PARK WATCH June 2021 |
Executive Director Matt Ruchel writes about the future of river frontages.
A significant dispute has broken out over the last few months between farmers, recreational fishing groups, local conservation groups and the government over a poorly thought through election promise.
Much of Victoria’s landscape is densely woven with rivers and streams – the greatest concentration of waterways on Australia’s mainland. This includes many heritage rivers, high-value wetlands and floodplains, and important bird and biodiversity areas.
Of 170,000 kilometres of river frontage, 18 per cent are publicly owned; these are known as ‘Crown water frontages’. This approximately 30,000 kilometres of Crown water frontage is a unique feature to Victoria that was put in place in the 1880s.
About 8,000 hectares of this land is now in national parks or conservation areas, and a further 5,000 hectares is a mix of different reserves managed by local councils and other land managers. The remaining 17,000 kilometres of waterway frontage is largely managed by the adjacent landholder via approximately 10,000 agricultural or riparian licences issued by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP).
In 2018 the Andrews Government made an election commitment as part of their Fishing & Boating Policy to “guarantee access to fishing and camping on Crown land that has grazing licenses and river frontage”.
But this was not a properly thought through policy, and there was no consultation with groups like the VNPA who have been working on riverside land issues for some years. The government subsequently passed legislation to implement the policy and has now moved to create regulations to try and manage the largely open camping access to Crown water frontages. But the scheme has many significant problems.
The draft Land (Regulated Watercourse Land) Regulations essentially allow camping access to grazing licensed waterways, with some exceptions and various vague rules. The draft regulations say that camping may be excluded in areas of regulated land to “preserve or protect natural values”, “protect or allow revegetation or restoration”, or “preserve or protect cultural values”. However, it provides no mechanism to do this and makes no reference to the scale of assessments required. Rather it’s a bit of a blank cheque with camping allowed until decided otherwise.
VNPA does not see the attraction of ‘camping with cows’, which is essentially what the regulations propose, especially where it could lead to conflict with adjoining landholders, impact on sensitive ecological areas, or simply be unsafe.
Without proper regulation and well-informed planning, ‘open camping access’ has the potential to result in an intensification or introduction of threats and risks directly associated with camping activity (whether legal or not), including for example:
- Increased pollution and litter along riparian land and adjoining private land.
- Public health and safety risks arising due to conflicts between people and livestock.
- Increased risk of wildfires caused by campfires.
- Conflicts between pet dogs and livestock.
- Biosecurity risks, both agricultural and ecological.
- Damage to riparian vegetation and habitats from camping, firewood collection, vehicles, four-wheel driving, and trail-bike riding.
- Damage to riparian vegetation, habitats and river banks from gold prospecting and fossicking.
- Increased risks of accidental injury due to increased hunting activity in agricultural landscapes.
- Death or injury of campers or wildlife or livestock due to the increased likelihood of simultaneous mixed use.
Crown water frontage management is made more complex because much of it has not been formally surveyed and the boundaries are uncertain between private and public land. Adding to the confusion is the dynamic nature of waterways, sometimes changing their course during floods or gradually through erosion. Without knowing 100 per cent whose land is whose, there will be a great deal of conflict between campers and adjacent landholders. The regulations will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to properly enforce without detailed boundary surveys, clear fencing and access points.
There is also a real danger that the scheme will undermine riparian land restoration initiatives to the detriment of the environment and broader community benefits. VNPA has long highlighted the impacts of cattle on river frontages, but we also acknowledge the stewardship of many adjoining landholders, especially those reflected in the uptake of riparian licences.
Currently, DELWP may issue a licence for a Crown water frontage to an owner or occupier of the adjoining private land for grazing, cropping or riparian management. Grazing and cropping licences are largely peppercorn rents (average $80 for five years). However, as of 2010, grazing licences can be converted to riparian management licences, which have a focus on protection of the riparian environment, rather than production.
The bulk of Crown water frontages are still licenced for agricultural purposes. We estimate between 15–23 per cent (2,000–4,000 kilometres) is covered by the protection-focused riparian management licences, leaving roughly 13,000–15,000 kilometres of publicly-owned river frontage open for cows – and now camping. The draft regulations and many stakeholders agree that camping should not be allowed on areas with riparian licences, which is sensible, but must be clearly entrenched in the new regulations.
To add insult to injury, the government recently spent $40 million between 2016 and 2020 on a very successful and dedicated Regional Riparian Action Plan, which was cut in the last state budget. Key outcomes of this program included the protection and improvement of (both Crown and privately owned) water frontages, including:
- nearly 3,500 kilometres of riparian land (140 per cent of the five-year action plan target)
- over 53,000 hectares of riparian land (190 per cent of the five-year target)
VNPA actively supports ecologically appropriate, well planned and safe access to nature – rivers and waterways are key ecotones and are attractors for wildlife and people alike. Appropriate camping should avoid sensitive and significant habitats, and should be practical and avoid conflict.
Camping access for Crown water frontages should be the exception and not the norm. It should only occur in areas that have had a proper boundary survey and an assessment for ecological impact.
Victoria’s freshwater ecosystems have great diversity and complexity and support more than 100 waterbird species, over 50 freshwater fish, 40 crayfish, 38 frogs, and a large number of freshwater invertebrates. Many of Victoria’s frogs, freshwater fish and crayfish are threatened with extinction, as well as the recent listing of our state’s most iconic riparian specialist species, the Platypus. Additionally, more than 800 vascular plants are associated with Victoria’s wetlands.
We have not treated them well – less than 50 per cent of assessed river length with riparian vegetation is in good condition. More cows and camping will make this worse if we do not have careful planning and proper ecological assessment.
The current draft regulations lack precision in definitions, and the legislative amendments have resulted in a blunt and largely blind instrument that is in need of a significantly more detailed assessment and analysis before proceeding
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