PARK WATCH March 2018 |

Michael Howes shares the story of Victoria’s Little Desert and how it became a national park.

The desert that isn’t

Situated 375 kilometres west of Melbourne, the Little Desert is far from being the Sahara-like area of bare sand dunes that its name suggests. Named because its mostly sandy soils are unsuitable for farming (and because it is ‘little’ compared with the Big Desert to the north), it is largely covered with a wide variety of native vegetation and has no fewer than 670 native plant species. It also is inhabited by 220 bird species and 60 species of mammals and reptiles, as well as a wide range of insects and other invertebrates.

The Little Desert may not be ‘scenic’ in the sense that the Grampians, Wilsons Promontory or Tarra-Bulga national parks, with their tall forests, dramatic mountains and fern gullies, are scenic. Many people might see it as flat and monotonous, or even frightening. We need to look more closely to find its beauty and variety.

Studying the ‘battle for the Little Desert’

For young people today, the 1960s controversy over the Little Desert in western Victoria is a little known part of our state’s environmental history. However, over the next few years, VCE Outdoor and Environment Education students will be learning about ‘the battle for the Little Desert’ as it is now included in the curriculum. They will be preparing a case study of differing values between people who wanted to preserve areas in a natural state and those who wanted to clear more land for farming. It was a true struggle between conservation and development. Students will be looking at how the controversy developed, who was involved and how it was resolved.

The Little Desert National Park controversy is often considered to mark the beginning of widespread environmental awareness and activism in Victoria, and it contributed to the creation of an independent body to study Victorian public land, which has become today’s Victorian Environment Assessment Council (VEAC).

VNPA in partnership with Parks Victoria has developed a podcast on the battle for the Little Desert, which will be valuable to students and teachers studying Outdoor and Environmental Studies, and anyone else with an interest in this national park.

In this four-part podcast series we unpack the history of the political dispute that led to the permanent protection of the Little Desert and its diverse and beautiful flora and fauna.

To help these students, we have also developed a timeline of the key events in the controversy. This was compiled using material from the main reference on the issue, Defending the Little Desert (1998) by Libby Robin.

Little Desert Timeline

For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal people hunted and gathered food in the Little Desert. The local Wotjobaluk people maintain a connection with the area even after their forebears were moved into the Antwerp mission near Dimboola in the 19th century.

July 1836: Assistant Surveyor Granville Stapylton, second in command of Major Mitchell’s expedition through what is now western Victoria, crossed part of the Little Desert, reporting that the country was “dreadfully deep” (in sand and mud).

1840-1880s: The Little Desert became known as ‘scrub country’. Settlers avoided it because of its infertile sandy soils and low rainfall, although there was some sheep and cattle grazing.

1870s to 1950s: Much of the natural vegetation of the Wimmera and Mallee districts was cleared for farming by selectors and soldier settlers (especially after World War I). The Little Desert, however, remained ‘an island of biodiversity in a sea of agriculture’.

1946: Small conservation reserves were established near Dimboola.

1955: Kiata Lowan Sanctuary (218 hectares) was established to protect malleefowl (also called lowans), which were in decline. The Sanctuary was incorporated into a 945 hectare Little Desert National Park in 1968.

1963: The AMP Society, a large insurance company, proposed to subdivide and clear the Little Desert for agricultural and pastoral development. However, declining wool and wheat prices, and government indecision, led to the scheme being abandoned in March 1967.

June 1967: Sir William McDonald, a local pastoralist and long-standing Victorian Member of Parliament, was appointed Minister of Lands by premier Henry Bolte.

Early 1968: McDonald announced the Little Desert Settlement Scheme, under which 48 wheat farms would be established. Agricultural experts, economists and conservationists opposed the scheme. Conservationists set up the Save our Bushlands Action Committee, representing eight conservation groups, including VNPA, and held two major public meetings in Melbourne in 1969, each attended by over 1000 people. Local Wimmera people also ran a campaign against the clearing scheme.

Mid 1969: McDonald scaled back the Little Desert Settlement Scheme to 12 sheep farms and also announced a larger national park to cover 35,300 hectares. But conservationists were not satisfied with this, believing that national parks must have ‘ecological integrity’.

October 1969: Labor MP J.W. Galbally MLC set up a Select Committee to inquire into the Little Desert Settlement Scheme. Leading ecologists such as Malcolm Calder gave evidence about the natural values of the Little Desert. The Age newspaper ran articles suggesting that the scheme was proposed partly because a new road it included would benefit McDonald’s brother-in-law.

December 1969: The Victorian Liberal government lost the Dandenong by-election, partly because of community opposition to the Little Desert scheme. The Legislative Council voted to block the scheme. Little Desert National Park was enlarged to 35,300 hectares and the clearing scheme was abandoned.

May 1970: In the Victorian election, the Liberals won with a slightly reduced vote, but McDonald lost his seat of Dundas after 15 years as member. During the election campaign Premier Bolte promised to create and extend national parks so that they covered five per cent of Victoria’s area. He also promised to set up a new independent body, the Land Resources Council (later named the Land Conservation Council) which would encourage public involvement. The Council would study Victoria’s public land and recommend how it should be used. It continues today as the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC).

William Borthwick became Minister for Lands (later Minister for Conservation) in the new government.

1988: The western part of Little Desert was added to Little Desert National Park, roughly tripling it in size and making it the state’s second largest national park at the time.

1991: An addition of seven hectares was donated to the park by a local family.

1997: 640 hectares was added to the park.

2005: Barengi Gadjin Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and the Victorian and Australian governments entered into the first Indigenous Land Use Agreement in Victoria. A cooperative agreement that includes Little Desert National Park ensures that the Traditional Owners will continue to be able to care for country by being involved in the management of the areas where their native title rights have been recognised.

Additional references

An excellent reference is Birds and Plants of the Little Desert (2014) by Ian Morgan, Graham Goods and Maree Goods. This book, which has magnificent photos of virtually all the park’s birds and many of its plants featured in this article, is available from VNPA, as is Defending the Little Desert by Libby Robin.


Getting to know the Little Desert National Park

Little Desert National Park covers 132,647 hectares, and extends about 95 kilometres east to west between the Wimmera River near Dimboola, and the South Australian border. Its north-south extent varies between ten and 24 kilometres. Some 50,000 people visit the park each year for walking, camping, discovering the plants and wildlife, and enjoying the peace and quiet.

The park has three camping areas accessible by 2WD vehicles and two that cater for people undertaking the challenging 80-kilometre Desert Discovery Walk. Facilities are basic but adequate. There are also three short self-guided nature walks that introduce you to the park’s flora and fauna. For more information, see