Submission

To:Department of Sustainability and Environment (Victoria)
re: Consultation Paper: Future directions for native vegetation in Victoria (Review of Victoria's native vegetation permitted clearing regulations)

Date : 19 October 2012

Introduction: The Environmental Farmers Network (EFN) represents farmers in south-east Australia interested in sustainable farming in a social, environmental and economic sense. We represent mostly commercial farmers very concerned about: the impact of climate change on farms, people and landscapes; loss of farm biodiversity; and, the loss of farmland and relatively natural areas to urban expansion.
Comments: EFN welcomes this review of the native vegetation regulations. The current regulations have been useful, but we do agree that they are due for overhaul. The criticisms of the existing system outlined in Section 6 are thorough and realistic. The proposals outlined in the review appear to be carefully considered and should pave the way for a more stream-lined management of the regulations while promoting an improvement in quality and extent of biodiversity.  Streamlining the permit process should, if effective, allow the scrapping of many of the exemptions which currently exist. These exemptions are a loophole which has been systematically over-exploited.
We offer the following comments on the consultation paper:

  • EFN notes there is little, if any, reference to the challenges that climate change presents to Victorian ecosystems. A recent CSIRO report highlighted the changes that will take place as ecosystems adapt to the changing climate. The native vegetation protection system needs to take into account the establishment of riparian and other corridors which will enable movement of species to new habitats. Any prioritisation should take this into account. We submit that revised regulations and permit system should be crafted with this proviso.
  • EFN considers that the ‘Special Area’ provisions of Sections 27-36 of the Catchment and Land Protection Act (1994) could play a valuable role encouraging, protecting and sharing the cost of key corridors and zones outlined in point 1. In fact, the legislative requirements of these sections beautifully package each of the 5 principles tabulated on page 15. We submit that the use of the ‘Special Area’ provisions would be a most useful adjunct in clarifying and supporting the ‘permitted clearing’ regulations.
  • EFN firmly supports the potential recognised by the Consultation Paper of “strategic planning mechanisms offer opportunities for improved environmental and land use outcomes”. We consider that many of the requests (and demands) for ‘permitted clearing’ are to allow uses which are more appropriately done elsewhere; that is in other nearby locations, where adequate clearing has already taken place. We submit that operation of the ‘permitted clearing’ regulations would be much enhanced by yjr production of pertinent industry information on land capability and land suitability for the various farming industries.
  • EFN strongly agrees that a revised system should be science based and that the science should be easily accessible.  The science, however, must be up to date. The recent debacle about the super trawler provides a case in point.  The modelling that supported the quota was done using 10 year old data when we know that fish populations have changed dramatically in recent years in response to warming oceans. We submit that sufficient resources should be applied to any database system and that the management of this knowledge is a clear priority for the State Government.
  • EFN agrees with the broad principles outlined in the consultation paper but notes that, as always, the devil is in the detail.  What will this mean on the ground? For example, we are concerned about the fate of individual large old paddock trees in the implementation of these reforms.  They are never mentioned in the paper but would seem to be at risk. Large old paddock trees provide substantial ecosystem services in the surrounding landscape as well as habitat for many species. A paddock tree might seem to be an isolated remnant but is in fact a complete ecosystem.
  • EFN believes that the current mechanisms for detection of illegal clearing are too slow to mount effective prosecutions. Also, neither local government nor state government have any resources or inclination to prosecute those rare cases where this activity is discovered within the 1 year statute of limitations. So now most farmers/landowners are well aware that it is much less expensive to break the law than to comply. So that is what they have been doing in increasing numbers. The proposals in this review do nothing to alter this. There needs to be an adequate deterrent, or probably we conversely need to consider the option of a clear financial incentive/encouragement for the protection of large old trees.
  • EFN recognises that the Commonwealth has a much longer statute of limitation, and the Federal Court is a much less hospitable place to defend illegal clearing. If a landowner currently heads-out to the back paddock, knocks over a few pesky trees knowing that the State native vegetation regulations won’t get him, he may be in for a surprise if those trees happen to be listed under the federal EPBC Act. Aligning State and Commonwealth regulations was mentioned as Improvement 5.1. It would be a very important step to take. It could be even more important if we could cooperate to create a system  incorporating financial incentives/encouragements for landowners such that they actively advocate, and seek, to protect trees.
  • EFN agrees that supply and demand for native grassland sites in the Bush Broker program have led to extraordinary prices for these offsets and that this matter should be addressed. By the same token, prices paid for other EVC's sometimes underestimate the amount of work required to enhance and maintain a Bush Broker site. Our members have firsthand experience and report that payments do not reflect the opportunity cost for the site and the maintenance required. We submit that “Supporting reform 3; improve offset market functionality” could be a valuable approach to dealing with such issues.
  • EFN considers the proposal to consider landscape as a factor determining the biodiversity value of remnant vegetation is a logical progression from that stated in the Biodiversity White Paper. However, while it is a logical way of valuing vegetation, it does set the bar higher for those landholders who happen to live in those biodiverse landscapes. This resulting inequity will need to be handled carefully. It is also in these areas that landscape-scale conservation needs to be encouraged and will require the broad co-operation of landholders. This will not happen if they are required to carry more responsibility than others.
  • EFN is concerned that the consultation paper has not recognised that healthy and robust native vegetation has benefits beyond biodiversity. The goal of landscape stability is as important as that of biodiversity stability. Any proposals for clearing of: steep slopes; skeletal soils; recharge zones; riparian zones, wetlands and other critical areas must be assessed for effect on landscape stability with the same diligence as the effect on biodiversity. Indeed, why consider the biodiversity implications at all if a request for ‘permitted clearing’ is clearly against the goal of landscape stability.
  • EFN cannot state too strongly its support for the mitigation hierarchy approach to regulating the removal of native vegetation. Our experience in whole farm planning very much supports the ability to ‘sit around the kitchen table’ and canvass the many opportunities with landholders. Avoid, minimise, and only then offset, is a powerful and effective mantra. We need net gain, not just rather tenuous attempts at holding the line against loss.
  • EFN in conclusion supports the need to adequately incorporate risk and proportionality in the basis for ‘permitted clearing’ regulation. Not just the use of risk and proportionality for short term economic viability of individual businesses and developments, but for viability at the local, regional and state levels – that is for sustainability, resilience and survivability.

 

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