PARK WATCH Article March 2022 |
Adrian Marshall, Grassy Plains Network Facilitator, gives a detailed overview of the situation for these much-loved but poorly treated grasslands.
The grasslands in and around Melbourne include some of the most outstanding examples of the critically endangered, pre-European landscape of the Victorian Volcanic Plain. These are places rich with biodiversity, home to marvels such as the unique Plains Wanderer and the Striped Legless Lizard, with rare orchids, fleeting ephemeral wetlands, ancient stone circles and the vast, limitless horizons of our land of sweeping plains.
But poor governance, lack of planning controls such as Environmental Significance Overlays, the nature of the offset system (the process of trading the clearance of native vegetation through securing and managing similar vegetation in perpetuity), as well as neglect and insufficient funding, continue to contribute to the ongoing decline of Melbourne’s grasslands. It is a complex policy space with a long and controversial history, which we delve into in this article. By understanding that context, we can work to better preserve these magnificent places for generations to come.
Melbourne’s grasslands fall into three main regions and policy contexts: the Western Grassland Reserves just outside and west of Melbourne; the 36 conservation areas that were set aside in the new growth areas when land was released for development in conjunction with the expansion of Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary in 2009; and all the other grasslands within the pre-2009 extent of Melbourne (Fig. 1).
The Western Grassland Reserves – a promised land
Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary was expanded in 2009 to meet the perceived urgent need for more land for housing. Such was the pressure, property developers were going to get their wish of a streamlined fast-track approvals process that would avoid the need to assess grasslands on a case by case basis.
In reaction to that unfolding ecological disaster, some saw an opportunity: to offset the inevitable loss of environmental values across the 60,000 hectares of the new growth areas. Mapping and modelling showed the last big patches of remnant Victorian Volcanic Plains grassland were just outside the new Urban Growth Boundary. This, it was argued, was a last chance to acquire a contiguous, landscape-scale extent of critically endangered grassland, doubly important because grasslands were significantly under-represented in the state’s reserve system.
There were big stakes in play – billions of dollars – and the process was ugly and substantively flawed in its rush. But the Western Grassland Reserves came to be: in 2010, 15,000 hectares of farming land had a Public Acquisition Overlay placed over it as part of the Melbourne Strategic Assessment process, with a target that all the land would be acquired by 2020, with that acquisition and the Reserves’ management funded by a levy on development within the new growth areas.
The 36 conservation areas – regional gems
Part of the Melbourne Strategic Assessment process that extended the Urban Growth Boundary is an agreement between the state and federal governments that exempts any developer in the new growth areas from their responsibilities under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), our overarching national environmental legislation. In effect, this gives developers a free hand to do what they like anywhere in the new growth areas regardless of any environmental values. After much pressure from conservationists, the 2013 Biodiversity Conservation Strategy identified 36 areas of the highest conservation significance for protection, totalling approximately 5500 hectares.
Again: the process was ugly and substantively flawed in its rush. Many good patches were overlooked. Hurried surveys led to flawed modelling that inaccurately identified poor patches as good patches. The state insisted on the conservation areas being large (four of the 36 are under three hectares, most are over 40 hectares): the argument went that large patches would be cheaper to manage and had less edge subject to degradation. But this ignored the fact that many of Melbourne’s richest grasslands are small – Evans Street Grassland is only two hectares. And from what the land managers are now saying, huge grasslands are hugely inefficient to manage because their mosaic nature and land-use history make them incredibly complex. As a consequence, much has been (or will be) lost that should never have been.
Some of these BCS Conservation Areas, as they are referred to, are grasslands, others grassy woodland, some are protecting specific species such as the Growling Grass Frogs or the Southern Brown Bandicoot. The acquisition and management of these conservation areas are also to be funded by the developer levy.
The other, ‘urban’ grasslands – local gems
The numerous grasslands within the old, pre-2009 Urban Growth Boundary do not have the unique funding, legal and policy context of the Western Grassland Reserves or the BCS Conservation Areas. Instead, they exist under a complex mix of land tenures (rail, water and road authorities, utility easements, council state and federal land etc.), with sizeable patches held by private landholders. Their sizes range from tiny (25 metres by 25 metres excised from a Bunnings car park in Taylors Lakes) to substantial (400 hectares, Galgi Ngarrk or Craigieburn Grasslands), and their management ranges from best-practice to utter neglect.
The Western Grassland Reserves have received a lot of scrutiny in recent years. In 2020 the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office released its damning report Protecting Critically Endangered Grasslands, which highlighted the substantial failure of governance, cost overruns, and that only 10 per cent of the promised land had been purchased. Because of the grossly inadequate funding model for the purchase of the Western Grassland Reserves land, private landholders who had not yet had their land purchased were walking away from their responsibilities to control weeds of national significance, leading to massive weed invasion and ongoing significant loss of biodiversity.
In response, the Victorian Government passed the Melbourne Strategic Assessment (Environment Mitigation Levy) Act 2020,
and now substantially greater resources are available for land purchase and management. Currently 17.5 per cent of the Western Grassland Reserves have been purchased, expected to rise to 21 per cent by September and possibly 30 per cent by mid-next year. Funds are going to local councils offering landholders incentives to manage their land better prior to purchase. Intensive on-ground and aerial mapping efforts are providing the detailed paddock by paddock data needed to contain the weed problem while (hopefully) not destroying the important grassland values present.
This may all still be too little. The generally degraded quality of the Western Grassland Reserves (much is not as good as originally thought, a consequence of that rushed surveying and inaccurate modelling), combined with the spraying of literally thousands of hectares of weed, means that vast areas of land will need to be restored using seed. There is no native seed industry capable of supplying that, and no vision or apparent will to begin to build the native seed industry towards such a capability, a process that will take years. Frustratingly, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning’s Melbourne Strategic Assessment team is understaffed. DELWP is failing to act against the recalcitrant land-bankers who are in effect illegally clearing native vegetation. And there seems to be some thinking, at the highest levels, that the Western Grasslands Reserves have been somehow “fixed” by the passing of the Melbourne Strategic Assessment (Environment Mitigation Levy) Act 2020, when that is far from the case. On the upside, monitoring data suggests that the grassland purchased to date has been stabilised, with decline abated, but still much to do to improve quality.
The situation with the BCS Conservation Areas is much the same as for the Western Grassland Reserves, but not so extreme; more ambivalence than outright failure. Much of the promised land has not been purchased. In numerous cases, the particular environmental values to be protected have not been ascertained through any reliable survey. Management by private landholders is in many cases not subject to the necessary levels of scrutiny. Unlike the Western Grassland Reserves, which have a spread of quality from poor (essentially ploughed crops) to excellent, the quality of the conservation areas was consistently high, which means any biodiversity losses will be of serious concern.
It is important to note that it will take a lot to retain the high-quality biodiversity values in these BCS Conservation Areas as they become surrounded by residential subdivisions. Among the many problems that will arise: lighting will increase at night, dogs and cats will prey on and disturb wildlife, the underlying hydrology will be altered causing permanent changes to the mosaic of species present, and fragmentation will begin to create genetic bottlenecks. The management plans for these reserves – and the residential estates around them – will need to embrace very best practice in biodiversity sensitive urban design.
The recent findings from the Parliamentary Inquiry into Ecosystem Decline in Victoria contained several grassland-specific recommendations to help secure the future of the Western Grassland Reserves and the BCS Conservation Areas.
Urban grasslands in private hands – a new opportunity
Several large patches of good quality Kangaroo Grass-dominated grassland remain under immediate threat in private hands within the pre-2009 Urban Growth Boundary. These include the Solomon Heights and Broadcast Australia Grasslands in Brimbank, and the Ajax Road and Merton Street Grasslands in Hobsons Bay. Already, the Modeina Estate in Burnside has been allowed to be cleared (read Park Watch June 2021 article www.vnpa.org.au/give-me-a-reserve-among-the-factories). And just as we go to print, in late March, the fate of Ajax Road Grassland will be decided at VCAT, with a developer seeking approval to completely clear the native vegetation from one half of the site. The Melbourne-based Grassy Plains Network (see box) are fighting the developer, and they are actively fundraising for legal representation and fees for expert witnesses (donate at vnpa.org.au/save-ajax).
Local councils must carry part of the responsibility for the dire state of these grasslands. In the Ajax Road case, Hobsons Bay City Council had failed to implement controls such as Environmental Significance Overlays on its grasslands, despite clear evidence and the leadership shown by other LGAs such as the City of Hume. Private ownership often can be seen as a good excuse not to look too hard.
To bring such grasslands into the public estate will require active state intervention. In the meantime, they suffer lack of management, lack of biomass reduction, and are losing their biodiversity.
Public grasslands in urban areas
Being part of the public estate doesn’t protect grassland biodiversity. Sadly, many land managers decry the poor job that Parks Victoria does in managing grasslands. Lack of resources is a big factor, but not the only one, with lack of the specific skills necessary, and an emphasis on visitor experience infrastructure, often noted.
Lack of appropriate care is not just a Parks Victoria issue. Development Victoria is intent on the removal of significant grasslands in Cairnlea, Brimbank, along the Jones Creek biodiversity corridor. Good grassland patches on VicTrack land have been lost to weeds. Road authorities often put efficiency and human safety above environmental values. The list goes on.
Grasslands are a hard ask for land managers. We know they are less charismatic than wetlands or woodlands. They might be briefly showy in spring. They get trashed by rubbish dumping. They can be easily invaded by weeds. They need biomass management (such as fire) every few years and follow-up afterwards. They might be out in an industrial estate. That they are often quite degraded from a legacy of years of prior mismanagement does nothing to help. All this means they get bumped down on the land manager’s to-do list, perhaps seen as more of a problem than a vital part of the urban ecosystems of Melbourne’s west and north, and across Victoria as a whole.
That said, attitudes are changing. Many land managers now champion how important these critically endangered grasslands are. And they argue not just in terms of biodiversity, but in terms of engagement, providing wild nature in the urban context, unique experiences, and pushing grasslands as the heart and soul of Melbourne’s West.
Keeping the promise alive
With all the problems, flaws, policy mistakes and just plain neglect, there is still opportunity if we as a community act now and continue to act over the decades to come. The Western Grassland Reserves truly can be restored to become a great reserve and a national treasure. The BCS Conservation Areas, too, can become large, well-managed places of rich biodiversity offering powerful nature experiences right in the heart of our suburbs. And our threatened urban grasslands can be rescued from loss through well-targeted intervention, and through land managers embracing the possibilities these unique urban spaces can offer. There is still hope to deliver on the promises of our grasslands, but the horizon for action is fast diminishing
The Grassy Plains Network
Formed in 2018, the Grassy Plains Network represents land management professionals, academics, ecologists and community concerned about the ongoing decline of grassy ecosystems across Melbourne and its surrounds. We advocate for improved grassland protection and management, and are hosted by the Victorian National Parks Association.
The Grassy Plains Network is currently campaigning to save Ajax Road Grassland. We are working with Hobsons Bay City Council to ensure Environmental Significance Overlays are put on the many significant grassland sites across that LGA. We are also lobbying Brimbank City Council to move forward on plans to establish a conservation reserve at the biodiversity-rich Solomon Heights Grasslands, as well as for DELWP and the Victorian Government to step in to save a suite of the most significant urban grasslands in Melbourne. Members of the Grassy Plains Network are participating in DELWP’s Western Grassland Reserves Interim Management Strategy Working Group. Our vision for the future of the Reserves can be found in their Position Paper at
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