By Ben Courtice
Melbourne is eating up the western plains. Where once you could only see grasses and flowers, waving in the breeze like ripples on the ocean, all the way to the horizon ‒ now you are more likely to see grey roof-tiles and bitumen streets. The plains grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems left in the state, with many endangered species and a rich cultural heritage but less than 1% remaining.
It's 10 years since the state Labor government decided to allow suburban sprawl to spread like an oil slick over the farms and grasslands that had previously been protected by the urban growth boundary. The process allowing this, the Melbourne Strategic Assessment, streamlined planning approvals for developers, and in return, promised big grassland reserves which would be paid for by offsets from developers clearing remnant grassland within the new urban growth zone.
The Strategic Assessment means that the whole area under consideration has been assessed together for environmental approval; otherwise, developers would have to submit each project for environmental approval separately.
As a trade-off, a number of grassland areas are promised to be protected, the largest two comprising the 15,000 hectare Western Grassland Reserves, located west of Werribee and south of Melton. These areas were criticised by many as being weed-infested and mostly of poor ecological value. They were to be purchased by 2020, but to date only a small percentage has been acquired, and the state government has more recently indicated it is not going to finish the acquisition process until 2040.
In 2018, a small group of conservationists met to discuss ways of conserving the grasslands better, and in November 2018, 200 people crowded into the Wyndham City Council chambers over October 12-13 for the new Grassy Plains Network's inaugural conference, titled "Respect, Protect, Reconnect Melbourne's Grassy Plains."
Respect for the traditional owners of the grassy plains was first and foremost in the conference, which was opened by Wurundjeri elder Uncle Dave Wandin. He led with a discussion of Indigenous management of the grassy plains environments, including some thoughtful commentary on how indigenous use of fire differs from modern land managers (whether conservationists, or CFA).
Reg Abrahams from the Wathaurong, the other Traditional Owners of grasslands in the Melbourne area, spoke about the Wurdi Youang property. This site near the You Yang range is being managed to create an Indigenous Protected Area on the grasslands, with experiments in growing native grain, revegetation of ploughed land, and more.
Immediate concerns for conservation raised in the conference were that many remnant grasslands in the growth zone and grassland reserves area are being lost slowly via weed invasion, overgrazing, and other poor management practices, while a few remaining high-quality grassland patches within existing developed areas are at risk of being lost in a few scrapes of an excavator, if development goes ahead.
Speakers drew attention to two grassland reserves at Williams Landing (Laverton) that the current private owner (a subsidiary of developer Cedar Woods) has applied to build on. The site contains in particular a significant population of the endangered Spiny Rice Flower (Pimelea spinescens). The federal Department of the Environment is currently considering the developer's application, while local residents (who thought they were moving in next to conservation reserves) are understandably outraged.
Acquiring all the significant remnant grassland areas up front, instead of waiting while their ecological values unravel through neglect, is a key aim of the Grassy Plains Network, as is ensuring that ecological management is put in place to protect them. While the Western Grassland Reserves project is commendable for its ambition, the challenges are enormous. Much of the area is not grassland at all, but former cropland.
On the other hand, there are undeniably areas within it that retain their ecological value. Dr Steve Sinclair, from the state government Arthur Rylah Institute, told the conference that it would be hard to find a better contiguous area of the same size to conserve as grassland in the state.
Grasslands conservation is hampered by lack of co-ordination between land managers, and putting together proper oversight for the sector is another aim of the Grassy Plains Network. Although the volcanic plains grassland community was federally listed as critically endangered in 2008, there is still no recovery plan or recovery team. The conference showed strong enthusiasm for remedying this, and for incorporating Traditional Owners into scientific and land management advisory groups for the grasslands.
The Grassy Plains Network has published a declaration from the conference, available at www.grassyplains.org.au. The Network has become a subcommittee of the Indigenous Flora and Fauna Association, and is working to implement the recommendations of the conference declaration. To join the Grassy Plains Network, or to stay informed of its activities, send an email to [email protected]
Published in Chain Reaction #135, April 2019. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/chain_reaction
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