The Victorian Environmental Assessment Council has delivered its final report to the state government, with recommendations for the future of forests of central west Victoria. The independent report covers 161,000 hectares of public land including three distinct regions of Wombat, Wellsford, and the Mount Cole and Pyrenees Range forests.
This independent investigation into public land in the central west comes 30 years after the last detailed assessment of most of the public land in the area. Energy, Environment and Climate Change Minister Lily D'Ambrosio commissioned VEAC in March 2017, with key terms of reference including two public submission periods.
VEAC's report is informed by independent scientific research as well as community consultation and more than 3300 written submissions, with input from traditional owners through a partnership with Dja Dja Warrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation. VEAC has also assessed the environmental, economic, social and cultural values through reviews of significant places, for example, threatened species habitat, geological sites and visitor areas, as well as evaluating user activities such as recreation, domestic firewood collection, commercial timber harvesting and mining.
The VEAC report recommends status changes to forests in the central west including an increase of 58,000 hectares in protected areas. These areas include national park, conservation park, nature reserve and bushland reserve in the central west.
Recommendations include the establishment of a new Wombat-Lerderderg National Park (taking in the existing Lerderderg State Park), a new Pyrenees National Park over the southern flanks of the Pyrenees range, a new Mount Buangor National Park (taking in the existing Mount Buangor State Park) and an addition of almost half the Wellsford forest to the Greater Bendigo National Park.
The VEAC report is a blueprint for the future of Victoria's forests in the central west.
VEAC's recommendations are designed to balance the need for all Victorians to use and enjoy public land and the need to reduce climate risk and plan for the long-term protection of biodiversity, as well as conserving areas of significant Aboriginal cultural value. It is recognised internationally that national parks are one of the best ways to preserve irreplaceable native plants and animals and the natural environments in which they thrive.
Recommendations are also designed to address specific local risks to rare and endangered species including the greater glider, the swift parrot, the brush-tailed phascogale and the Mount Cole grevillea; they also complement recommendations in the Victorian State of the Environment 2018 Report and the Protecting Victoria's Environment - Biodiversity 2037 Plan. Declining species in the Central West mirror global trends reported in the UN's April 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The IPBES report confirms that more than one million species globally are threatened with extinction, with the report calling for "transformative changes" required to protect nature.
Victoria has one of the highest proportions of threatened species and ecological communities in Australia, while Victoria's population is forecast to grow at an average rate of 1.5 per cent a year to almost eight million citizens by 2031, and 10 million by 2051. Climate change is having an impact on Victoria's environment now. Decisions need to be taken now to meet these challenges.
Most of the activities that Victorians love to do in this central west region such as camping, four-wheel-driving, trail bike and horse riding, cycling, mountain biking and bushwalking will be unaffected by VEAC's recommendations. VEAC listened to community feedback from the draft report and made changes to recommendations to ensure that was the case. Some activities such as recreational hunting and prospecting will be able to continue in reduced areas. There are many opportunities for these activities to continue to be enjoyed across public land in the region and across Victoria.
Historically, decisions about land are highly contentious for a wide range of socio-economic reasons. However, throughout VEAC's investigation of central west Victoria, there has been common ground among stakeholders - a clear recognition of the need for the repair and restoration of forests that have been affected by a history of logging. VEAC's recommendations will do this; protect the most important habitat for an estimated 380 rare or endangered plants and animals and help meet conservation benchmarks for ecosystem protection. We know that looking after public land is simply one of the most effective ways to protect nature for the long term.
The VEAC report is a blueprint for the future of Victoria's forests in the central west. In Victoria, where more than half of the land has been cleared, public land is the cornerstone of strategies to protect nature.
Janine Haddow is chairperson of VEAC