Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Land Clearing and the Review of Native Vegetation Clearing Guidelines

Just a quick round of thank you: Southern Dandenongs Landcare, Jordan Crooka, Bruce Lindsay of the Environment Defenders Office and Yasmin Kelsall of the Victorian National Parks Association for the detailed talk last night.  

It would appear that by reducing the situations in which a permit is required, making it easier to obtain a permit, using a risk based approach and also changing the language used that the new guidelines will have the overall effect of discounting the importance of local habitat for increased biodiversity.

Whilst I agree that the permit process certainly needs streamlining for areas of minor, low impact clearing, and that a consistent approach is required, I believe that the suggested changes to the guidelines that we have so far seen in consultation will do very little to secure the remainder of our indigenous vegetation.

The new guidelines seem to base the majority of the decision making on NaturePrint - a mapping tool which will be used to provide information on vegetation and biodiversity through mathematical modelling.  One of the aims is to reduce the time and manpower involved in the permit process.

The NaturePrint map has been created using existing information on where rare and threatened species exist.  It takes into account the vegetation classes, possible bio-links between these spots, and includes areas where land has already been cleared, but where fauna may move through.  This information was then used to create mathematical models, effectively extrapolating from existing data, which were used to build the NaturePrint map. 

NaturePrint uses a risk based approach to denote areas which have a high biodiversity value, or where rare and threatened species currently exist in numbers and are therefore deemed strategic sites. 

This approach seems fine in principle, but I was able to immediately think of a number of inherent problems:

1.  only limited new flora and fauna surveys were undertaken, mainly on public land, therefore the data base is likely out-dated;
2.  using mathematical modelling means an error rate will have been built in to allow for discrepancies in data.  That discrepancy could literally mean the difference between life and death;
3.  mathematical modelling depersonalises the process.  Once this happens, it can be very hard to grasp the realities of a situation;
4.  this system will concentrate efforts in the areas believed to be at high risk, or of strategic importance, and reduces the perceived importance of others. Effectively, it pre-conditions us to accept loss of biodiversity in the areas deemed to be low risk, because we’ve been told that they are less important;
5.  the use of a risk based approach is concerning because of the way we perceive such systems.  To have a risk based system, you must categories areas of low, medium and high risk.  The danger is that, once the areas of low risk drop off the scale because they’ve been cleared, the areas of medium risk are re-categorised so that some are then deemed ‘low risk’;
6.  and finally, you cannot effectively manage what you don’t actually measure!!
Shows the areas of high contribution of natural values in red and areas of low contribution are unshaded.  The unshaded areas are those deemed 'low risk'.
 Last night we saw an image of the Dandenong Ranges taken from an existing version of NaturePrint.  True, it's in the early stages, but frighteningly the towns of the Dandenongs were all shown to make ‘a low contribution of Natural Values'. 

Er....  a 'low contribution'?

Surely where remnant vegetation exists in towns this needs to be protected?  What about the small stands of Cyathea cunninghamii and C. x marcescens that exist in Belgrave, Kallista and other towns throughout the Ranges?  They are listed as vulnerable in Victoria and are listed as threatened under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988.  In the Dandenongs they exist with a scattered distribution, often in pockets of remnant vegetation in our private gardens.

These pockets of tree ferns and other vegetation provide important ecological niches for the continued survival of the flora that for so long we've worked to eradicate from our landscapes.  They are the habitat for large numbers of native birds, animals, insects etc and provide stepping stones or stop off points for those passing through our towns.  Without them, we create islands where our flora and fauna remain trapped and at risk of reducing the gene pool, thus lowering the biodiversity.

Doesn't the existing extent of clearing in urban areas make those areas 'high risk' and in need of protection?

Small areas add up.  In the Dandenongs where we have a large volume of privately owned land and a number of towns, the majority of the vegetation is not protected. 

Coloured areas show public land.  Slightly shaded are built up areas.

As is typical of the behaviour of industry and government, the review of the guidelines reduces everything to economics.  Visit the NaturePrint site and read the blurb... it talks about cost, emerging environmental markets, world markets, commodity prices, land values, cost-effective biodiversity outcomes, best value for money outcomes... I could go on.

If you want to talk economics, let’s talk about the value of what comes to us from nature and doesn't get priced.  What about the nutrients the vegetation of the Dandenongs captures from the sun and air?  We have a lot of native legumes in Australia that convert atmospheric nitrogen to a form readily available to plants.  What does nitrogen fertiliser cost these days...?

What about the moderation of temperature and control of water cycles and rainfall that our forests give us?  The Dandenong Ranges are strewn with horticultural enterprises, orchards, food producers...  how much money do they save every year because of the moderating effects of our vegetation?  What do individual households save in power and water bills?

What about carbon capture?  Our vegetation and the soil it protects holds onto carbon and prevents it from being released into the atmosphere.  Clear land and it’s not long before the organic matter and carbon held there oxidises and is lost to the air as carbon dioxide.  How much will it cost to reverse the damage?

What about the habitat provided for the birds, bees and other insects that pollinate our food and horticultural crops?  For too long we’ve considered this a free service, benefitting from having over 2/3 of our food crops pollinated for us.  Remove the habitat and you lose the service, at what cost?

What about the problems caused by clearing: water runoff, flooding, nutrient overload in our creeks, erosion, loss of fertile top soil, saline soils, land degradation, the cost to local communities who can no longer produce their own food, the cost to local businesses who have to close and move elsewhere...? 

Then there is also the much more intangible financial benefits of all our greenery: the social, cultural and psychological.  How can you cost that?   

Once you look at things in this way, you then need to start considering the costs of restoring our environment once the consequences of loss becomes evident.  I can guarantee you that this costs more to rectify than to prevent.

YOU can help ensure that the future guidelines on vegetation clearing do not reduce the status of our local environment to penny pinching.

Check out this link, read the document for yourself and then submit your comments to:

Whilst you’re at it, don’t forget to copy in your local council, your local MP, Ryan Smith the Minister for the Environment and Climate Change and Lisa Neville the Shadow Minister for Environment and Climate Change.

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