xmgLandcare2WEB_2014It’s a hands-on role for Kellie Nichols, the Executive Officer of the Bass Coast Landcare Network, whether out in the field or applying for much-needed and now reduced grant funding.

HOW will the decision, taken by the Federal Government in last week’s Budget, to cut $483.8 million from Landcare, affect local jobs, tree planting projects and weeds control?

The short answer, according to Kellie Nichols, the executive officer of the Bass Coast Landcare Network, is “we don’t know for sure”.

But it’s fair to say they’re worried.

“At this stage there is very little information about the implications to the localised Landcare networks and groups,” Ms Nichols said. “There has been a new National Landcare Program established in this Budget, that appears to be an amalgamation of the former Landcare program, which delivered funding to grassroots community and volunteer groups, and Caring For Our Country, which delivered on the Commonwealth’s national sustainability priorities. “This National Landcare Program has been allocated $1 billion, but it has lost $483.8 million, mostly in funding which had been earmarked for future grassroots grants. “The program itself is still to be designed so it is very unclear if there will be a community grants program as part of it.”

Grant concern

However Landcare’s national body is already indicating that local grants will be hit and hit hard, impacting the ability of local Landcare networks and groups to continue to plant trees, control weeds, put up fences… and employ facilitators to run the programs. It’s a short-sighted decision that could nobble the government’s own Green Army initiative, or at the very least, limit the ability of groups like the Bass Coast Landcare Network to get involved. And that would leave a backlog of local farm partnership programs out in the cold. “The bulk of Landcare cuts will be to the competitive grants rounds, where small community Landcare groups apply to run grassroots projects,” said a spokesperson for Landcare Australia. “The way that grants will be allocated in the future is still being worked out, but government officials say existing contracts will be honoured.” They also note that the remaining Landcare money will have to fund several programs new to its area including cane toad eradication in Western Australia’s Kimberley, $9 million of fishing programs and a strategy to protect the Great Barrier Reef – the $40 million Reef 2050 plan. So it’s a concern, not only that $484m has been cut out of the National Landcare Program, but also that local grants may be impacted and the remaining funds made to stretch further. No local grants or fewer grants means fewer jobs in Landcare and lost local priority projects including weed control. Ms Nichols said the Bass Coast Landcare Network still had funding for several projects to go on with this year and next, but as usual, they would be applying for funding from Federal and State government sources and other agencies in future rounds to continue with tree planting, weed control and other projects with its local agency partners and farmers. “We’ll be applying for more Landcare grants in the second half of the year,” said Kellie Nichols.

Green Army risk

“Bass Coast has been allocated a Green Army project and we are working with Phillip Island Nature Parks and the Bass Coast Shire Council to deliver it.” But she said that the ability of the network and its farmer partners to get involved would depend on how successful they were in the now threatened grant rounds. “As I understand it, Green Army is a six-month program and the funding pays the salaries of the participants but if we are to get involved we’ll need money for trees, fencing and other materials as well as the cost of our wages to supervise and manage the teams. “We still have two years to run on our Biodiversity Fund Project so we could use that but we would definitely need to be seeking other grants if we are to participate fully.” In September last year, funding from the Biodiversity Fund allowed the network to involve Year 8 students from the Wonthaggi Secondary College in a 10,000 tree planting project, helping to protect Bass Coast waterways. The local Green Army project is supposed to kick off in July 2014. The Green Army is a hands-on, practical, grassroots environmental action program that supports local environment and heritage conservation projects across Australia while providing up to six months work and training for unemployed 17 to 24 year olds. Federal Environment Minister and local MP, Greg Hunt, has pledged to take a personal interest in the success of the Green Army project locally and will soon meet with the local partners. For now though, Landcare’s ongoing role is being challenged by the Budget changes and concern has also been raised elsewhere. Environment Victoria Acting CEO Mark Wakeham was scathing: “The Coalition promised to maintain Landcare funding. Tonight $484 million has been cut from Landcare and the Caring for Our Country programs. These decisions are extraordinarily damaging to both the environment and to public confidence in the Coalition’s commitment to the environment.”

VFF response

VFF president, Peter Tuohey noted the $483m cut to the Landcare budget but also that the government would spend $525m on establishing a Green Army of 15,000 young people to do Landcare works. But in general terms the VFF has welcomed the Budget, especially retention and indexation of the diesel fuel excise. “The retention of the diesel fuel excise is a huge win for all Australian farmers,” Mr Tuohey said. He also welcomed the government’s commitment to developing key infrastructure projects in regional Australia and the allocation of funding to a chemicals program for horticulture growers and others. “We’re also pleased to see the government’s $100 million election commitment to agriculture specific research and development over the next four years – but a major concern is the significant slashing of $11.5 million over four years to RIRDC (Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation). “Disappointingly, we didn’t see any funding for the crucial National Centre for Farmer Health based in Hamilton. It’s unfortunate to see that both State and Federal governments have abandoned this institution. This is a service we will continue to lobby for in the lead up to the Victorian state election in November,” Mr Tuohey said. They’ve also lamented the $146.8m cuts to the CSIRO and loss of 500 jobs.