The NSW Environmental Trust is an independent statutory body created by the Environmental Trust Act 1998. The Trust is administered by the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. The Trust awards grants for environmental projects and supervises how they are used.

The Commission works with the Trust, as requested, to provide advice on natural resource management evaluation and project design, particularly in regards to the Trust’s major projects funding stream.

Current advice

Overseeing forest dieback research program

The Environmental Trust engaged the Commission to oversee the delivery of a research program focusing on the causes of mass eucalyptus tree mortality or dieback.

This $1 million program will support research projects that inform the effective management of risks to the environment and economy posed by dieback.

The program will be delivered under the Trust’s Major Projects Program over four years, ending in May 2024.

The Commission aims to ensure:

  • the research provides robust and practical evidence to support decision making for policy and adaptive management of forests
  • policy and practice relating to the management of eucalyptus dieback is informed by objective scientific evidence.

The Commission will:

  • develop a paper identifying dieback research priorities
  • support the Trust to assess research project proposals
  • monitor the implementation of research projects
  • convene annual forums between researchers and practitioners
  • prepare a final report that synthesises research outcomes
  • convene a symposium to disseminate research findings.

Recommended research priorities

The Trust has adopted the Commission’s advice on research priorities for tree dieback. These include:

  • Research that investigates management interventions
    This includes research on the effectiveness of management interventions to supress dieback or interrupt trophic cascades. Managing dieback affected forests remains a challenge for forest managers on both public and private land. Management interventions are expensive and forest managers are seeking guidance on cost-effective approaches.

  • Research that investigates historical relationships
    This includes retrospective research that explores the temporal relationship between dieback events and potentially contributing environmental and biotic factors. Understanding these relationships can improve modelling the extent and impact of future dieback events.

  • Research that investigates species resilience and vulnerability
    Dieback affects eucalyptus species differentially, with some species being more vulnerable and others more resilient to dieback events. Understanding the functional attributes that drive these differences can help identify causal mechanisms, inform models of future projected impact, and inform management practice and conservation policy

  • Research that investigates soil factors
    This theme focusses on research that investigates the role of soil factors and processes in eucalyptus dieback. Although soil and soil processes has been a focus of dieback research in other jurisdictions there is comparatively little research for NSW.

These research priorities will address knowledge gaps, provide evidence to support policy and practice change for ecosystem management and inform the effective management of risks to community values.

To develop this advice, the Commission engaged leading researchers in dieback from Murdoch University to review the causes of dieback, identify knowledge gaps and advise on research priorities. In addition the Commission sought advice from independent experts as part of a project steering group (see below).

The Trust has developed research investment stream for dieback that will be delivered over four years under the Trust’s Contestable Research Grants Program.

Steering Group

In collaboration with the Environmental Trust, the Commission has established and will independently chair a steering group to oversee the design, implementation and review of the program.

The Steering Group includes staff from the Commission, the Trust and the following three independent experts:

  • Professor Giles Hardy (Murdoch University WA)
    Giles is currently Director of the State Centre of Excellence on Climate Change, Woodland and Forest Health, and Director of the Centre for Phytophthora Science and Management.

  • Professor Ros Gleadow (Monash University VIC)
    Ros is the Head, Plant Ecophysiology Research Group, Board Member Eucalypts Australia, President-elect of the Global Plant Council and Past-President of the Australian Society of Plant Scientists.

  • Mr Bradley Moggridge (University of Canberra ACT)
    Brad is a fellow of the Peter Cullen Trust Science to Policy Leadership Program. A Murri from the Kamilaroi Nation, Brad is a leader in linking western science and traditional knowledge in the management of the Australian landscape.

Evaluating the Community Bush Regeneration program

The Trust has asked the Commission to evaluate their Community Bush Regeneration program (program). The $8 million program funded 34 projects over six-years, commencing in 2011-12, with the aim to:

  • regenerate degraded natural areas, including bushland, riverbanks, degraded waterways and rare and endangered ecosystems
  • improve the ongoing health and resilience of important ecosystems and habitats of rare and endangered flora and fauna
  • improve ecological connectivity within and between natural areas
  • improve the capacity of, and resource local community groups to protect, restore and enhance the environment by strengthening local community organisations whose primary purpose is to undertake environmental works in their local area.

This program was the first time the Trust funded longer-term projects. The evaluation will:

  • assess whether program outcomes have been achieved
  • test the assumptions underpinning the program
  • identify lessons for future Trust projects.

The evaluation will be informed by an online survey of grant recipients, interviews with some grant recipients and field investigations of the project works conducted, interviews with key Trust staff and agency partners involved in the program, and reviews of program and project documentation.

The face-to-face interviews and field investigations are currently on hold due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and social distancing requirements. The Commission’s advice will be delayed until these no longer apply.

Evaluating Major Projects program

The Trust has noted the Commission's recommendations on the evaluation of the Trust's Major Projects program – one of the NSW Government’s largest environmental funding programs. The evaluation focused on the current governance processes to assess whether the Program’s decision making processes are sound, fit for purpose and maximise public value from the Trust’s investment.

The Commission found the Program’s governing processes are sound, including the selection of priority issues, evaluation of priority issues against the Trust’s objectives, co-design of project business cases by grantees and the Trust, and engagement of Trust’s staff with stakeholders.

The Commission recommended that the Program's governance can be further improved to better achieve the Trust’s objectives by:

  • clearly identifying objectives that will inform future design of the prioritisation and selection processes for each funding stream
  • improving the prospectus process by broadening stakeholder engagement through workshops and improved communication
  • improving the Program oversight by allocating more staff to manage the Program.

During the evaluation, the Commission reviewed 54 Project documents, conducted 18 face-to-face interviews with the Trust staff and stakeholders, conducted eight interviews of successful and unsuccessful grantees, and received 36 responses to the online survey of workshop participants and successful participants.

Setting priorities for investment in coastal rivers and estuaries

The Trust engaged the Commission to investigate and better understand how they could invest strategically to achieve significant improvements in the health of coastal rivers and estuaries. The investigation aims to:

  • improve the knowledge and understanding of past and present health, threats, stressors, management and funding for coastal rivers and estuaries
  • evaluate lessons learned, the barriers and enablers for success, governance models and innovative approaches
  • improve riparian rehabilitation through benchmarking good practice guidelines
  • provide strategic recommendations to guide prioritisation of investment into NSW coastal river and estuary health.

The Commission will recommend investment proposals to address key findings and strategies for setting priorities for coastal rivers investment. Concurrently, the Commission will conduct a focused investigation into riparian rehabilitation to benchmark good practices.

This work is being undertaken as part of the Trust’s Major Projects program. The Trust has established an Advisory Group for the project, who the Commission will consult along with other relevant stakeholders to develop its advice. The Commission aims to provide its strategic investment report and good practice benchmarks to the Trust in mid-2020.

Previous advice

Linking Landscapes project

The Commission has released its final report on the evaluation of Environmental Trust’s "Linking Landscapes through Local Action" project. The project was funded by the Trust, and delivered by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH).

The Trust engaged the Commission to evaluate the Linking Landscapes project. This project was a $10 million component of the broader Green Corridors program, to which the Trust committed $40 million over four years.

The primary objective of the project was to protect and manage conservation values by establishing biobank sites on public land in the Sydney Basin bioregion. These agreements provided ongoing funding for councils to develop and implement long-term management plans to maintain and improve environmental values in seven council-owned sites.

The Commission found the Linking Landscapes project was effective in achieving its primary objective of protecting and managing land with identified conservation values through the establishment of biobank sites. Biobanking agreements resulted in increased on-ground management at all sites, leading to improvements in site conditions. The project also improved the capacity of council staff to manage public land for conservation outcomes.

However, the Commission found a large variation in cost effectiveness across sites. Due to differences in the initial condition of sites, the funding allocated to each site under the agreements varied widely, both in total and on a per hectare basis. There was also a large variation in the long-term viability and recoverability of each site due to the size and location of the site, its exposure to ongoing threats and other factors.

While the project has had positive impacts at the site scale, the Commission considers it unlikely to have had a material impact at the landscape scale. Councils face considerable challenges in addressing future threats and pressures on biodiversity values at the landscape scale.

The Commission recommended initiatives to improve future outcomes for similar projects. The primary recommendation was to improve selection criteria and carry out regular performance reviews to ensure environmental outcomes are cost-effective and can be sustained in the long term.

The Trust and OEH have accepted the Commission’s recommendations.

Contaminated Land Management Program

The Trust engaged the Commission to evaluate a six-year period (2011-2017) of the Contaminated Land Management Program. The Trust provided $12 million in funding over that period to support a range of contaminated land management subprograms, administered by the NSW Environment Protection Authority.

The Commission found that the subprograms varied in their effectiveness, with positive outcomes including coordination of response to large contaminated sites with shared responsibilities, and capacity building in some councils.

The Commission recommended significant changes to the program design, governance and grant administration to improve consistency with the Trust’s policies and good practice, and better target funds to specific desired outcomes.

The Trust and the Environment Protection Authority have provided responses to the Commission's evaluation, and the Trust has announced a revised Contaminated Land Management Program, which will provide up to an additional $3 million over the next three years (see letter from the Trust).

Restoration and Rehabilitation Program

The Commission has released the final report on the evaluation of the Environmental Trust’s Restoration and Rehabilitation Program.

The Trust requested that the Commission undertake an evaluation of the Restoration and Rehabilitation Program, as implemented for the years 2010-2015.

The Commission’s evaluation found that the Program is well-run, the application process is rigorous and transparent, and there are strong governance structures in place. The Commission also made several recommendations in relation to program design, governance and administration, the application process, communication, and monitoring and evaluation.

The Restoration and Rehabilitation Program represents approximately 40 percent of the Trust’s total contestable grants funding. The Program has been funding projects for local priorities for over 25 years. Since 1990, the Program has funded over 1,000 projects worth approximately $70 million.

The Commission developed an evaluation framework to help improve assessment of the Trust’s contestable grants programs. The Commission tested this framework through an evaluation of the Restoration and Rehabilitation Program.

The Commission’s evaluation considered a broad range of issues including the program design, achievement of objectives and long-term impacts, program delivery and administration, monitoring, reporting and evaluation, alignment with government priorities, and value for money.

Priorities for the Environmental Research Program

In November 2014, the Trust asked the Commission to:

  • develop a framework and process for developing priority themes for the Environmental Research Program
  • apply the process to develop priority themes for the 2015 application round
  • provide advice about how the prioritisation process could be further improved for future rounds.

To help develop its advice, the Commission consulted with a range of people, including government investors in research and users of publicly-funded research.

The Commission's final advice to the Trust informed the 2015 application round. See the Environmental Trust website for details.

Roadside Vegetation Implementation Project

The Trust requested that the Commission undertake an evaluation of the Roadside Vegetation Implementation Project.

The evaluation assessed the appropriateness, effectiveness and efficiency of the Project, and informed potential future investment in the management of linear reserves.

The Commission provided advice to the Trust in December 2014 in the form of two reports (see below), an evaluation of Stages 1 and 2 of the Project, and a report with advice for investment priorities for a possible third stage of the Project. The Trust has considered the Commission’s advice and has accepted or partially accepted all of the recommendations (see below).

Further, the Trust has indicated that the Commission's advice will inform the design of a potential third stage of the Project.

To evaluate the Project, the Commission:

  • reviewed available documentation from the Trust, Local Government NSW (the administrator of the funds) and project proponents
  • visited 25 work sites across 11 projects to inspect on-ground activities
  • interviewed representatives of councils and regional organisations that delivered projects, technical experts and representatives of key stakeholders
  • analysed project and program level outputs and outcomes.