NEWS 29 June 2021 |

On the 24 June 2021, The Victorian Government responded to the VEAC Central West Investigation about new national parks in central west Victoria. The government accepts in principle, or accepts in part, 76 of 77 recommendations made in the Central West Investigation Final Report.

Essentially this is a commitment to create three new national parks, and a network of regional parks and other conservation reserves. Eventually Victoria’s system of protected areas increased by approximately 50,000 hectares.

  • The Wombat-Lerderderg National Park (near Daylesford)
  • The Mount Buangor National Park (near Beaufort)
  • The Pyrenees National Park (near Avoca)

The new national parks, together with new conservation parks, nature reserves and bushland reserves, will protect important habitat connectivity for rare and threatened animals, plants and insects.

The response from the government was 18 months overdue.

The devil in the details

But there’s a hitch: it could take a long time for these forests and woodlands to receive the full protections of national park status, and there are concerning strings attached to the government’s proposals.

Drilling down into the details of the government’s response reveals a very convoluted and mixed set of outcomes. A quick snapshot of their commitments reveals:

  • A primarily good outcome for Wombat Forest, which will become part of a large new national park.
  • The outcome for Wellsford Forest is of great concern, especially for locals who wanted to see VEAC’s recommendation of a national park for Wellsford to better protect it from mining and other threats. The outcome for many smaller reserves is positive.
  • Mixed results for Mt Cole, Mt Buangor and the Pyrenees.

What’s the good?

  • A 24,000 ha addition to create a larger new Wombat–Lerderderg National Park (around 45,000 ha when added to the existing Lerderderg State Park).
  • New conservation areas and regional parks.
  • Immediate moratorium on commercial timber harvesting in the Wellsford block.
  • Four-wheel driving, trail-bike riding, mountain biking, bushwalking, picnicking and nature observation opportunities are not impacted by the government response to VEAC’s recommendations.
  • An 80-metre buffer from logging around the Beeripmo walk at Mt Cole/ Mt Buangor (better than nothing…)
  • A new Wimmera River Heritage Area.

What’s the bad and the bit ugly?

  • Nonsensical, continued access for VicForests to Mount Cole for harvesting operations (including clear-fell logging), before the area is turned into a national park.
  • The implementation will be staged, some parks such as Mt Cole and Pyrenees may not be created until 2030, after they are logged.
  • The implementation timeline is not clear enough, too slow or could easily never happen in some places.
  • Continued forest harvesting operations and its damaging impact on integral habitat in the Pyrenees.
  • Most regional parks (including within the Wombat–Macedon block) will also be available for commercial thinning and selective harvesting operations until native forest timber harvesting is phased out.
  • Failure to give parts of the Wellsford Forest national park status as recommended by VEAC, may leave it more vulnerable to mining development, domestic fire wood collection, and inappropriate recreational uses.
  • Proposed changes to Special Protection Zones in the Pyrenees that currently protect natural assets from logging .
  • Increased hunting and prospecting in some areas.

What we’d like to see:

  • Clear set of timeframes for the creation of the new parks in the next 12 months (before this term of government ends in 2022).
  • Greater protection for the mighty Ironbark forests of Wellsford.
  • No logging in proposed areas for new national parks.
  • Funding allocated specifically for park management.
  • Speed up the forest industry transition to end native forest logging, particular in the west of the state.
  • A clear plan to manage domestic fire wood supply sustainably across the state.

We will need to be vigilant and do everything to protect the value of these important places. The government’s commitment is only the first step in the formal creation of these new parks.

It’s now critical our new national parks are quickly and properly legislated and then declared.

See below for specific information on the proposed new national parks.

What does this mean for the Wellsford Forest?

The government does not accept recommendation A3 for the Greater Bendigo National Park (addition), and instead this area will be added to the existing Bendigo Regional Park.

There is an immediate moratorium on commercial timber harvesting in the Wellsford block but we were disappointed to see the government reject the recommendation for a Greater Bendigo National Park.

The moratorium will protect the area from the worst sort of commercial logging, though domestic firewood collection, mining access and in appropriate recreation may be an issue that will need to be closely monitored.

The government response states:

“This will support a broader range of recreational activities, provide another area for domestic firewood collection (from designated sites) until June 2029, and provide greater flexibility for the North Central Victorian Goldfields Ground Release.

The government supports mining occurring beneath the park addition and acknowledges that some minimally intrusive surface activity may need to occur in the regional park addition to support this.”

What does this mean for the Wombat Forest?

A 24,000 ha addition to create a larger new Wombat–Lerderderg National Park (around 45,000 ha when added to existing state park).

The government response varies from VEAC’s recommendation A4 for the Wombat–Lerderderg National Park by committing to create a 4855-hectare Barkstead Regional Park instead of including the area in the recommended national park.

Hepburn Regional Park additions (2947 ha) Spargo Creek Regional Park (1693 ha) Blackwood Regional Park (3707 ha) Fingerpost Regional Park (5442 ha) have been accepted – but will allow continued commercial firewood production.

In which, “Commercial licensees will be able to undertake forest thinning operations and selective harvesting operations primarily for commercial firewood production. Forest regeneration is not required after forest thinning operations as there is adequate retention of trees".

There will be no clear fell or seed tree harvesting in this area

Sawlogs harvesting have been removed for the formal yield estimates for wombat forest and this is not mentioned in the government response.

What does this mean for Mount Buangor, Mount Cole and the Pyrenees?

Creating the Mount Buangor, Pyrenees national parks will be staged to allow timber harvesting and regeneration (where required) to occur in some areas prior to incorporating those areas in the parks, which could be as long as 2030.

An 80-metre buffer from logging around the Beeripmo walk at Mt Cole/ Mt Buangor has been included, as well as a
new Wimmera River Heritage Area.

According to the Govt response:

“The creation of the national parks will be staged to ensure there are no forestry-based business job losses and to align with timing in the Victorian Forestry Plan. This will allow businesses time to transition from the native forest timber industry with support and certainty”

This is a very odd response, considering that there are decades of wood supply in the Mt Cole and Pyrenees region outside of the proposed park area, which should last the industry past the 2030 deadline at current use rates.

Forestry in the west of the state is almost exclusively state subsidised, small in comparison to the east, but very damaging, so this is a poor outcome.

We will have to encourage the government to implement the key parks in this term of government, and speed up implementation of the forest industry transition.

What about domestic firewood collection?

In most of the proposed new regional parks in the Wombat–Macedon block and in the Bendigo Regional Park (additions) in the Wellsford block, domestic firewood collection (from designated sites) will be allowed until June 2029.

In areas of the proposed national parks that will be unavailable for timber harvesting on release of the government response, domestic firewood collection will not be permitted, except as a last resort to maintain supply to local communities.

This provision will only apply for up to two years after the release of the government response.

What about recreational deer hunting?

The government will allow seasonal hunting (by stalking) in the Pyrenees and Wombat–Lerderderg national parks, in the areas where it is currently permitted, and with some restrictions.

Given the close proximity of the Wombat–Lerderderg National Park to Melbourne and several townships that are popular with visitors, the season will be limited to the period between May and the start of the spring school holidays.

What about prospecting?

There will continue to be opportunities for prospecting in the three blocks of the investigation area, including in regional parks, bushland reserves, state forest and historic reserves, where these activities will not impact on environmental and cultural heritage values.

What about recreational use – such as four-wheel driving, trail-bike riding and mountain biking

Four-wheel driving, trail-bike riding, mountain biking, bushwalking, picnicking and nature observation opportunities are not impacted by the government response to VEAC’s recommendations.

How will these parks be funded?

While some initial funding for visitor facility upgrades has been provided through Victoria’s Great Outdoors package, additional funding for implementing the government response (where required) is subject to budget processes in the context of the government’s investment and service delivery priorities.

We would like to see specific funding allocated to the implementation of the new national parks, reserves and conservation areas.

Image © Sandy Scheltema