PARK WATCH December 2019 |

It’s time for the best management proposal our parks have ever seen, says VNPA’s Phil Ingamells.

I once found myself in the steamy tropical forests of Silent Valley National Park, in southern India’s Nilgiri Hills. It was an unusual park in many ways: it was drenched by an annual rainfall of 8-10 metres; it was rugged, with no known history of human habitation; and visitors were rare and required a permit.

But the thing that intrigued me most was that I was being guided around the ancient buttressed trees and dangling lianes by one of the park’s many resident research biologists. Nearly every person I met at Silent Valley was involved in research projects. That doesn’t generally happen in Victoria’s park system.

But I’ll have to leave the luxury of reminiscing, because I want to talk about a rare chance we have to help a greatly-loved park in Victoria – a chance that might be slipping away from us.

The Prom

There is probably no national park in Victoria as well loved as the Prom. It’s certainly the only one to be widely known by its nickname.

Wilsons Promontory became a national park in 1898 (before Australia became a nation!) It wasn’t given protection primarily for its scenery or for tourism, as most other parks were in those early days. Indeed, the Prom was quite difficult to access then.

The passionate plea to protect it came from scientists in the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria and the Royal Society of Victoria. They had been documenting its many wonders: the ocean migrant birds, the heathland orchids, the tall forests and a host of animals.

One reason for the Prom’s fascination is that, while it is clearly attached to the Australian mainland, it pretty much belongs to a chain of granite islands stretching across Bass Strait to Tasmania.

Around 20,000 years ago, towards the end of the last ice age when sea levels were much lower, those islands were just the peaks of the last land bridge between the mainland and the island state. There are still a number of plants to be found at the Prom, such as Crimson Berry (Leptecophylla juniperina), that really belong in Tasmania.

The first sanctuary idea

In the early 1900s field naturalists, already aware that many Victorian species were endangered by extensive land clearing, had the notion that the Prom could act as a sanctuary for them. In 1912 alone they planted seeds and seedlings of nearly fifty plants native to other regions of Victoria. Animals arrived too; Mallee Fowl were brought in all the way from Victoria’s dry northwest. Most introductions failed but some, like East Gippsland’s Cabbage Fan Palms, struggled on.

Our knowledge advances by trial and error, and by careful observation. We now understand that protection of the complete range of Victoria’s habitats is crucial to the survival of the vast number of native species (around 100,000) in the state. Animals are generally dependent on specific plants and habitat structures, and plants depend on the climate and aspect of a given place, the soils, fungi and insects, as well as rates of disturbance by both Aboriginal burning and wildfire.

Protection of Victoria’s natural heritage became a battle to protect habitats: we had to reserve as much as we could of the extent of each ecosystem in the state, and understand how to restore landscape integrity.

Big changes

The Prom remains an astonishingly beautiful place and it’s an invaluable refuge for any weary soul, but it’s been knocked around a lot over the last century or so.

When renowned ecologist and radio broadcaster Crosbie Morrison visited the Prom in 1946, he was astonished by its degradation.  The army had taken over the park for commando training during the war and, combined with the effects of fires, drought, rabbits and ongoing stock grazing, much of the Promontory’s vegetation and fauna had been damaged or depleted. His very public concern triggered the formation of the Victorian National Parks Association and subsequently Victoria’s first park management agency, the National Parks Authority (now Parks Victoria).

Dedicated management of the park has improved many things, but some impacts remained and others grew.

Historical logging and large, high intensity fires in close succession have transformed the landscape so much that the towering old forests that once covered much of the park are now very diminished in age and extent. Feral animals like foxes, cats and deer continue to affect things in many ways, particularly by reducing the abundance of small mammals and reptiles. And there are growing visitor impacts.

The most striking change has taken place on the Yanakie Isthmus, that sandy neck of land connecting the Prom’s granite slopes to the mainland. Anyone driving today through the first 17 kilometres from the park entrance will see an apparently endless landscape of impenetrable tea-tree, but it wasn’t always like that. 

Our first European visual and written records of the Prom show the isthmus to have been open country where coast banksias, drooping sheoaks and the occasional eucalypt were scattered across rolling dunes of native grasses and wildflowers. A visitor arriving in April or May might have caught the mass of tiny flowers on a male sheoak glowing deep amber in the afternoon sun.

By the early 1980s the trees were still there, but tea-tree scrub had taken over the grassy understorey. And then, almost suddenly, the wonderfully gnarled old banksias and many of the sheoaks just died. 

The loss of the Yanakie isthmus banksias was to be a mystery for nearly three decades, but research has now confirmed that a moderate but long drought was enough to kill them. They might normally have survived the dry spell, but the thirsty invading tea-tree scrub had sucked up most of the remaining soil moisture.

The tea-tree invasion, it seems, was a product of changed fire regimes and changed grazing patterns by both introduced and native grazers over many years. The invasion is still growing.

Now however, guided by several years of experimental burning patterns, and the monitoring of a range of feral and native grazing exclusion plots, it’s become clear that the once great sweep of coastal grassy woodlands on the isthmus can be restored.

The new Prom Sanctuary plan

Parks Victoria has been developing a proposal to invest in a revolutionary plan to restore the habitat integrity of the Prom; the park would at last become the ecological ‘centre of excellence’ promised in its 2002 management plan. The Prom has always attracted scientific research, but it has largely been generated by the enthusiasm of research institutions, rather than being a consistent priority for the park’s managers.

All of the actions needed to benefit from that knowledge are consistent with its excellent 2017 Conservation Action Plan:

  • First, an 11-kilometre predator-proof fence would be constructed across the isthmus at the park’s entrance, allowing effective management of pest animals like cats, foxes and deer.
  • Fire management, weed control, and marine management would be substantially resourced.
  • The long-planned restoration of the coastal grassy woodlands of the isthmus would swing into action.
  • Animals now rare or actually missing from the Prom, such as ground parrots, dingos, quolls, bandicoots, swamp-rats and New-Holland mice could be re-introduced.
  • The Prom’s many islands would get increased attention.
  • And the park’s still useful but dilapidated research station would be revamped as a modern research facility, supporting and encouraging the desperately needed research required to better understand the significant challenges we face in restoring the Prom’s ecological balance. This would be a program strongly guided by evidence.

The plan will cost around $22 million over five years. It’s not a lot of money for a government to spend restoring an ecological treasure, seriously caring for a park cherished by so many Victorians.

And the time is right. If we don’t act soon, the experienced and knowledgeable Prom staff best equipped to set the course for this great program might have left the room.

Why India can afford to equip Silent Valley National Park with a top-ranking residential research station, while we seem to accept habitat decline as inevitable, is a mystery.

It’s time to rethink that. The Prom is a place where we can demonstrate that it’s possible to manage a great park really well.


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