PARK WATCH December 2019 |

It has been ten years since the state government committed to protecting Victoria’s grasslands – but not much has happened since.

Grasslands once covered almost a million hectares and spread from Melbourne’s west to Portland. But since European settlement, 90-95 per cent of these grasslands have been destroyed, and as little as 1 per cent remains as high-quality habitat – much of it threatened by Melbourne’s urban sprawl.

Decade-old Commonwealth and state government promises to protect them, such as by creating new large grassland reserves, have so far failed. The Andrews Government is now trying to legislate its way out of the commitment.

Grasslands and associated ecosystems, such as grassy woodlands, are listed as ‘critically endangered’ under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. They are home to 25 fauna species and 32 flora species listed as endangered or threatened.

These include the critically endangered Golden Sun Moth, the Plains Wanderer, Growling Grass Frog and Striped Legless Lizard, plus numerous important native plants such as the critically endangered Plains Rice-flower and Matted Flax-lily (pictured).

The remaining grasslands in and around Melbourne contain abundant native plants and animals – in many ways they are like an ecological Noah’s Ark. What remains is due in part to historical land banking by property developers and in part due to the dryer and rocky terrains.

In the south-east of Melbourne there are no grasslands, but at least one significant population of Southern Brown Bandicoots exists around the Cranbourne Botanic Gardens. 

In 2009, in an attempt to fast track urban development and cut so-called ‘green tape’ the state and Commonwealth Governments commenced a ‘Strategic Assessment’ under the national environment laws. A previously little-used provision, this is basically a government-funded assessment of national significant species and communities in the Melbourne Growth Areas, with the aim to speed up urban approvals.

The Victorian National Parks Association worked with 20 local and regional conservation groups to provide detailed input to both state and federal agencies. We were disappointed at the overall results. Almost a decade on, there have been dozens of specific program reports, sub-strategies, and protocols which create an exceedingly a complex labyrinth of documents and approvals.

The resulting ‘Melbourne Strategic Assessment’ (MSA) agreed to deliver on a series of outputs to protect some of the most ecologically endangered communities and species in Australia in the face of rapid urban development. 

Covering about 43,000 hectares in total, of which about 24,000 hectares was considered suitable for urban development, it is essentially an offset scheme. It allows the clearing of around 4000–5000 hectares of high-quality grasslands and other habitat within the Urban Growth Boundary, on the condition of the establishment of a series of large conservation reserves to offset the loss, mostly outside the urban area, paid for through levies on urban development.

This was strongly debated and disputed by many conservation groups and ecologists. There was and remains concern that the large conservation reserves outside the urban areas did not contain the same natural values as what was being lost within – that it was not an equal ‘replacement’ and that it was far better to keep some of the smaller areas of high-quality grassland and other habitat within the urban areas. Most of these concerns were ignored or dismissed, in the rush to cut green tape and make Melbourne boom.

In the end the Commonwealth approved:

  • A 15,000-hectare ‘western grassland reserve’ established and managed between Werribee and Melton.
  • A network of conservation areas (36 areas covering over 4000 hectares) within the Urban Growth Boundary.
  • A 1200-hectare grassy eucalypt woodland reserve is protected and managed in the north around Donnybrook.
  • 80 per cent of grassy eucalypt woodland containing, golden sun moth, spiny rice-flower and matted flax-lily is protected and managed with in the Urban Growth Boundary.
  • Important landscape and habitat areas for southern brown bandicoot are protected and managed.

The total cost of the program was estimated to be just under $1 billion ($986,154,518) funded by fees collected over 10–40 year period. The program promised to “…increase the extent of protection of Natural Temperate Grassland of the Victorian Volcanic Plain from two per cent to 20 per cent”. And according to the main approval document “The Department of Sustainability and Environment will be the acquiring authority and will acquire all freehold land (excluding quarries) and reserve it by 2020”.

All these promises and commitments have so far failed. The last publicly-available update in 2017 revealed that since commencement, the program has received approximately less than 5% of total budget – $72.6 million in revenue and expended approximately $46.4 million on program implementation activities.

  • About $35 million of this has been spent on acquiring grassland reserves (1,244 hectares acquired to date or about 10 per cent of total). This is about 7 per cent of the total expected lifetime expenditure for this purpose.
  • About $7.5 million or 13 per cent has been on program delivery e.g. government staff, almost double the proportion that which has been spent on purchase of grassland reserves.
  • Only $1.4 million has been spent on on-ground management, or less than 1 per cent of costs.

The project may be working for property developers, with almost 3,000 hectares of land approved for urban development, and according to the government, a saving of almost $500 million in costs for developers.

Deeply flawed from the start, the conservation outcomes of the scheme seem to be the lowest priority.

The Andrews Government is now trying to legislate its way out of the commitment, and has recently introduced into parliament the Melbourne Strategic Assessment (Environment Mitigation Levey) Bill 2019. If the Bill is passed it will hardwire the levy scheme into legislation, allow the government to increase the fees as the land is now more expensive, and provide some improved oversight and scrutiny of program, such as a two year progress report from the Commissioner of Environmental Sustainability tabled in parliament.

While it might be good for revenue, the Bill does nothing directly to ensure or speed up the protection of grasslands or deliver the promised conservation outcomes. With a recently released Commonwealth review of national environmental laws, and flurry of media about how terrible so-called ‘green tape’ is, perhaps it is time the Commonwealth ensured that what was promised is delivered, and the threatened grasslands are not left to the never never.

 


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