National Heritage for the alps: a chance not to be missed
In October, at long last, the Australian Alps were added to the National Heritage list. But will this long-awaited, and well-deserved, status bring appropriate management to the High Country? So far the signs aren't good, says VNPA's Phil Ingamells.
Heritage Listing comes at a time when the High Country of south eastern Australia has attracted international attention for its extraordinary vulnerability to climate impacts.
Victoria's alpine parks are very, very low in altitude by world standards.
In every other continent, the highest mountain is at least 4800 metres above sea level (the Himalayas have more than a hundred peaks above 7000 metres), but our tallest mountain, Kosciuszko, reaches only 2228 metres and Victoria's Bogong High Plains sits well below the 2000 metre mark.
At times of rising temperatures, alpine plants and animals would normally make their way upslope, settling in at a higher climate zone. But in Victoria, our alpine native species are already at the very top of our peaks - they will have to tough it out where they are while a host of lower altitude species (including ferals) make their way upslope to compete with them.
One day, hopefully, global warming will reverse. When that happens, those alpine species that managed to survive, that found shelter in small climatatic envelopes along mountain streams or tucked into cool south-facing hollows, will start to re-colonise the high country. But many won't make it.
For now, we must do all in our power to make sure as many alpine species as possible - plants, animals, insects and fungi - are given the support they need to survive the coming decades.
In what could be a timely move, Victoria's Alpine National Park, that truly noble landscape the VNPA has fought for over many years, is about to get a complete re-assessment of its management plan.
The VNPA has been pointing out for some time that we now have a chance produce a truly innovative management plan for the alps - a plan that would, perhaps as a world first, set out a clear strategy to deal with the great complexity of threats that climate change brings to alpine ecosystems.
It is a particularly good opportunity in Victoria, because there has been an extraordinary degree of activity among scientists in the High Country. Indeed, other than the Great Barrier Reef, there is probably no natural area in Australia as well studied, over such a long period, as our alpine national parks.
Unfortunately, Parks Victoria's ambitions for the new management plan are far from grand.
When the plan for NSW's Kosciusco National Park was completed in 2006, it involved a planning process of four years, an independent committee of 17 distinguished scientists, and a budged of some $4 million.
By comparison, Parks Victoria is planning to produce a single combined management plan for some eleven alpine national parks and associated historic reserves with a budged of only $100,000 (plus staff time for three people), and they expect to wrap the whole thing up in a year and a half.
Alarmingly, the slice of the plan's budget allocated to "environment and heritage assessment, climate change advisor and community engagement is just $25,000.
Since the strategy was proposed, and perhaps in answer to the VNPA's concerns, Parks Victoria has added a small (though admirable) scientific advisory panel to the planning team, but we are still well short of a process to give the alps the well-informed, strategic support they clearly need.
And all this is happening at a time when the alpine resorts, more and more aware that their winter playgrounds are doomed, are clamouring for summer tourism infrastructure in the parks
In the face of this anticipated summer tourism push, it is even more important that we rapidly build the knowledge, expertise and resources base necessary to give alpine species maximum resilience to climate impacts.
Victoria's Alpine National Park has been doing fairly well for funding in recent years, largely due to special post-grazing and fire recovery programs. Indeed the current budged for this year'sd ecological management for parks in Victoria's Alpine District is around $1.8 million.
But recurrent funding for things such as weed and feral animal control - that bit of the budget that can be relied on year-in year-out - is a token $1000 for the same area.
National Heritage listing gives all of mainland Australia's alpine and sub-alpine parks and reserves a place in the Federal Government's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, and hopefully this listing might leverage some financial support from Canberra.
However, responsibility for management of these parks, and for most of the funding for them, remains with each state and territory government.
Parks Victoria's submission to the Victorian Government's White Paper on biodiversity and climate change states that "increased resourcing is required to achieve biodiversity objectives in parks".
It is time the State Government, and its management agencies, threw their weight behind a radical new management plan for Victoria's alpine parks - a plan that would give alpine ecosystems maximum resilience in the fact of climate impacts.
Bogong moth numbers falling
Each spring, vast numbers of Bogong Moths travel south from their grassland breeding ground to shelter in rock crevices through the alps.
And the feasting by Indigenous people on these moths is one of many cultural associations now given National Heritage recognition.
But many birds and mammals in the alps have also relied on these moths for a good spring feed. Unfortunately, agricultural impacts on their breeding areas have greatly reduced their numbers, and also caused high arsenic levels in moths.
Now, with climate change bringing earlier snow melt, Moutain Pygmy-possums are tending to come out of torpor before the moths arrive, leaving these threatened mammals without valuable nutrition at a critical time.
There are a host of environmental issues throughout the alps that call for well-informed management, and the time to plan for that is right now.