PARK WATCH September 2020 |
The failures in protecting one of our most critically endangered ecosystems – grasslands – from Melbourne’s ever-increasing urban sprawl is finally being publicly exposed. By Executive Director Matt Ruchel.
The June release of a scathing Victorian Auditor-General report into the delivery of the Victorian Government’s program to protect critically endangered grasslands on the urban fringe was followed by an extensive exposé in The Age.
The grasslands, grassy woodlands and grassy wetlands of Victoria’s Volcanic Plains are one of the most critically endangered habitat types in our state. Once covering almost a third of Victoria, now only 1–5 per cent remains.
It is a landscape carved by volcanic activity that once stretched from the area that is now the western suburbs of Melbourne to the South Australian border. Much like the prairies of North America or the savanna of Africa, these grasslands are diverse, alive and play an important role as home to many incredible, unique, and threatened plants and animals found nowhere else on earth.
A decade ago, in a rush to clear the way to ‘streamline’ approvals for property development and Melbourne’s growth, the state and federal governments stitched up a deal called the Melbourne Strategic Assessment to clear about 6,000 hectares of grasslands within the ‘urban growth boundary’.
In exchange for this clearing, developers were to pay a levy, which was then to be used to purchase large grassland reserves outside the urban growth boundary – an ‘offset’.
In the state and federal government’s words in 2010, it would: “increase the extent of protection of Natural Temperate Grassland of the Victorian Volcanic Plain from two per cent to 20 per cent,” and “The Department of Sustainability and Environment will be the acquiring authority and will acquire all freehold land (excluding quarries) and reserve it by 2020.”
So these reserves were supposed to be largely delivered by this year – but these promises have been broken. The Victorian Auditor-General report found that:
- Protection is vital to ensure the future existence of grassland and grassy woodlands.
- The Victorian Department of Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) has not met its commitments to deliver the two grassland reserves by 2020:
– Only 10 per cent of designated land has been acquired for the Western Grassland Reserve (between Melton and Werribee)
– No land has been acquired for the Grassy Eucalypt Woodland Reserve (north of Melbourne around Donnybrook)
- Delays in acquiring land, and continuing threats of degradation, pose risks to the ecological values of native vegetation within the reserves.
- Estimated program costs have increased around 80 per cent between 2013 to 2019, mostly due to rising land values.
- DELWP was slow to put the Melbourne Strategic Assessment governance arrangements in place and changed them several times. This has limited their effectiveness, meaning DELWP has missed key oversight activities or not always performed them consistently or to expected standards.
- DEWLP can’t demonstrate that the quality of land purchased is of the quality of the grasslands being cleared.
Poor oversight and monitoring are among a raft of other issues.
The scheme was deeply flawed from the beginning, with priority always for ‘streamlining’ development approvals. Now, a decade on, it is truly flailing, and the property industry is circling to pounce on the remaining land pieces.
As I said in The Age: “The property industry got security and certainty, but the environment got half-baked promises that have not been delivered.”
New legislation has been passed to collect more money to fund the purchase of the reserves. The Melbourne Strategic Assessment (Environment Mitigation Levy) Act was passed in February this year; its main function to enable the state government to increase fees for clearing of habitat. While the state government delayed acquiring land these past ten years, that same land has increased in price – the Auditor-General estimated that cost of purchase of grassland for the program has now almost doubled, to just under $2 billion.
All the while the same delay mean habitats have continued their trajectory toward extinction. Revenue alone will not resolve the significant flaws and failings of this program. As yet there is no real change in the pace of delivery of the protection, or extent and effectiveness of the management, of grasslands or grassy woodlands. Melbourne’s population and housing demand are also likely to slow, due to economic downturn associated with COVID-19, further reducing revenue as these as the fees collected are dependent on land being developed.
Now the Victorian Government faces paying potentially millions in extra compensation to landowners instead of spending money on fixing the grasslands. The government was also outbid on a key piece of land in the reserve area, even though it has a public acquisition overlay, so it has now fallen back into the hands of property speculators.
There is also significant concern that the quality of the grasslands being protected is not of the same quality as the grasslands being cleared. There have been long-running concerns by community members and ecologists around the ‘like for like’ quality of vegetation identified for offsetting from within the Urban Growth Boundary with that in the reserves. As reported by the Auditor General, DELWP has only been able to undertake ‘over the fence’ survey work of parts of the proposed Western Grassland Reserve.
To add insult to injury, the Andrews Government, under the cover of COVID-19, released a Strategic Extractive Resource Areas (SERA) Pilot Project in the South Gippsland and Wyndham areas. The investigation area overlayed the majority of the Western Grassland Reserves area. While there has been one active quarry for some time, there is now approval for a second quarry within the reserve, which further undermines the integrity of the entire scheme.
Many of the issues highlighted by the Victorian Auditor-General report have been raised for years and ignored or dismissed in the race to ‘cut green tape’ and push ahead to make Melbourne boom. The foundation of the entire Melbourne Strategic Assessment was a rushed process. Even ten years on, there has never been any serious consideration of alternative or mixes of models for protecting grasslands, such as in smaller high-value conservation areas within the urban growth zone rather than just the larger reserves on the outskirts.
The federal government, one half of the deal, has been missing in action on the issue.
‘Natural Temperate Grasslands of the Victorian Volcanic Plain’ and ‘Grassy Woodlands of the Victorian Volcanic Plain’ are both listed under the national Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 as ‘critically endangered’ – the step before extinction in the wild.
They are home to 32 threatened flora and 25 threatened fauna listed under this national environmental law including Growling Grass Frog, Golden Sun Moth, Striped Legless Lizard, several migratory bird species plus numerous important native plants such as the critically endangered Plains Rice-flower and Matted Flax-lily.
Despite their listing under national environment laws, all have been neglected by the Australia Government.
Still, only ten per cent of the grasslands within the urban growth boundary has been cleared so far – there is still time to save some of the high-quality areas, before they are either also cleared, or left to become overrun with weeds.
A succession of Victorian and federal governments have failed to deliver what was promised. But there is still an opportunity to deliver outcomes before the options – and grasslands –disappear due to development or neglect. It requires leadership and a renewed plan to prioritise acquisition, protection and management of high conservation areas considered in the Melbourne Strategic Assessment – to save our grassy ecosystems.
Please send a message to the Victorian Environment Minister calling for an urgent examination of how to prioritise acquisition, protection and management of highest quality remaining grassland areas. You can also call on the federal government to enforce the commitment to protect Victoria’s grasslands under our national environment law.
The reveal of the failures of the Melbourne Strategic Assessment comes right at a time when the Morrison Government is reviewing our national environment laws. Read the following article ‘Renewed rush to ‘clear’ the way’
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