Melbourne’s western grasslands: going, going…

Suburban developments, assuming they are necessary, can occur in many places. Endangered species and ecological communities do not have that luxury. It’s time to protect all the remaining grasslands.

An edited and updated version of this essay has been published at Green Left Weekly

Although about 99% of Victoria’s volcanic plains grasslands have been destroyed by development, some outstanding remnants of this unique ecosystem persist, especially on the plains just west of Melbourne (see for eg Smith 2015). This ecological community was Federally listed in 2008 as critically endangered (DEWPC 2011). Yet at the same time, the the then Labor government of Victoria was initiating an expansion of Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary that would severely impact the exact same areas. (DPCD 2008).

The government nominated two areas totalling 15,000 hectares to the west of the new growth boundary, called the Western Grassland Reserves (WGR). (DPCD, 2010). Developers are to purchase offsets within these areas in exchange for grassland destroyed by new developments (DEPI, 2013). Sadly these bold sounding deals are falling into disarray, with little conservation to show for it as development goes ahead even at the expense of endangered species (Arup 2015).

DSC_0837
A tiny Convolvulus flowering among the grass tussocks and volcanic rock. Near Bacchus Marsh.

There are positives about the planned reserves (some of which I may survey in a future post). Most commonly cited is that remnant grasslands within the new growth boundary are highly fragmented, unlike the mostly contiguous WGR area (DPCD, 2009), although the benefits of this are often overstated (Marshall 2013).

“In order to save the grasslands… you have to first destroy them.”

The offset mechanism used to create the WGR is another matter entirely, however. Greens MLC Greg Barber pointed out: “Thousands of hectares of high-quality remnants will be destroyed by the proposal to expand the urban growth boundary. What we will get in return is a public acquisition overlay signalling the intention of some future government to acquire and manage grasslands… in return for the guaranteed, irreversible destruction of high-quality grasslands we are going to get a statement of intent to purchase other land and manage it.” (Legislative Council, 29 July 2010).

Later, under the Liberal state government, Barber sarcastically summed up the legislation: “In order to save the grasslands under the Madden plan, which Mr Guy is now continuing, you have to first destroy them.” (Legislative Council, August 14 2012).

The Strategic Impact Statement assumed destruction of most remnant vegetation was unavoidable within the boundary (DPCD, 2009).  The Victorian National Parks Association noted that “almost 8,000 ha of Nationally Significant ecological communities are proposed to be cleared” (VNPA, 2009).

UGB-grasslands
Graphic from Sydney Morning Herald (Smith, 2015)


A recent academic book on the grasslands backs up Barber’s concern: “the majority of the proposed Western Grassland Reserves are species-poor Austrostipa [spear-grass]-dominated grasslands with a long history of stock grazing, and much of it is yet to be purchased” (Williams 2015, p48). Indeed, the WGR interim management plan noted that “approximately one fifth of the reserve area is current or recent cropland.” (DSE, 2011)

Questioning the bias against smaller, fragmented reserves, it has been observed that “the area of habitat required to support an ecological population or community is often overstated… Bias towards larger areas for reservation continues, even though there is considerable evidence that smaller grasslands are quite viable” (Marshall, 2013).

A 2011 academic study modeled likely outcomes of a variety of scenarios for managing the grassland remnants. Shown here is a figure from that study (Gordon et al, 2011).

Gordon et al fig 3
Condition of grasslands over time, under different managements. Figure from Gordon et al, 2011.

This figure shows that the best outcome by far is to manage for conservation, not develop (“No development/all parcels managed”, the uppermost trend line). A rather distant second, “Strategic immediate offsets”, was modeled as “the government purchasing and managing of the entire strategic offset area at the start of the simulation and then selling offset credits to developers as they are required.” The paper discussed the options for defining a baseline as either “development without offsets” or “do nothing” which both resulted in enormous declines in the condition of native vegetation.

The issue of baseline is a telling one. From the point of view of protecting the grasslands, protecting and managing all high-quality remnants could be considered as a proxy for a pre-disturbance baseline, and the best option for conservation, but the paper (and the SIA) did not explore this.

Offsets = greenwash

The essential greenwash for this massive expansion of development is the system of offsets, which assumes maximum flexibility on the part of nature, yet minimum flexibility on the part of development. More logically it should be the opposite: profits (or new developments) can be made in many different places, but endangered ecosystems are restricted to the place where they physically exist (see Beder 2006, p249-256).

If developers under the current scheme avoid high-value remnant grasslands, and therefore do not buy offsets, the WGR would remain no more than a theoretical acquisition overlay, while unmanaged/undeveloped grassland remnants deteriorate via processes such as weed invasion and other passengers of suburban encroachment.

Property markets may also promote this outcome with the way they have been going: “…outer Melbourne is facing a land supply glut, with a record high of up to 200,000 lots to be ready for development in 2013/2014…. Victoria’s population growth has slowed dramatically since 2009, and fringe land prices have plunged with it.” (Millar, 2012)

Over seven years have now passed since the process began, and there are still no major grassland reserves. The WGR Interim Management Plan is now considered obsolete, while the department is preparing replacement documents which will not be available until 2016-17, according to response to personal inquiries I made. The Interim Management Plan itself noted that a full plan should have been developed in 2012 (DSE, 2011).

The grasslands (still) require urgent intervention to prevent deterioration and further loss, by protecting and managing the remnants – both within the existing growth boundary, and the proposed WGR area. Suburban developments, assuming they are necessary, can occur in many places. Endangered species and ecological communities do not have that luxury. If the current crop of politicians continue to talk the talk but not walk the walk on conservation, it’s time to look for replacements.

References

Tom Arup, “Endangered (and legless) lizard facing bulldozers on Melbourne’s fringe”. The Age, November 9 2015. <http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/endangered-and-legless-lizard-facing-bulldozers-on-melbournes-fringe-20151106-gksqyq.html>

Sharon Beder, Environmental Principles and Policies: an interdisciplinary approach. UNSW Press, 2006.

Department of Environment and Primary Industries [DEPI], Habitat Compensation Under the Biodiversity Conservation Strategy, Melbourne Strategic Assessment (State of Victoria, 2013)

Department of Environment, Water, Population and Communities [DEWPC], Nationally Threatened Ecological Communities of the Victorian Volcanic Plain: Natural Temperate Grassland & Grassy Eucalypt Woodland (Commonwealth of Australia, 2011)

Department of Planning and Community Development [DPCD], Amendment VC68: Delivering Melbourne’s Newest Sustainable Communities (Advisory Note 30, State of Victoria, 2010)

Department of Planning and Community Development, Melbourne 2030: A planning update – Melbourne @ 5 Million (State of Victoria, 2008)

Department of Planning and Community Development, Delivering Melbourne’s Newest Sustainable Communities (State of Victoria, 2009)

Department of Sustainability and Environment [DSE], Western Grassland Reserves Interim Management (State of Victoria, 2011)

Department of Sustainability and Environment, Delivering Melbourne’s Newest Sustainable Communities: Strategic Impact Assessment Report (State of Victoria 2009)

Ascelin Gordon et al, ‘Assessing the impacts of biodiversity offset policies’ (2011) 26 Environmental Modelling & Software 1481–1488

Adrian Marshall, Start with the grasslands: Design guidelines to support native grasslands in urban areas (Victorian National Parks Association, 2013)

Royce Millar, “Government shifts green wedge boundary”, The Sydney Morning Herald, June 13 2012. <http://www.smh.com.au/business/property/government-shifts-green-wedge-boundary-20120612-208ct.html>

Bridie Smith, “Biodiversity under threat as Melbourne’s grasslands become suburbs.” Sydney Morning Herald, May 27 2015. <http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/biodiversity-under-threat-as-melbournes-grasslands-become-suburbs-20150526-gh9v16.html>

Victorian National Parks Association [VNPA], Planning for Nature Conservation in Melbourne’s Newest Sustainable Communities (2009) <http://vnpa.org.au/page/publications/submissions>

Nicholas S.G. Williams, Adrian Marshall and John W. Morgan (eds), Land of Sweeping Plains: Managing and restoring the native grasslands of south-eastern Australia. CSIRO Publishing, 2015.

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