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The Victorian Government’s new rules governing the ‘permitted clearing’ of native vegetation are due to come into force any day. These rules will represent a considerable weakening of constraints on destruction and removal of Victoria’s remnant habitat.

We have written on the issue of native vegetation clearing rules quite a bit over recent months. We have also been a key actor in testing and using the (old) Native Vegetation Management Framework over the years in numerous cases in which we’ve represented community clients seeking to protect important areas of native vegetation.

The Victorian Government’s new rules governing the ‘permitted clearing’ of native vegetation are due to come into force any day (at the time of writing). These rules will represent a considerable weakening of constraints on destruction and removal of Victoria’s remnant habitat. No longer in most cases will a permit applicant need to show they sought to avoid or minimise clearing or be required to obtain an on-ground assessment of what is to be lost. The new rules are contained in a range of legal and policy instruments. These include new Statewide planning provisions and the overarching policy document Permitted Clearing of Native Vegetation: Biodiversity Assessment Guidelines.

The new rules are purportedly based on attaching risk to clearing decisions, but the way in which the decision-making machinery is to operate creates the very substantial risk that little precaution and an inadequate  knowledge base will inform that decision-making. One of key concerns we have about how these new rules will work is the process by which applications to clear native vegetation will be allocated a ‘risk-based pathway’. This is the ‘entry point’ into the decision-making process, the initial decision about how an application to clear native vegetation will be handled and assessed. It is expected that most applications will fall into the low or moderate risk categories, in which case a permit to clear is highly likely to be issued. In the case of ‘low-risk’ cases, the Government has directed Councils that they should not refuse to issue a permit on biodiversity grounds.

The Government’s policy is that this part of the decision-making process will be automated. In other words, the allocation of applications to risk-based pathways is to occur by reference substantially to online geographic mapping of risk, combined with the extent (area) of native vegetation to be cleared. This mapping contains various layers of data combined to produce a representation of risk as applied to Victoria’s biodiversity.

The mapping contained in this ‘biodiversity information tool’ presents, in effect, the Government’s policy of what is to be valued (eg considered high risk) and what is not to be valued (eg considered low risk) across the landscape. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the State is classified as low risk – and hence susceptible to ‘fast-tracked’ clearing.

As compared to the realities of native vegetation and habitat on the ground – and the actual biodiversity assets of the State – this is a highly problematic approach.

Yung En Chee from Melbourne University has written a great overview of the technical and ecological problems of determining these ‘risk-based pathway’ according to the online mapping being used by the Department of Environment and Primary Industries.

Environmental scientist Graeme Lorimer has written a critical audit of DEPI’s online biodiversity information tools (online mapping) and the Indigenous Flora and Fauna Association has also written a report on a wide range of locations in which online modeling departs significantly from the realities of habitat values on the ground.

We asked communities and interested individuals to send us local examples of places they know of where the ‘risk-based’ mapping is does not accurately represent the realities of biodiversity on the ground.

This includes areas represented as ‘low-risk’ but actually contain important habitat and high conservation values, including for threatened species and communities. The representations also include areas classified as ‘high risk’ but contain few if any natural values. For instance, buildings, pastures or exotic vegetation may be represented in high risk attributions.

We include some of these examples on the page What's the Risk?

If you have examples you might want to contribute to this site, please give us a call or drop us an email.

Image: Matted Flax-lily (Dianella amoena) at Bababi Djinanang native grassland Fawkner by Takver