land known as the Goulburn Broken Dryland (GBD) that is upstream of the irrigated areas [Figure 1]. The GBD includes the major townships of Benalla, Euroa, Seymour, Mansfield, Nagambie and Broadford, and supports major agricultural industries, food processing, forestry and tourism activities (GBCMA 1998).

Regional catchments are increasingly the scale at which natural resource management occurs in Australia. There are also considerable differences in subregional contexts. The GBD has been divided into 14 Land Management Units (LMU) based on geological and hydrogeological characteristics of the land. Each LMU has common causes and effects, downstream consequences and control options for salinity. Four of these LMU have been identified as critical for managing salinity (SPPAC 1989). Apart from the differences in the physical settings of the various LMU, there are also contrasts in terms of proximity to larger regional centres, commuting time to Melbourne and the extent of rural subdivision.

Practices expected to improve the management of dryland salinity by private landholders in the GBD include:

  • revegetation of recharge zones;
  • adoption of farm forestry;
  • replacing annual with introduced perennial pastures;
  • changing grazing and fertiliser regimes to enhance native perennial grasses;
  • intensification of grazing; and
  • installation of water pumps (GBCLPB 1996).

Emerging and potentially profitable enterprises such as wine grapes and horticulture could also lead, through whole of property planning, to greater investment in one or more of these best practices.

Figure 1


Governments have assumed that poor adoption rates for best practices arose because landholders were unaware of important land degradation issues; lacked sufficient knowledge and skills; or had attitudes that emphasised short-term economic returns over maintaining the long-term health of the land (MDBC 1990; ASCC 1991). There has been a large investment of resources over the past decade in awareness raising and education programs, including those carried out by Landcare groups. There is credible evidence that these activities do contribute to increased awareness and understanding and that these changes enhance landholder capacity to adopt best practice (Vanclay 1992; Curtis and De Lacy 1996; Curtis et al. 2001b). However, though most landholders already have a strong stewardship ethic, such attitudes are not linked to increased adoption of best practices (Curtis and De Lacy 1998).

Some landholders have lifestyles and values that limit their response to approaches that focus on increasing agricultural production and profit maximisation (Barr et al. 2000; Curtis et al. 2001c). Non-farmers and retirees may respond less quickly to economic signals; be more averse to risking off-property income in on-property enterprises; and will probably have less time for property management (Barr et al. 2000). On the other hand, non-farmers may bring new ideas, skills and financial resources that contribute to the renewal of local communities and they may be more likely to respond to appeals for biodiversity conservation (Curtis and De Lacy 1996).

There is now abundant evidence that part of the explanation of low adoption is that many of the current recommended practices or enterprises are either unprofitable and/or unsustainable. Amongst other things, some of the recommended plant-based management systems “leak” water and contribute to ground water flows that mobilise salt (Stirzacker et al. 2000; Walker et al. 2000).

Low on-property income will constrain the capacity of landholders to respond to new opportunities. Over the past decade, most broad acre farming enterprises in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) have been unprofitable using the FM 500 project benchmark of financial sustainability (Barr et al. 2000). The FM 500 benchmark assumes that a disposable family income exceeding $50,000 per year is required to sustain a household and fund investment in a farm’s natural and capital resources (Rendell et al. 1996). There is increasing evidence that many rural landholders, including those in the GBC, have limited on-property incomes and that this is a critical constraint to adoption (Barr et al. 2000; Curtis et al. 2001a). Poor returns from grazing have meant that landholders could not afford the remedial lime and fertiliser regimes required to maintain pastures and prevent the downward spiral in grass production that effects water uptake and eventually, farm income (Millar and Curtis 1997).

It is also unlikely that many dryland landholders will generate substantial income from new enterprises such as olives, wine grapes and farm forestry (Stirzacker et al. 2000; Curtis et al. 2001a). Landholders are very reluctant to take on new enterprises that will involve them entering long-term agreements with powerful industry partners (Curtis and Race 1996). Problems also arise if recommended practices or new enterprises are complex, are perceived as being risky, do not fit with existing enterprises or conflict with existing social norms (Vanclay 1992; Curtis and Race 1996; Barr and Cary 2000).

It seems that understanding of issues and congruent attitudes are necessary but not sufficient to ensure adoption. Landholders are also increasingly aware that they are being asked to implement work that has community benefits in terms of biodiversity conservation, improved public health and protecting export income (agriculture and tourism) and infrastructure. They also understand that many of the problems that they are being asked to address have resulted from previous government policies. Establishment of the Natural Heritage Trust, with the federal government sharing the costs of large-scale on-ground work on private land, was an acknowledgment of the legitimacy of these arguments (Curtis and Lockwood 2000).

Discontinuity between the source and impact of issues, particularly those related to water degradation, adds a further complication. Many landholders in the upper reaches of catchments are either not experiencing these problems, believe they can live with them or are unaware or unconcerned about contributing to downstream impacts (Curtis et al. 2001a).

Australia has an ageing rural population with life expectancy increasing and younger people drifting from rural areas to the more prosperous and attractive lifestyles in urban centres (Haberkorn et al. 1999). We can no longer assume that a substantial proportion of the inter-generational transfer of properties will occur within families. Where family succession is unlikely, property owners may be less willing to invest in recommended practices or new enterprises. In an era of reduced farm profitability and lower land prices, particularly where demand for rural subdivisions is not high, some landholders may feel they are locked into living on their properties in retirement. With increasing life expectancy, this trend could delay inter-generational property transfer. These elderly property owners may also be less willing to invest in recommended practice or new enterprises. Guerin (1999) and Curtis et al. (2001a) found that there was no clear correlation between landholder age and adoption, and suggested this was an important area for future investigation.

Such pressures were expected to lead to the amalgamation of some smaller grazing properties into larger units. While some amalgamation has occurred, there has not been large-scale consolidation of properties, and the trend has not been uniform across the MDB (Barr et al. 2000). Within commuting distance of larger regional centres, there has been considerable conversion and subdivision of existing holdings into lifestyle farming enterprises for retirees and people with off-farm work. Land prices based on rural residential use will militate against the aggregation of smaller and less viable grazing holdings and closer settlement may impose environmental controls on broad acre farming.

The mail survey process

The principal research instrument was a mail survey in 1999 to collect information from landholders (Curtis et al. 2000). As part of the process of identifying variables to be included in the mail survey, the research team examined Goulburn Broken Dryland Salinity Management Plan (GBDSMP) documents, held discussions with key stakeholders and drew on the literature cited above. Discussions with Neil Barr (from DNRE) ensured that variables identified from his important, but then unpublished work using ABS Census data were incorporated into the mailed survey.

The survey design and mail out process were undertaken using Dillman’s (1979) Total Design Method. Surveys that were returned to sender or sent back due to the landholder no longer residing at the property were removed from the original sample, along with those landholders that were too old, ill, deceased, the property was less than 4 hectares or the property had been sold. A final sample of 1021 was left. With 480 completed surveys returned, the overall response rate was 47 per cent. The author has recently achieved a 70 per cent response rate for a similar project in the Ovens catchment of North East Victoria. In this case, an up-to-date local government mailing lists was provided to the research team.

This research was a collaborative effort between CSU, DNRE staff, the GBCMA and landholders. Amongst other things, this partnership facilitated the integration of socio-economic data collected using the mail survey and other data layers held within DNRE and by DNRE partners, including Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM). Mail survey data were entered into an Arcview Geographic Information System (GIS) that contained other data layers, including LMU, salinity discharge sites (DNRE), depth to water table and ground water salinity levels (SKM). The SKM data layers had just been compiled as part of the work SKM completed for the MDBC’s seminal salinity audit (MDBC 1999).


Awareness and concern about salinity

Awareness of salinity

Thirteen per cent of the survey respondents (61) said they had areas on their property where vegetation showed signs of the effects of salinity. For most respondents, the area affected was relatively small, with a median of four hectares and 65 per cent of the affected areas less than five hectares.

Comparing landholder perceptions of saline affected areas with expert maps

Given that dryland salinity is a high priority issue in the GBC, it was surprising to find that only 13 per cent of respondents said they had vegetation showing signs of the effects of salinity. Using the GIS layers available it was possible to investigate the extent landholder awareness of salinity, or preparedness to acknowledge a salinity problem, matched the extent of salinity predicted by expert maps (Curtis et al. 2001b).

Analyses using maps of salinity discharge sites provided by DNRE (Allan et al. 1997) and CLPR (2000), and depth to ground water and ground water salinity (SKM 2000) suggested that respondents had a very high level of awareness and preparedness to acknowledge current, visible, dryland salinity impacts.

  • 18 (4.56 per cent) of those who reported no areas with vegetation showing the effects of salinity were within one kilometre of a discharge site identified on DNRE maps (Allan et al. 1997).
  • six (1.52 per cent) of those who reported no areas with vegetation showing the effects of salinity had ground water within two metres of the surface and a total dissolved salt content higher than 3501 mg/L as mapped by SKM (SKM 2000).

Overall, the expert maps appeared to contradict the claims by 24 (6 per cent) of the landholders who said they had no areas where vegetation showed the effects of salinity. In other words, 94 per cent of the respondent landholders who said they had no areas currently affected by salinity were correct according to the expert maps.

This finding is contrary to earlier research suggesting farmers are not aware of salinity and/or are not prepared to acknowledge the extent of salinity problems (Vanclay 1992). There has been a large, almost unprecedented level of investment over more than a decade in community education (for example, field days, farm walks, monitoring programs, schools education, property planning) about dryland salinity in the GBC. It seems reasonable to conclude that this investment in community education has contributed to the high level of awareness of dryland salinity identified in this paper. Any thoughts that community education objectives have been accomplished and that this investment can be scaled back need to take account of the ongoing high level of property turnover and the predicted rapid expansion of dryland salinity over the next 20 years (MDBC 1999).

Comparing expert maps with landholder perceptions of saline affected areas

There was also the opportunity to examine the efficacy of the expert maps by assessing their capacity to predict areas affected by salinity as identified by landholders.

The expert maps correctly predicted areas where salinity was affecting vegetation for 30 (49.2 per cent) of the 61 properties where landholders had identified a salinity problem. Assuming that landholders had correctly diagnosed saline affected areas, this research suggests that the expert maps had failed to predict 50 per cent of the areas affected by salinity.

It is unlikely that landholders would deliberately overstate the extent of salinity on their property. However, there is a possibility that some landholders have failed to distinguish between water logged and saline affected areas. As Clark (2000) explained, some salt-tolerant species grow in both saline and non-saline conditions. At the very least, the finding that the expert maps failed to predict saline affected areas identified by landholders warrants further investigation.

Concern about salinity

Respondents expressed low levels of concern about a range of potential economic, environmental and social impacts of dryland salinity (using a five point response option, mean scores for each topic <2.6 out of a possible 5). For example, only 32 per cent of respondents said they were ‘alarmed’, ‘very concerned’ or ‘concerned’ compared to ‘very small concern’ or ‘not a problem’ about the potential threat posed by rising water tables on the long-term productive capacity of their property. Forty-nine per cent were concerned about the threat to the long-term productive capacity of their area. On the other hand, most respondents (57 per cent) thought that commodity prices would be a more important factor than salinity in determining long-term property viability.

While respondents have very good awareness of current salinity problems they may not be aware of the predicted increase in the area affected by dryland salinity. Unfortunately, there was no way to directly assess the extent that survey respondents who currently do not have a salinity problem are predicted to have a problem. This was because MDBC (1999) predictions of expansions in the area affected by salinity in the GBC were based on the application of a mathematical formula across the region. The formula used was derived from changes in water table levels. This approach meant that it was not possible to identify the specific parts of the landscape where salinity was expected to impact over the next 50 years.

It was possible to assess the extent that landholders currently without a salinity problem are located in areas that currently have saline ground water. Assuming that in every case this ground water would rise to within two metres of the surface, an additional 76 GBD landholders would be affected by dryland salinity. Combining this group with those already affected by salinity (13 per cent) would mean that 30 per cent of all respondents (137 of 456) would be affected by dryland salinity.

Survey data also suggested that to some extent GBD landholders thought they had no alternative but to “live with salt”. Indeed, only 36 per cent of the respondents said they were confident that on-ground work would be undertaken to prevent salinity undermining the viability of their area. By comparison, in 1999 the author found a significantly higher level of confidence (51 per cent confident) amongst respondents in the Shepparton Irrigation Region.

Adoption of recommended practices

Awareness and concern about salinity

In this study there was not a significant positive relationship between reporting areas with vegetation showing the affects of salinity and adoption of any of the practices listed above. On the other hand, there was a significant positive relationship between the overall level of concern about salinity impacts and the total area of trees established on each property. This finding suggested that there was a link between concern about salinity and adoption of best practices. Community education activities in the GBD that raise awareness of salinity impacts, particularly those off-site and downstream would seem to be one approach to increasing the adoption of recommended practices.

Very few of the GBD landholders in this survey reported a salinity problem. Despite the prediction of a 160 per cent increase over the next 20 years in the area affected by salinity in the GBC (MDBC 1999, p.30), it seems that most of the GBD landholders surveyed would not have saline affected areas on their property in the future.

As might be expected, most respondents were not overly concerned about the impacts of salinity on their property or their area. Many landholders in the GBD appear to think they can, or must, “live with salt”. A substantial proportion of landholders in the GBD operate small properties (53 per cent <150 hectares) and are not farmers by occupation (46 per cent were non-farmers). At the same time, there is convincing evidence that the combined effect of saline discharges from the GBD are contributing to substantial negative impacts on agricultural production, biodiversity, infrastructure and cultural heritage downstream in the GBC and beyond. It must also be said that landuse outside the GBD, particularly the irrigation districts is also contributing to salinity problems in these areas. Notwithstanding this point, there appears to be a discontinuity between the source and impact of dryland salinity in the GBC.


Landholder attitudes about the importance of community cooperation (88 per cent had a positive attitude); the importance of working with government (78 per cent positive); and that individuals have most responsibility for work on their land (61 per cent positive) were overwhelmingly positive. There was also evidence that most respondents had considered conservation values when planning work on their property over the past three years (76 per cent). The problematic nature of links between attitudes and behaviour was illustrated by the finding of no significant positive relationships between attitudes surveyed and the adoption of best practices under multivariate analysis.

Enterprise profitability and household incomes

Whilst there was a significant positive relationship between on-property profitability and the adoption of recommended practices, most GBD respondents (62 per cent) did not make an on-property surplus. Indeed, only a small number of respondents working large properties (15 respondents with a median property size of 1090 hectares) reported profits above $50,000 per year; the level required for sufficient funds to sustain a household and the natural and capital base of a property. Not surprisingly, GBD landholders appear very reluctant to invest in recommended practices for salinity amelioration that are likely to have most impact off-site and downstream.

Total off-property income was worth $11.7 million compared to $3.3 million on-property income (a multiple of 3.5). Respondents who identified themselves as farmers had the lowest median off-property income ($15,000). However, the median off-property income of respondents who reported off-property income was $25,000 and the median combined on and off-property income was only $32,500. Perhaps more importantly, there was no relationship between off-property income and adoption of best practices, suggesting that on-property income was more likely to be reinvested on-property.

New enterprises

The small number of respondents (44 with farm forestry; 24 with wine grapes; 31 other horticulture) and small median areas (four hectares for farm forestry and wine grapes; two hectares for other horticulture) suggested that these potentially profitable enterprises would not overcome low on-property profitability in the short-term. Trends for increased involvement in the GBD in these emerging enterprises suggests that landholders are willing to explore new options. For example, 54 respondents planned to have established 867 hectares of farm forestry in the next five years, up from 44 respondents and 568 hectares in 1999; and 57 respondents planned to have 320 hectares of other horticulture (besides wine grapes) in five years, up from 31 respondents and 164 hectares in 1999. These findings suggest that community education should include activities that have some focus on supporting landholder adoption of emerging enterprises.

Property size

Property size is potentially an important constraint on the capacity of land managers to adapt to changed circumstances. As we have seen, only 15 properties reported a profit in excess of $50,000 and the median property size for this group was 1,090 hectares. Survey data showed that 53 per cent of respondent’s properties were less than 150 hectares and that 70 per cent were less than 300 hectares. This information suggests that there are few properties in the GBD with the potential to establish viable grazing or cropping enterprises.

The proportion of land managed by small property owners was relatively small. For example, 29 per cent of all properties were 40 hectares or less and these properties represented only two per cent of all land covered by the survey respondents. A relatively small proportion of the respondent landholders owned most of the land, with 77 per cent of land owned by the 30 per cent of respondents with properties larger than 300 hectares. This might be taken to suggest that efforts to improve the implementation of GBD Salinity Management Plan goals should focus on owners of larger properties. However, the median property size for three of the four critical LMU was less than 60 hectares, and in two of these LMU, properties under 300 hectares represent about half of the total land area. The reality therefore, is that resource managers will need to work with the holders of both small and large properties.

There were a number of significant positive relationships between property size and adoption of best practices when using the total area under each best practice. However, when using the proportion of the total property under each best practice, there were significant negative relationships between property size and adoption of the same best practices. These findings suggested that owners of larger properties had implemented most best practices on a larger scale. At the same time, owners of smaller properties were adopting best practices at levels that were a higher proportion of their total property. It seems that there is interest in adoption of best practices and in changing management practices amongst owners of both small and large properties.

Farming as an occupation or lifestyle

Almost half the survey respondents indicated that they were not farmers (46 per cent) and it seems that many holdings are lifestyle-farming enterprises for retirees and people with off-property work. Farmers comprised 40 per cent or less of respondents in three of the four critical LMU. There was a significant positive association between hours worked off-property and adoption for fencing of remnant bush and water ways, but not for hours worked on-property and the adoption of best practices. There was also a significant negative relationship between farming as an occupation and adoption of some best practices. These relationships may reflect the lower household incomes of farmers and the reluctance of farmers to cede land to conservation given the importance of on-property income in their household budget.

Landholder stage of life

The median age of the GBD survey respondents was 55 years. Younger respondents were significantly more likely to have a property budget; take nature conservation into account when planning work on their property; take their neighbour’s property characteristics into account when planning; have a written property plan; and be willing to work with government. However, there were no significant relationship between younger age and higher adoption of best practices. These findings suggest that the ageing of rural landholder may not be a major constraint to adoption of best practices.

Forty-nine per cent of GBD respondents were over 55 years and 24 per cent were over 65 years. The over 65 years age group continued to manage a substantial proportion of land (18 per cent). The over 65 years group went against the overall trend that as age increased people thought they were less likely to live on their property in the long-term. In an era of declining farm profitability and stagnant property prices, it seems that some of the over 65 years group may feel they are locked into living long-term on their property. A majority (63 per cent) of the over 65 years group also believed that ownership of their property would stay within the family. Given current trends for younger people to abandon farming and to leave rural areas, a sizeable proportion of the properties of the over 65 years group are unlikely to pass to the next generation until after the death or incapacity of the current owners prevents them farming. With increased life expectancy, inter-generational transfer of many of these properties will not occur for some time. This information suggests that resource managers cannot ignore this important group of older landholders and must work harder to understand their aspirations and resource needs.

Property transfer through family succession and the open market

Fifty-eight per cent of respondents thought that their long-term plans would involve property ownership staying within the family. Thirty-one per cent of respondents indicated that their family had agreed to a plan for managing the transfer of their property to the next generation. It is difficult to believe that successful family succession will occur without a plan. Given the poor financial viability of most properties and the movement of younger people away from rural areas, it seems unlikely that most properties will pass to other family members. To the extent that family succession does not occur, it seems that many properties will be placed on the market for sale. There was no relationship between family succession and higher adoption of best practices.

Information on rural property transfers suggests that 65 per cent of all rural properties in the GBD changed hands in the past ten years (Curtis et al. 2001a). Analysis of the GBD landholder survey data suggested that there would continue to be large changes in property ownership, with 45 per cent of all properties expected to change hands in the next 10 years. A substantial proportion of these property transfers will occur through sales on the open market, with at least 75 per cent of the transfers in the four critical LMU through sales in the next 10 years. These trends can be expected to impact on landholder willingness to change practices; the demand for and effectiveness of community education activities; and the potential for initiatives such as government or industry intervention to acquire property in critical LMU.


It had been assumed that landholders are either unaware of the extent and impact of less obvious forms of land degradation, such as dryland salinity, or were in a state of denial. Comparisons of landholder identified salinity affected areas and those predicted by expert maps suggested that landholders had excellent knowledge of the current extent of salinity on their properties.

By contrast, the expert maps (discharge sites and depth to saline ground water) failed to predict saline affected sites identified by half the respondent landholders in the GBD. It is unlikely that landholders would deliberately overstate the extent of salinity on their property. It is possible that some landholders failed to distinguish between water logged and saline affected areas. Nevertheless, the finding that the expert maps prepared for the GBC - a catchment where there has been a sustained attempt to map ground water and discharge sites - under-stated salinity affected areas by 50 per cent is a cause for concern. Given the importance of dryland salinity and the upcoming investment of $1.4 billion by the Commonwealth and States under the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, it is critical that regional catchment boards/authorities can accurately map the extent of existing and potential salinity impacts.

Most respondents had positive attitudes towards conservation, working together, working with government and accepted that landholders have most responsibility for work on their property. Most respondents said that they have access to sufficient information to make informed decisions about adoption of best practices. A strong case can be advanced that the current high levels of landholder awareness of on-property salinity problems; the apparent ready access to information; and generally positive landholder attitudes, reflect, at least in part, the effectiveness of past investments in community education programs in the GBD. These findings suggested that the substantial investment of resources in community education in this region had been successful in raising salinity awareness and had contributed to the adoption of recommended practices.

Landholders are unlikely to be aware of the predicted rapid expansion of dryland salinity in the GBD and there has been substantial turnover of property ownership in the region and this trend is expected to continue. Most landholders in the GBD were not experiencing salinity problems and most will not experience problems in the future. Given these findings, it is not surprising that most respondents were unconcerned about the impacts of dryland salinity, appear to believe they can, or must, “live with salt” and appear very reluctant to invest in recommended practices for salinity amelioration. This is an important issue because the small, diffused amounts of salt exported from properties in the GBD are/will have a substantial impact in the irrigation districts and further downstream.

It seems that there is considerable interest in changing management practices amongst owners of both small and large properties. Most land was owned by landholders with properties larger than 300 hectares and by those who were farmers by occupation. There were also links between farming as an occupation and lower adoption of best practices. These findings suggest that efforts to improve salinity management should focus on farmers and larger property owners. However, subdivision of properties in the GBD is expected to continue and landholders with small properties own substantial proportions of land in the critical LMU contributing to salinity. The reality is therefore, that resource managers will need to work with the owners of both small and large properties.

The small number of respondents and small median areas allocated to the emerging and potentially profitable enterprises, such as farm forestry, wine grapes and other horticulture, suggests that these enterprises will not overcome low on-property profitability in the short-term. Trends for increased involvement in these emerging enterprises do suggest that landholders are willing to explore new options. Consideration should be given to directing community education resources to support landholder adoption of emerging enterprises.

There were significant positive relationships between on-property profitability and the adoption of best practices. However, most landholders did not make any on-property surplus. Off-property income was more than three times higher than on-property income but off-property and total household income were not linked to higher adoption of best practices. It is possible that landholders earning income off-property are reluctant to invest in unprofitable on-property enterprises. It is also possible that the identity or self-esteem of those working off-property is less tightly linked to the condition of their property. Those working longer hours off-property also have less time to work on their property.

Non-farmers, including a substantial proportion of retirees, comprised almost half of all GBD survey respondents and this proportion is likely to increase over time given the low level of on-property enterprise profitability, the ageing of rural populations and expressed intentions of GBD landholders to further subdivide land. These findings highlight the importance of moving beyond the focus on agriculture and farmers to achieve improved natural resource management outcomes. Resource managers will need to identify and address the values non-farmers, including retirees, place on their land. The finding that higher levels of off-property work in the GBD were associated with significantly higher areas of remnant bush and water ways fenced suggests that non-farmers can be motivated to adopt practices that will lead to better resource condition. Arrangements for separating the ownership and management of land and the establishment of professionally managed teams that undertake onground work are two approaches that may be needed to effect change where there are substantial proportions of landholders working off-property.

Even after taking into account off-property income, most GBD respondents did not have the financial capacity to introduce new enterprises or change management practices on their properties. Only 25 per cent of all respondents and 16 per cent of farmers, had a total household income above the $50,000 threshold considered the minimum to sustain a family and provide sufficient funds to maintain the natural and capital assets of a property. In regions where there is low household income and a discontinuity between the source and impact of dryland salinity, as is the case in the GBD, it will be difficult to change land management practices in the recharge areas. If salt loads originating in the GBD are a critical issue for the rest of the GBC and other downstream portions of the MDB, this needs to be acknowledged and addressed. This may require cost-sharing with downstream landholders; supporting landholders to move into profitable emerging enterprises; and government funding for natural resource management. Research by Lockwood et al. (2001) showed that stronger cost sharing would lead to higher adoption of revegetation in the GBD but that this increase would be insufficient on its own to achieve GBCMA targets for salinity control or biodiversity protection.

Survey data suggests that about half the properties in the GBD will change hands within the next 10 years. Many of these properties will be offered for sale and this will provide an opportunity for intervention by government or industry, for example, to purchase land for habitat restoration. A revolving fund could be established to purchase properties, place covenants that prescribe their future management, and then re-sell them to new owners. These new owners, given the covenant, are more likely to be supportive of and have the capacity to adopt best practice land and water management. The use of a revolving fund to purchase land in the critical LMU may represent one of the most effective (both in terms of cost and land management outcomes) and least divisive policy options.

Whatever actions are contemplated, it is important to recognise that there are significant differences across the LMU in the GBD, including median property size; proportion of landholders who are farmers; and the extent of on-property and total household incomes. These findings support those arguing for development of a flexible mix of policy options that can be adapted to regional circumstances and the needs of particular landholders. There may also be justification for differential rates of cost sharing across LMU within a catchment.

If effective responses are to emerge, community education must move beyond awareness raising and understanding salinity processes and engage the wider regional community in a discussion of salinity management. Appeals to landholders, particularly non-farmers must move beyond maximising agricultural production and embrace the range of environmental and social values that landholders attach to natural resources.

Survey data represented baseline information that was not provided by other sources, including the ABS household and farm surveys. The real potential of the study will not be realised unless there is a follow-up study in the GBD in about five years to begin the process of identifying trends over time. Each regional context is different and it would be useful to replicate the GBD study in other catchments as part of the data collection that underpins the development of regional catchment strategies and the roll out of the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.


Mark Cotter and Denise Fontana (DNRE) contributed to project development and management. Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority Dryland Implementation Committee members provided valuable advice on project and survey development. Megan Graham and Chris Medlin (CSU) provided advice and contributed to the management and analysis of spatial data. Simon McDonald (CSU) prepared Figure 1. Naomi Wilson, Toni Furlonge and Andrew McAllister (DNRE) also assisted with the management of spatial data. Michael Lockwood and Jacinta MacKay (CSU) made important, ongoing contributions to the projects referred to in this paper. Ian Bryon and Wayne Robinson (CSU) contributed to important aspects of data analysis. Marike Van Nouhuys assisted report preparation. Neil Barr (DNRE) and Mike Read (Read Sturgess & Associates), provided valuable assistance to this research. The author particularly thanks those landholders who completed surveys.


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