The Victorian government is overhauling its rules on native vegetation clearing, the first major change in this area for more than a decade.
Vegetation management policy rarely makes it into the news - but it is important, not least because native vegetation provides vital environmental services including pasture for animals to eat, erosion control, nutrient cycling for healthy soils, water purification and habitat for plants and animals.
Yet the consultation paper about these current changes attracted more than 200 submissions, largely expressing concern. And much to the consternation of local governments, environmental groups and academics, the new reforms were announced in May with no further opportunity for comment.
From ‘net gain’ to ‘no net loss’
One of the most significant changes is in the stated goal of the native vegetation rules.
In the original 2002 regulations, the objective was to achieve “a reversal, across the entire landscape, of the long-term decline in the extent and quality of native vegetation, leading to a net gain”. Now, the goal is for “no net loss in the contribution made by native vegetation to Victoria’s biodiversity”.
The original “net gain” objective was a recognition that Victoria had already lost a significant amount of its native vegetation. Incremental loss was continuing, particularly on private land, and native vegetation management was a cost-effective way to protect the productive capacity of land, the quality of water resources and biodiversity. More than a decade on, none of these facts have changed.
Given this context, adopting a goal of “no net loss” effectively acquiesces to continued long-term decline, instead of aspiring to improve the situation.
Chipping away at biodiversity
The new rules aim to cut environmental regulation, or “green tape”, by minimising the need for expert on-site assessment and relying on modelled maps.
Previously, all applications for clearing required on-site assessments by consultants. Now, only those deemed to be “moderate” or “high” risk require comprehensive assessment and matching of clearing to offsets, if rare or threatened species are affected.
“Low” risk applications will be assessed solely using modelled information, and can expect land clearing to be allowed as long as compensatory offsets (also calculated using modelled data) are provided.
The risk level of an application depends on the size and location of the proposed clearing. All of Victoria has been mapped into three categories (A, B and C) that supposedly reflect “the likelihood that removing a small amount of native vegetation at a location could have a significant impact on the habitat of a rare or threatened species”.
By focusing narrowly on potential impacts to just rare or threatened species, 91% of Victoria ends up in lowest Location Risk A category (shown in light blue on the map below), with clearing permitted as a right as long as it is less than 1 hectare and offsets are provided (Figure 1).
This limited interpretation runs contrary to the government’s own definition of biodiversity, which includes “the variety of all life forms, the different plants, animals and microorganisms, the genes they contain and support, and the ecosystems of which they form a part”.
This decision to ignore broadly-defined biodiversity at the risk assignment stage leaves remnant native vegetation vulnerable to being chipped away by permitted clearing and undermines the “no net loss” objective.
Can we rely on our maps?
If this new permitting process is to work properly, the accuracy of modelled maps at the intended scale of use will be crucial. But when I took a closer look, I discovered some worrying surprises.
For example, car parks and construction areas within the grounds of Melbourne Airport and the infield parking and viewing area within Calder Park Raceway have been classified as higher risk categories B and C (see Figure 2 below).
Conversely, well-documented locations of high-conservation value threatened flora and fauna in places like Bungalook Conservation Reserve in Kilsyth South and the Dandenong Ranges National Park have inexplicably been classed as Location Risk A. These are unlikely to be isolated instances.
Instead of experiencing greater certainty and efficiency under these new rules, developers seeking to clear native vegetation that has been misclassified as “moderate/high” risk (at sites like the Calder Park Raceway) may face being unfairly burdened with excess costs in assessment and offsets.
In a similarly perverse way, permitted clearing of high conservation value native vegetation that is misclassified as “low” risk becomes a cost borne by the wider community.
Some of these errors are probably due to problems with the input data used in the modelling.
Historically, the various species databases managed by the state have been chronically under-resourced, resulting in uneven data capture, lack of quality control and assurance and database maintenance and updating.
Furthermore, species occurrence data is heavily biased towards public land. Common landscapes that are poorly represented include arable, lowland areas that are predominantly on a freehold title.
Ironically, this means our knowledge of biodiversity is poorest and possibly most error-prone in freehold areas that are most depleted in native vegetation, and also most likely to be subject to applications to clear for urban development or increased agricultural use.
Where do we start to fix the new system?
Errors are neither unexpected nor unusual given the complexity of the modelling involved with creating maps like these. But we could have more confidence in the permitting process if it included processes for handling inevitable errors and problems.
A good start can be made by: a) addressing data deficiencies on freehold land; b) conducting independent peer review and quality assurance testing by end-users such as local councils and planning authorities; c) providing avenues for error-reporting; and d) committing resources to quality assurance, improvement and regular updating of the biodiversity information maps.
There are real opportunities to make improvements to Victoria’s clearing regulations that will make life easier for landholders, farmers and developers, but also result in better environmental outcomes.
However, those opportunities can only be realised if the Victorian government is willing to properly address the concerns and solutions raised in submissions from the wider community.