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Planning Process

In an attempt to build resilience, Cape York NRM is moving away from a traditional ‘plan, then do’ approach to a continually adaptive process that involves collective learning. While there are times where one could only do ‘planning’, the larger process is built on concurrently planning and doing - step by step, and cyclic. Activities are adapting while working on projects that inform future management decisions to reach the NRM plan targets. Cape York NRM's staff and Board and the people of Cape York are together learning skills and sharing knowledge. New knowledge and skills can then improve the effectiveness of on-ground actions combined with live monitoring systems. New information is taken into the new cycle and is able to inform and update plans, priorities and actions to better equip people to deal with unexpected shocks. The planning by doing method is framed by the actions of listening, learning, looking and linking.

Reflections on previous attempts

Past efforts at planning

Cape York has outstanding cultural and environmental significance. However, in 2013 several community partners from Cape York and technical experts identified several major issues, including poor coordination, huge land and sea mass to deliver across, varied levels of capacity and Indigenous disadvantage (see Section 5, Regional Investment Strategy).
While there have been dozens of planning processes and millions of dollars spent on attempting to create a plan that everyone can agree on, few have so far been successful.

From Cape York Peninsula Land Use Strategy to now: 20 years on

The Cape York Peninsula Land Use Strategy (CYPLUS) was the largest funded planning program on Cape York. The first stage started in 1992 and finished in 1995, involving data collection, identification of issues and analysis of opportunities and constraints. Stage 2 commenced in 1995 and completed in 1997, which involved the coordinated development of a strategy for sustainable land use, economic and social development. This was followed by the roll-out of National Heritage Trust funding in the early 2000s.

One of the sentiments expressed by the people of Cape York is that not much happened in the decades since CYPLUS Phase 1 and 2. With the support of Sustainable Solutions Global, Cape York NRM set out to identify recommendations from CYPLUS that were related to NRM and explore what has been achieved in the years since CYPLUS Stage 2 finished. While some achievements have been made, several more have not. A timeline of the actions against the plan is presented on a timeline below.

A 20-year history of planning on Cape York

CYPLUS was also one of the biggest planning processes seen on Cape York. Since then, though, dozens of other plans and planning processes were started, drafted or completed. These processes are showcased on a timeline, showing what they were when they were done and how they relate to planning on Cape York.

Learning from past planning: growing a living plan

Over the past 20 years, several large plans on Cape York failed to gain traction and consensus because they were not strategic, were dependent on funding that was not available, were ignored or were not endorsed by the community. While the plan needs a process that delivers great social, cultural, environmental and economic outcomes, the planning process should avoid another top-down, rigid structure. 

The plan should also be owned by everyone who is managing land on Cape York whereas previous plans only had a partial agreement. Everyone should be able to find a place where they fit in this plan so Cape York NRM has developed the idea of a living plan that includes planning by doing centred around adaptation pathways to achieve natural resource management targets. To make sure that the community stays central to the process, Cape York NRM’s Atlas showcases community and other plans that are relevant to Cape York, from local to regional.

These are shown on Who Plans Here. The Atlas also showcase projects and outcomes that Cape York NRM and the community are already undertaking or have completed that contribute to steps along the adaptation pathways, working together to reach the NRM plan targets.

New Understandings

For the first two years of operations, Cape York NRM was in transition from government-directed investment to community investment through the development of a regional investment strategy (RIS) in late 2012. This strategy was developed through analysis of existing planning documents and by brainstorming with members and stakeholders of Cape York NRM sectors. It included a comprehensive evaluation of previously funded projects.

This RIS was reviewed in 2014 with consideration to potential climate change impacts and lessons learnt through a two-day workshop with members, community delivery partners and stakeholders. The community reviewed and re-worked the six regionally critical themes for land management, which the organisation still uses to categorise projects and activities and align investment.

Cape York NRM has now spent three and a half years implementing a strategy based on the six RIS themes. During this time, the organisation has weathered changes in investment focus from funding bodies, shifts in government priorities, policies and legislation and have learned from project lessons and from engagement. All of this has led to an understanding that investment and effort tends to be spread thin because each theme represents competing priorities. The development of a new approach was required to change the way planning happens, to incorporate new information and focus scarce funds to places where multiple outcomes are possible.

Cape York NRM works continuously with the community to plan and build capacity to change management actions, using the best available information. These local and regional actions are continuously monitored and evaluated. Incorporating this information into actions can enable land management practices to adapt to new situations. The integration of all these continuous cycles has led to a re-think of the concept of planning by doing.

Planning by doing

While the concept of planning by doing had already been discussed in other parts of Australia, Cape York NRM has redeveloped this concept. Planning by doing in the Cape York context is harnessing and improving people's existing capacity to understand and manage natural resources.

Planning and doing together builds on people's capacity through experience and collective learning. The aim is to increase the resilience of people and the environment to detrimental changes. This process adds value to on-ground actions by using tools and principles to listen to people's aspirations and understand environmental signals, learn together, then look for people, resources and funding, and ultimately link people together for on-ground actions. Through this process, Cape York NRM has identified eight adaptation pathways to assist people to reach eight natural resource management targets.

A new approach

Cape York NRM initially designed a community-driven planning process with two concepts:

  1. Focus on systems (such as all water flows), rather than assets (such as a lagoon). Recognition of connectivity expressed in Indigenous cultures of Cape York - talking about systems makes sense on Cape York, as all things are connected. The organisation hence took a cultural ecological systems approach.
  2. A focus on action, where to plan as people go about doing things and providing tools useful to planning across scales. This also recognises current efforts to tackle NRM issues across Cape York communities that assist in mitigating effects of a changing climate and improve the resilience of country and people.

Core to this was a cluster-based approach, bringing like-minded people together to tackle big issues important to them. Big issues on Cape York include appropriate fire management or sustainable cattle production and supporting Cape York sectors to identify their priorities and develop indicators to monitor achievement into the future, share stories and learn with their communities. Cape York NRM has worked with these clusters for the past three years: funding activities, holding workshops, sharing knowledge between people, monitoring on- ground works and reflecting on the process. A large part of this process has been the Your Climate project but also through projects undertaken through the community regional investment strategy.

Your Climate Project

In 2013, Cape York NRM was successful in gaining funding through Stream 1 of the NRM Planning for Climate Change fund of the Commonwealth Government that was available to regional NRM bodies to update their existing NRM plans with consideration to climate change. The ‘Your Climate’ project was a key engagement tool in the process of developing the Regional NRM plan. Cape York NRM did the Your Climate engagement informed Cape York NRM’s understanding of peoples’ knowledge of how their place functioned, their values, the changes they had seen already and their priorities for now and the future. Material collected over the past two and a half years include:

  1. Questionnaires about people’s place, values, change and capacity to adapt (>100 documented interviews);
  2. Video footage of Indigenous and community stories of people talking about values, place and change (>90 captures from Mulong and South Cape York Catchments);
  3. Individual or group responses from events and workshops about various aspects of values, place and change (>15 events).

Four organisations and two Traditional Owners from Lockhart River used the questionnaire to engage with the community across Cape York, including South Cape York Catchments, Mitchell River Watershed Management Group, Mulong and the project team at Cape York NRM.

One key result is videos of stories told by Traditional Owners and Elders across Cape York, and Cape York NRM has now collated 90 video clips through this project. Cape York NRM estimates that their engagement at events has reached another 200+ individuals about what's important to them, climate change, general changes, their aspirations and future activities or projects.

Cape York NRM are now going back to groups as the plan is implemented to discuss updated climate science impacts now available from Stream 2. The results of this project will to help people to keep on managing their land, look for new options and respond to changes.

Cape York NRM has worked in collaboration with James Cook University, CSIRO and three other Wet Tropics Cluster NRM groups to investigate and build new knowledge around climate change projections, impacts and adaptation for the region. Three key sets of outputs are a set of trans-disciplinary science synthesis report, a set of brochures summarising the findings of this work and a film on climate change impacts and adaptation. These can be found on the Adapt: Climate Stories site.

Focus on action

The planning by doing approach is a framework for engagement that supports the implementation of actions identified in the adaptation pathways. The engagement framework involves listening, learning, looking and linking in order to come to know what it is, what it does and how to do it, and implementing management practice changes that benefit the environment and people.

Listen: Understand people and the environment

What: Listening to people's aspirations and listening to environmental signals helps to know the situation. NRM organisations and land managers also actively create ways to seek new information through on-ground observations, monitoring data, survey results, plans and research reports.

Why: Understanding all of these signals together is the first step in a reflective process, allowing a pause to listen to what’s important, even as work is underway.

How: Within each pathway, the tools to do this include working on-ground, collecting field data, running surveys and workshops, receiving information and media.

Atlas sites: Several Atlas sites showcase how Cape York NRM has listened:

  • Stories catalogued on the Land Manager site;

  • Results of the RIS workshops in 2013 and 2014 on the NRM Plan site;

  • Results of the Your Climate project on the Climate site;

  • Mapping and monitoring data on map previewer of the Maps & Data site.

Learn: Learning together

What: The listening process is closely linked with collective learning. Together, the Cape York community and Cape York NRM use all of collective information and knowledge to learn about what it all means. People already have a vast amount of knowledge, and never stop learning about the environment, the cultural values of Cape York and how to work together for the greatest possible benefits. This collective learning step allows people to share skills and communicate knowledge, then use other information grow this knowledge to make the best decisions. The primary objective of the Atlas Toolbar is to foster this collective learning and add value to what people already know by communicating it to others.

Why: To facilitate collective learning, Cape York NRM connects with different sectors and sub-regions through several avenues. By far the best is meaningful one-on-one engagement and workshops, especially out in the field. Because of its importance, all operations staff work with multiple interest groups and landholders of Cape York. The organisation often uses a cluster approach, supporting multiple landholders and interest groups to come together in the field to discuss and implement specific land management issues, such as fire, water quality, biodiversity and weeds.

How: The tools to support learning include summarising and communicating the results of research, surveys, plans and field data. Cape York NRM supports groups to build skills, knowledge and confidence through funding on-ground projects combined with mentoring and training. Cape York NRM also actively reflect on the processes by taking on-board the lessons, evaluation and feedback from workshops, activities and project reports.

Atlas sites: One of the main results of this collective learning process is the development of adaptation pathways to reduce the impact of climate change. This process is presented on theAdapt: climate stories site.

Each year, Cape York NRM and Mulong Productions work with local Indigenous groups to host and deliver the Cape York Indigenous Fire Workshop. This promotes and demonstrates two-way collective learning between Indigenous ecological knowledge and Western science. The workshops draw over 100 people from across the globe.

Cape York NRM also supports collaborative weed management between sectors such as Wunthulpu Aboriginal Corporation and Yarraden station for the control of rubbervine, and among groups such as through supporting and hosting the Western Cape Turtle Threat Abatement Alliance.

Look: Looking for people, resources and funding

What: Before starting any work, the right people, resources and finances are required to get the job done well. These people might include an experienced and supportive neighbour and his tractor, project partners doing on-ground management, or experts for technical support and knowledge. Some of the big challenges on Cape York require inputs from people within and outside the region, bringing extra knowledge, tools, equipment, scientific information and data that can improve decisions and outcomes of the work.

Why: Looking for alternatives to current ways of doing things can substantially improve the results of on-ground work and lead to new practices and opportunities. By getting appropriate resources and skilled people who share and build knowledge with the community, people can add to existing capacity and build resilience to the coming changes. This is critical, particularly in regards to the impacts that from climate change.

How: In this step, frameworks or tools might be connected with monitoring results and scientific recommendations to identify the best action to take. To do this, maps can locate where to act or plans can be used to see where the actions can benefit multiple outcomes. Projects might identify the key people to help or tap into established networks to support actions. Project planners would also look for the resources, equipment and extra investment or funding.

Atlas sites: The Atlas Toolbar is great for identifying what to use and where. Cape York NRM have set up a list of local Cape York service providers on the Land Manager site.
The Who Plans Here site provides a spatial representation of the current and historic plans on Cape York to see who is planning to do what, and where.

The Cape York Map Previewer provides maps to see the land and identifies available spatial information.
Cape York NRM sieves through a river of research to pull up the references that are most useful for the Cape. The references and links are provided through the online Reference Library.

Cape York NRM strives to provide useful information on the most important natural resource management issues on Cape York, for people to see what works and share and use ideas to develop their activities. Case studies of Cape York NRM and partner initiatives are showcased on the Land Manager site.

Link: Working together to take action

What: Timing and circumstance can make the difference between a mediocre effort and a spectacular success. Part of Cape York NRM’s role is to provide assistance where and when required, as much as time and resources allow. The steps in this process are acting on the most relevant plans and working together to reach the next step in the adaptation pathway. Cape York NRM actively resources projects with equipment, people and funds to get the job done and supports on-ground efforts to monitor, evaluate and plan for the next stage.

Why: Cape York NRM works to deliver the best long-term outcomes as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, funds are limited for managing natural and cultural resources, so the most efficient way to get the outcomes is to connect with people. By working together, the outcomes of actions can be more effective and longer lasting, and build great relationships at the same time.

How: Most NRM activities are about coordinating actions across scales, with multiple skill sets and technical expertise. This includes bringing people together, working on the ground and actively planning in the field.

Atlas Sites: Cape York NRM communicates activities through the Atlas Toolbar sites, newsletters and social media. Please check out the news and events section to see what is currently happening.
A large compendium of project information, partner information and case studies are on the Land Manager and home pages.

Adapting to Change

Triggering a rethink

As Cape York NRM continues ‘doing’, by coordinating actions with partners, an action is to update the planning site and the Atlas sites by summarising results from listening to community and collective learning. The intention is to continue to prioritise and re-prioritise on-ground activity as actions take place, enable the right capacity to support the implementation of projects and use continuous monitoring for more intelligent and effective long-term management practices.

Planning for change

Change is a constant. Some changes are known, desired and planned for, but others come unexpectedly from elsewhere. The plan also needs to evolve to keep up with the changes, to keep it living. Between this current first iteration of the planning process, Cape York NRM will go through a series of steps to the next iteration. This includes more results from the Your Climate project, through the analysis of interviews, listening to the stories from people across Cape York and reading community plans. Results will also flow from monitoring data, new information from surveys and lessons from projects that Cape York NRM staff and partners are currently doing. Cape York NRM is also continuing to workshop climate change projections information with partners and regional experts to improve opportunities to build resilience and adapt.

Planning with change

Inevitably there will be some unforeseeable changes along the path, such as changes in government policy, sudden changes within the organisation, rapid changes in investment or natural disasters like floods, droughts or cyclones, increases in temperature or sea-level rise. Or more positively, organisations might be successful in attracting funding, continue to build great partnerships, substantially improve skills and practices and achieve community and environmental outcomes that build resilience to shocks. As these changes impact the system, the planning by doing approach will use this new information and adjust accordingly to ensure that investment and effort is focused on the adaptation pathways to assist in working towards achieving the NRM targets.

How Cape York NRM Does this

The Plan

The Cape York Regional NRM plan is a high-level living document that:

  • Identifies eight NRM targets and adaptation pathways to assist in reaching the


  • Communicates community-identified regional investment priorities.

  • Is informed by plan and strategy documents across Cape York.

  • Explores key areas of vulnerability and resilience to climate change.

  • Identifies key systems to target investment and opportunities for carbon abatement

    and sequestration.

  • Provides access to information and tools to assist in the delivery of actions.

  • Updates each year as projects are delivered and lessons are learned.

The Atlas

Directly connected to the plan is a series of 11 Atlas sites that provide tools useful in planning across scales, communicating stories, sharing information and knowledge, engaging the community and evaluating the effectiveness of actions.

Tools to facilitate planning by doing

To help adapt to these changes, Cape York NRM uses a set of tools to facilitate responses through planning and re-prioritising. The ATLAS consists of nine independent websites, which work together to collect and share information about land management on Cape York and provide tools to land managers to plan across scales, improve and target on-ground management and inform management actions. The tools allow users to understand and learn about their place of interest, its people, current actions and the environment.

These tools include:

  • Engagement and communications with the Cape York community and interest groups: get involved on the Land Manager site, sign up as a contributor, and check
  • out news, projects, profiles and partners.
  • Pausing for reflection on what's working and what's not: Who Plans Here, Timelines and RIS. Identifying and supporting clusters of like-minded individuals: Case studies, Projects, Walk the Catchment, Social Sciences, Indigenous ecological knowledge and stories, and the
  • fire site, characteristics and projects.
  • Developing monitoring indicators and collection of data: monitoring and
  • evaluation and projects.
  • Building trust with organisations, groups and individuals: Land
  • Manager, partners, projects and service providers.
  • Looking out for big changes, such as in policy or climate: regional climate science, Who Plans Here and Cape York Climate Futures.
  • Documenting processes and reports: reference list, newsletter, annual reports and maps and data.
  • Mapping and analysis: map viewer and ecosystems, carbon and biodiversity maps. Evaluations of programs and projects: project information, maps and data and RIS. Technical studies: Maps and Data, reference library and climate science. Subregional planning: Who Plans Here, planning timeline and water.

Testing the process

Cape York NRM is not just supporting people to plan, do, reflect and change practices. Cape York NRM is also operating within and across scales of planning. The current NRM plan is living, and while the targets might be stable, the approach might change. So what is next for this NRM Plan?

Cape York NRM will continue to develop people’s understanding and implementation of fire management, improve people’s understanding of plant and animal distributions, continue the prioritisation of weeds and pests, and monitor and evaluate achievements and share and communicate results with the Cape York NRM community.

Cape York NRM started to develop a set of adaptation pathways, but these are not set. The organisation is in the process of doing the Your Climate analysis, so this will be a next big step in informing pathways and tools along with ongoing workshops with the community in using and interacting with the NRM targets and ATLAS sites.

Cape York NRM is beginning to understand climate change and potential adaptation options. The next step for Cape York NRM is to understand the 200+ climate messages for Cape York, extract the messages relevant to the region and each sector, communicate them to community groups and provide the opportunity to redevelop or add to the key messages and climate science from local expertise and experience.