Melbourne's western grasslands: going, going…

The grasslands ecosystem was listed in 2008 by the federal government as critically endangered. Photo: Ben Courtice

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 western fringes of Melbourne.

The grasslands ecosystem was listed by the federal government as critically endangered in 2008. But at the same time, the then-Labor government of Victoria was initiating an expansion of Melbourne's Urban Growth Boundary that would severely impact some of its best remaining areas.

The expanded growth areas were subject to a Strategic Impact Assessment process, which assessed all future developments within the area together, instead of assessing them on a case-by-case basis as they occurred. The government nominated two areas totalling 15,000 hectares to the west of the new growth boundary, called the Western Grassland Reserves (WGR), which is currently private land. A government acquisition overlay was placed on these areas under the planning scheme.

Grassland expected to be destroyed by developers within the expanded growth area — allowed under the Strategic Impact Assessment — is to be offset by purchases of land within the WGR. Eight years later, there is little to show in the way of reserves, while development goes ahead at a somewhat slower pace than anticipated.

A recent academic book on the grasslands, Land Of Sweeping Plains (CSIRO 2015), highlights common concerns about the WGR: “the majority of the proposed Western Grassland Reserves are species-poor… with a long history of stock grazing, and much of it is yet to be purchased”. The 2011 WGR interim management plan noted that “approximately one fifth of the reserve area is current or recent cropland”.

'To save the grasslands … you have to first destroy them'

Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA) director Matt Ruchel told Green Left Weekly that while the WGR reserves are “a good idea in principle”, they are estimated to be only about 50% grassland at present, “whereas some of the grassland areas to be lost are unique.”

The strategic impact assessment for the plans assumed destruction of most remnant vegetation was unavoidable within the boundary. The VNPA noted at the time that “almost 8000 hectares of Nationally Significant ecological communities are proposed to be cleared”.

Questioning the bias against smaller, fragmented reserves, the VNPA has 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”.

Ruchel said that the strategic impact assessment set thresholds for preserving areas within the boundary “impossibly high at something like 100 hectares”, but that “much smaller areas are viable for conservation, say around ten hectares”.

Greens MLC Greg Barber told state parliament in 2010 that “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.”

Under the following Liberal state government, Barber sarcastically summed up the legislation: “In order to save the grasslands under the Madden plan, which [planning minister] Mr [Matthew] Guy is now continuing, you have to first destroy them.”

Development now, reserves later?

The Age in late 2015 reported on one development apparently proceeding even at the expense of the endangered striped legless lizard.

While the development in question is not within the area of the Strategic Impact Assessment, an ongoing disregard for existing high-conservation-value habitat appears to be evident.

A 2011 academic study published in Environmental Modeling and Software modelled likely outcomes of a variety of scenarios for managing the grassland remnants. A chart of outcomes shows (unsurprisingly) that the best outcome by far is to manage all remnants for conservation, not to develop them.

The paper advocated for a rather distant second option, rated as preserving only half the conservation value compared to managing all remnants, described as “the government purchasing and managing the entire strategic offset area [ie, the WGR] at the start of the simulation and then selling offset credits to developers as they are required.” All other options were much worse.

Ruchel said the VNPA “would have liked 'front end loading' of the WGR purchase to start the management process and prevent deterioration or further damage being done within it. An acquisition overlay alone doesn't achieve this.”

The Environmental Modeling paper discussed the options for defining a baseline for measuring their results as either “development without offsets” or “do nothing”, options which both resulted in enormous declines in the condition of native vegetation over coming decades. Without active management, small fragmented remnants may deteriorate due to processes such as weed invasion and reproductive isolation of species.

The definition of baseline is vital to understanding the recommendations. 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 for the grasslands and the best option for conservation, but the paper (and the Strategic Impact Assessment) did not explore this.

Offsets: the price of greenwash

The greenwash enabling government to excuse this massive destruction of habitat 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 and species are restricted to the specific place where they physically exist.

Ruchel suggested that the “Strategic Assessment is designed to streamline the process, and it looks good in theory, but doesn't work in practice”. He suggested this was due to values of specific locations not being captured in the broad, generalised mechanism.

A prominent grasslands specialist, who asked to remain anonymous, told Green Left Weekly that many ecologists did not want to promote the offsets mechanism for fear that it would become normalised as a method for government to destroy valuable natural habitat.

Property market instability has disrupted the process considerably. The strategic impact assessment process was rushed due to predictions of explosive growth in Melbourne's population which then failed to eventuate.

Conservationists criticised the haste at which it was pushed through. Yet Royce Millar noted in The Age in 2012 that “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.”

Eight years have now passed and there are still no major grassland reserves, or even much of the WGR area purchased. The WGR Interim Management Plan is now considered obsolete, while the department is preparing replacement documents which they say will not be available until 2016-17. The 2011 Interim Management Plan itself noted that a full plan should have been developed in 2012.

The grasslands still require urgent intervention to prevent deterioration and further loss — both within the existing growth boundary and outside, such as the proposed WGR area. Suburban developments, if necessary, can occur in many places. Endangered species and ecosystems do not have that luxury. It is time to protect and manage all the remaining grassland remnants.

[An earlier version of this article with references first appeared here.]

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