ILWS - Charles Sturt University
ILWS - Charles Sturt University

Social Research for Regional Natural Resource Management

Led by Prof Allan Curtis

This SRA ceased operating as a formal SRA at the end of 2014 though some of the Institute's  researchers, including a number of PhD students, continued to work in this research area.

The information on these pages is accurate to the end of 2016 when reporting for SRA was completed for the 2015-16 Biennial Report.  All reporting for our projects is now found in relevant areas under the four research themes.

  • About
  • Issues
  • Members
  • Outcomes
  • Projects
  • Publications
  • Engagement
  • Linkages
  • Postgrad Research


The aim of this SRA was to improve regional Natural Resource Management decision making.

Its researchers aimed to:

  • Contribute to processes that enable stakeholders to explore future scenarios and their implications for landscape resilience and long term sustainability
  • Inform approaches to rural development, including through building social and human capital that are likely to be cost-effective and enduring
  • Inform the development, implementation and evaluation of policy instruments employed, and of recommended practices for managing land and water degradation
  • Suggest ways to ameliorate/enhance the social impacts of proposed interventions including changes to land use or resource access

The ILWS team engaged in research examining the social dimensions of NRM was made up of eight researchers, ranging from senior researchers in their field to early-career researchers, one post-doctoral research fellow, and six PhD students. It had a strong track record and made substantial contributions to knowledge, management and policy, research methods and training. While pursuing important social research questions, the team contributed to integrated research that attempted to predict the environmental, economic and social impacts of changes in water availability as a result of new policies, climate change or the conjunctive use of surface and groundwater.

This SRA was at the forefront of efforts in Australia to identify ways social research can contribute to integrated research teams. Much of that experience was gained through contributions to large, mufti-disciplinary projects such as Landscape Logic, one of the research hubs in the Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities Program (2007-2011) and projects under the National Centre for Groundwater Research & Training (NCGRT) (2009-2014) and the Landscapes and Policy Hub funded by SEWPAC (2012-2013).

Prof Curtis was a Principal Investigator with the NCGRT and led the team of ILWS researchers who undertook the majority of the social research component of the NCGRT's Program 5: Integrating socio-economics, policy and decisions support systems over a five year period. This project was done as a series of sub-projects including the:

  • Namoi project, where the NCGRT was contracted by the Cotton CRC to investigate the socio-economic and environmental impacts of water reform and climate change in the Namoi Valley;
  • Wakool project, where the NCGRT, MUrray CMA and the NSW Natural Resources Commission funded research to test the application of resilience thinking as a process to assist water resource dependent communities identify alternative futures; and
  • the Wimmera social bench-marking project, funded by the NCGRT and the Wimmera CMA which included a survey or rural landholders' perceptions of risk associated with groundwater pumping.

Another  projects completed included one under the Landscapes and Policy Hub "Integrating community values into regional sustainability planning: the Lower Hunter region" which recommended innovative ways for balancing conservation and development in the Lower Hunter, including maps which show the potential for conflict between development and conservation proposals. Another "Let's Talk Fish: Assisting Industry to understand and inform conversation about the sustainability of wild catch fishing" resulted in a communication strategy presented to the industry. An important achievement of this SRA was the development of long-term partnerships with Catchment Management Authorities. Prof Curtis pioneered the use of mail surveys to gather spatially-referenced social data to assist with the implementation and evaluation of regional NRM. To date projects have been completed in eight regions across south eastern Australia with the social benchmarking methodology developed by this team being used  for two projects funded by the North Central Catchment Management Authority.

The team was also involved in two collaborative international research projects with other social scientists from Canada and the U.S. (both funded by the U.S. Joint Fire Science program) looking at trust between managers and residents in fire-prone communities; and the management of multi-functional landscapes at the interface of public forests and private land.


Pressures arising from population growth, rising living standards and consumption of resources, climatic variability and globalisation are becoming important drivers of regional change and development.

How rural and regional communities respond to these challenges will depend on how engaged they are with the issues, their preparedness and ability to respond, in Australia and beyond. In Australia Natural Resource Management (NRM) is increasingly structured around a regional delivery model where planning and implementation is guided by national and state priorities but mostly occurs at the regional scale.

The Australian landscape has been modified by people over millennia. Its land and water degradation is a result of the interactions between people and the natural environment.  For NRM plans to be successful they need to be based on an understanding of the social context and must consider the social impacts of proposed actions. While there appears to be an increased appreciation of the potential contribution of the social sciences to NRM in Australia, there is little evidence that existing regional NRM plans are underpinned by social research. Accordingly there are opportunities for social research to play an important role at various steps in regional NRM (such as helping articulate a vision and objective; and identifying targets for the implementation of management actions).

Team Members

Members Expertise
Prof Allan Curtis Conservation behaviour of rural landholders; program evaluations; local organisations
Dr Emily Mendham Social research of natural resource management
Dr Michael Mitchell Triple bottom line reporting; social dimensions of ground water management
Dr Penny Davidson (Adjunct)Social research
Dr Digby Race (Adjunct) Social implications of natural resource management; community-based forestry; program evaluations
Dr Nicki Mazur (Adjunct) Community engagement; environmental values & behaviour; environmental policy; program evaluation
Dr Rod Griffith (adjunct) NRM governance, resilience, societal change agendas, and planning
Dr Chris Raymond (Adjunct) Climate change adaptation planning, conservation policy, sustainable agriculture, water management and community development.
Dr Maureen Rogers Environmental Economics
Dr Joanne Millar Evaluation of extension programs; capacity building in NRM and agriculture; scaling up technology adoption; planning for multifunctional rural landscapes
Royce Sample The connection between agriculture & NRM practices; NRM program management
Simon McDonald Geographical Information Systems; remote sensing and statistics


Chiltern social gathering

Key outcomes or examples of how the work of this SRA has made a difference include:

  • From the team's contribution to the Landscape Logic (2007 to 2011) project there is new knowledge about landholder responses to climate change; the role of social norms in NRM; the impact of occupational identity on landholder engagement in the management of riparian areas and remnant bush; new research methods, including the use of participatory rapid appraisal to develop interdisciplinary teams, and the use of social data in Bayesian Decision Network analysis to explore the adoption of conservation behaviours;  and conceptualising the condition-based approach to NRM management
  • From the research  on transformation for resilient landscapes and communities  (2009-2012) a flexible planning by doing framework  has been developed through which participatory collection action tools can be used to apply resilience thinking as part of strategic planning to improve Natural Resource Management. The Murray CMA has taken this framework on board and has restructured its approach to strategic planning which has helped transform the organisation's culture and improved its credibility with its key stakeholders. A five year flagship project (2011-2016) has been funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation to continue this work with NRM organisations in Far North Queensland and elsewhere.
  • As a result of its landholder surveys conducted in the Wimmera region in Victoria in 2002, 2007 and 2011 the team has been able to assist the Wimmera CMA  (ahead of its next strategy) to evaluate the outcomes from NRM investment; provide  insights into the values and long-term plans of landholders; and identify trends in social structure including property  size, absentee ownership and occupational identify.
  • The final report for a project under the Landscapes and Policy Hub "Integrating community values into regional sustainability planning" (2012-2013) with the focus study the Lower Hunter region in NSW has been completed and recommends innovative ways for balancing conservation and development in the Lower Hunter, including maps which show the potential for conflict between development and conservation proposals.
  • As a result of a two year (2012-2014) social research project  'Let's Talk Fish: Assisting industry to understand and inform conversation about the wild catch fishing' researchers have presented the industry with a communication strategy on how to most effectively interact with different non-industry audiences on key sustainability issues affecting the wild-catch sector.
  • Researchers have been involved in a various sub-projects under the nationally significant research project, the National Centre for Groundwater Training (2009-2014). These include the Namoi project (where the NCGRT was contracted by the Cotton CRC to investigate the socio-economic and environmental impacts of water reform and climate change in the Namoi Valley) and the Wakool project, where the NCGRT, Murray LLS and the NSW Natural Resources Commission funded research to test the application of resilience thinking as a process to assist water resource dependent communities identify alternative futures. Findings  from the Namoi project were used to provide advice to the NSW Office of Water about how they can build trust with their communities, and Namoi survey data was used by the Cotton CRC funded integration project examining the impacts of water reform and climate change. Relationships established through the NCGRT led to other projects including the Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems(GDE)  project in the North Central region of Victoria and involvement in a Department of Primary Industries project assessing Murray Darling Basin Authority plan assumptions in relation to groundwater in northern Victoria. Lessons from the Wakool project led to a successful bid for RIRDC funding  for a project that applies resilience thinking to NRM in northern Australia.




The launch of the trust guide associated with U.S Joint Fire Science Program was held at  the Wodonga Fire Station, May 1, 2014. The launch was attended by about 20 stakeholders representing the Country Fire Association (CFA), NSW Rural Fire Services, the State Emergency Services, the Department of Environment and Primary Industries, North East CMA and the Victorian Government's Integrated Fire Management Planning as well as the media.

Prof Curtis had extensive media coverage including ABC Bush Telegraph (radio) and Science Alert (web) following a release on the findings of a NCGRT/Cotton CRC survey in the Namoi catchment of NSW which found farmers supported storing extra water underground.

He has provided advice to Victoria and NSW community landcare organisations by assisting them in articulating a plausible argument for on-going Government support to landcare groups. In Victoria that work contributed to State Government lobbying effort, which eventually led to a renewed commitment of substantial funding for landcare. Meetings with the Minister for Natural Resources, Lands and Water, and the Minister for Primary Industries in Sydney also took place in NSW.

International Linkages

The SRA was successful in obtaining international funding for two projects.

Advancing Knowledge about Citizen-Agency Trust in Wildland Fire Management: A Collaborative Assessment Framework for the U.S. and Australia, led by Professor Bruce Shindler from Oregon State University.
The Australian launch of the booklet, Trust: A Planning Guide for Wildfire Agencies & Practitioners was attended by Prof Shindler in May 2014.

Managing Multifunctional Landscapes at the Interface of Public Forests and Private Land"  (2013-2014) led by Professor Eric Toman from Ohio State University.

In 2013/14 the Institute hosted Japanese PhD student Tomomi Maekawa, from Tokyo Institute of Technology, to study Landcare in Australia over a 12 months period.
Short visits to the Institute were made by her supervisor Professor Toshio Kuwako, from Tokyo Institute of Technology, and Professor Michael Seigel and Dr Kazuki Kagohashi, from Nanzan University, as well as the chair of Australian Landcare International, Rob Youl.

Postgraduate students working on topics relevant to the SRA

Students Research Topic
Jenny Sherry The social-cultural context of vulnerability to natural hazards in Nepal
PhD student completions
Dr Theresa Groth

Using the collective identity construct to examine the role of a farmer occupational identity in multi-functional landscapes in Australia and the United States

Dr Saideepa Kumar

Choosing boundaries for interventions: A study of environmental water management in the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia

Dr Katrina Sinclair In a changing climate how will farming systems exposed to reduced water availability respond to secure a sustainable future?
Dr Gina Lennox Absentee ownership of rural land: Modes, trends and implications.
Dr Andrea Rawluk

Interpreting regional landscape change: a case study of the Ovens, Victoria, Australia