PARK WATCH Article June 2023 |

Grassy Plains Network Facilitator Adrian Marshall says radical changes are needed if the Government is to succeed in retaining the last one per cent of Victoria’s grasslands

A quietly critical audit of the Victorian Government’s flagship grassland conservation program is calling for major changes to protect some of the state’s most precious landscapes.

The audit makes 16 recommendations to redesign the Melbourne Strategic Assessment (MSA), including a new governance framework to support ‘better decision-making and risk management practices at all levels’.

The MSA (an agreement between the Victorian and federal governments) is designed to protect ‘matters of national environmental significance’. This includes the critically endangered grassland communities and the bandicoots, frogs, lizards, and threatened plants that depend on them for their survival.

It’s also supposed to streamline development of the 60,000 hectares of land released for urban growth back in 2010. But the audit describes the MSA as ‘limited in scope’, stating it lacks ‘the comprehensive analysis of biodiversity values at an ecosystem scale…required to achieve whole-of-landscape outcomes’.

Critical gaps in vital data and knowledge ‘hamper the MSA program’s ability to adequately assess whether it is meeting its conservation commitments.’

Victoria’s grasslands have suffered huge losses since colonial settlement, with 99 per cent destroyed by grazing, cropping and urban development. Once covering almost a third of the state, our native grassy ecosystems are on the brink of extinction.

Caption: Photo: Ian Penna

In good news, the audit found the handful of high-quality patches of grassland acquired by the MSA are stable. But the bulk of the protected grasslands are in decline. Across most of the MSA, weeds and mismanagement are combining to destroy the very biodiversity values supposedly protected by this deal. Instead, we’ve seen developers thrive while nature and native wildlife continue to suffer irreversible damage from every risk the government was warned about.

The audit doesn’t specifically cover the most important biodiversity hotspots within the new urban growth corridors. It also fails to mention the recent complete destruction – through dumping of asbestos-contaminated fill – of Conservation Area 9.

It’s like a doctor giving you a check-up but failing to report that you have a missing hand.

Other audit recommendations cover the way the health of grasslands and native wildlife are assessed and include:

  • Giving Traditional Custodians a seat at the table.
  • An improved land acquisition strategy.
  • Weed management.
  • Better fire regimes for biomass management.
  • A new research program.
  • The need for urgent action to protect the very last patch of Small Golden Moths Orchid (Diuris chryseopsis) on earth.

If these recommendations are acted on, we might finally get some positive change for our grassy plains.

The Strategic Audit of the Implementation of Melbourne Strategic Assessment Conservation Outcomes 2022 Report comes from the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability and is one of the key recommendations of the damning 2020 Victorian Auditor-General’s Office report Protecting Critically Endangered Grasslands.