PARK WATCH Article November 2022 |

Protection for Mirboo North and Strathbogie Forest reveals complexity of future land tenure writes Matt Ruchel.

As part of the State Government’s plan to protect the Greater Glider, Leadbeater’s Possum and more than 35 other threatened animals, over 96,000 hectares of forest across the Strathbogie Ranges, Mirboo North, Central Highlands and East Gippsland were given Immediate Protection Area (IPA) status* in 2019.

Since then, the process to formally protect Mirboo North and Strathbogie forests has produced some sound recommendations. But it has also illuminated the unique challenges we face when creating a system that combines the aspirations and rights of Traditional Owners with Western knowledge systems.

Immediate protection not so immediate

Maps released covered 146,000 hectares, not the 96,000 hectares announced. The 96,000 figure equates to a State Forest General Management Zone available for logging and 146,000 hectares included in Special Protection Zones. Coupes in this area were removed from logging schedules.

The four-person Eminent Panel for Community Engagement (EPCE), appointed by the Government in January 2022, included representatives from each relevant Traditional Owner Corporation. They were tasked with providing independent advice and recommendations on the future uses of state forest in eastern Victoria, starting with the Strathbogie Ranges and Mirboo North State Forest. The process was informed by a Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) assessment report.

Local communities in Mirboo North and the Strathbogies had run strong long-running campaigns. Each area had about 700 submissions backing protection, with over 100 community members attending drop-in sessions at Mirboo North and 25 people at the Strathbogie Ranges.

A key difference between the eminent person process and a standard VEAC investigation and consultation was the representation of Traditional Owners on the panel.

The long road to realising a community vision in Mirboo North

Preserve Our Forests Mirboo North ran a successful 5-year community campaign against VicForests’ plans to log tiny remnant areas (440 hectares in one of the 10 most cleared parts of Victoria, the Strzelecki Ranges bioregion). This small area supports Greater Gliders, Powerful Owls and Narracan Burrowing Crayfish, endangered damp forest and warm temperate rainforests. Why VicForests is even allowed to even consider these small patches for logging is another question entirely.

Mirboo North final report recommendations:

  • Mirboo North’s IPA becomes a Conservation Park managed under the National Parks Act. It also considers consolidating it with the adjacent Mirboo North regional park, “initial assessment suggests the values of the surrounding regional park areas outside the IPA may warrant increased protection commensurate with the Conservation Park category, subject to further assessment.”
  • Gunaikurnai joint management, development of cultural overlays, a Reading Country assessment, development of a comprehensive management plan, and resourcing for local staff and a Gunaikurnai Ranger.
  • Broader assessment of landscape connectivity throughout the Strzelecki Ranges bioregion and an assessment of the Strzelecki Koala as genetically distinct. The report noted “… the forest is supporting higher than usual levels of species and that expanding protections throughout the region is critical to maintain and enhance biodiversity.

Strathbogie Ranges – a longer road to protection

Save our Strathbogie Forest is an active community group that has produced reports, organised meetings, conducted citizen science and protests in support of protecting Strathbogie State Forest.

The Strathbogies IPA is approximately 24,000 hectares, currently classified as state forest, 5000 hectares of which is currently Special Protection Zone. The conservation areas extend the connectivity of protected forest areas. The forests are habitat for an abundant population of Southern Greater Gliders, Powerful Owls, Murray Spiny Crayfish and Brush-tailed Phascogales. Plants including centuries old trees, the listed Lima Stringybark and tall leafy Greenhood Orchid.

Strathbogie final report recommendations:

  • Strathbogie Ranges IPA be managed in accordance with the principles and purposes of a new Cultural Reserve public land category, identified in the Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Landscapes Strategy.
  • Enduring arrangements for a Cultural Reserve are developed as part of the current renewal of Victoria’s public land legislation, in partnership with all Traditional Owner Groups. The panel noted … “It is critical in the application of a Cultural Reserve over the Strathbogie IPA that these forests are afforded a level of protection providing community surety that commercial timber harvesting has ceased, and other harmful activities are managed.” and “the importance to community that the Strathbogie be incorporated into the National Reserve System. The interaction between the proposed Cultural Reserve and the National Reserve System is an area for further consideration and development, including taking into account the confluence of two knowledge systems.”
  • The appointment of Taungurung Land & Waters Council as a Category 1 Committee of Management. This includes funding to support a new governance model and resources for collaborative management plan and delivery of cultural and conservation works and monitoring. The panel suggested interim management arrangements progress quickly.

The challenges and tests of creating new parks

The proposed legal categories ‘Conservation Park’ and ‘Cultural Reserve’ do not currently exist under the National Parks Act (or other legislation). They emerged in the VEAC State-wide Assessment of Public Land 2017 and were adopted during the Victorian Government’s recent public land legislation review. With new complex legislation needing to be drafted and pass through both houses of parliament – unlikely during the remainder of this term of government – further delays in the realisation of the parks are certain. Some would say it’s hard to implement something that doesn’t yet exist!

One part of the recommendation we have reservations about is the vehicle for joint management, which includes ‘…consideration of a Committee of Management’ for Mirboo North and recommendations for Taungurung Land & Waters Council as a Category 1 Committee of Management in the Strathbogies.

We support joint management but examples of committees of management in the past have been problematic as they can lack access to core funding from state agencies like Parks Victoria or Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. Over time, squeezed of resources and left in the lurch, some in the past have resorted to extractive industries to pay for management. If this model is pursued there needs to be dedicated long term funding provided to support traditional owner management.

The proposed ‘Cultural Reserve’ is an attempt at making real some of the aspirations of the Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Landscapes Strategy. This is a departure from existing joint management arrangements in place in central Victoria and parts of Gippsland, where the park designation applies in conjunction with Indigenous title.

The Strategy also proposed reserves be consistent with IUCN categories V Protected Landscape/Seascape & VI Protected area, with the sustainable use of natural resources. We support the rights of Traditional owners to use natural resources, for traditional or cultural purposes. Our concern is a lack of clarity on what constitutes ‘appropriate use’. For example, VicForests argue that their current regime of industrial logging is ‘suitable use,’ which begs the question if something is legally ‘protected’, no matter the manager, can it be properly looked after under such significant and subjective clauses?

What’s next?

The second part of the process for the larger and more complex Central Highlands and East Gippsland immediate protected areas was expected to begin later in 2022, once the reports for first two reserve are completed. It is difficult to see how this process will commence or continue as the state election looms and state agencies drift into caretaker mode.

* Immediate Protection Areas (IPAs) are a new political construct, created by the Andrews Government, as part of the plan to phase out native forest logging by 2030.

Image: Susan Koci

Did you like reading this article? You can read the latest full edition of Park Watch magazine online.

Want to be kept up to date about this and other nature issues in Victoria? Subscribe to our email updates.

You can also receive our print magazine Park Watch four times a year by becoming a member. Find out more.