While cattle have been stopped for now, the issue raises a bigger question of conflict of interest.
IT IS A PECULIAR TWIST of logic that we elevate a small handful of Australian actors to be called national treasures, yet our national parks struggle to make even B-grade celebrity status.
In truth, our national parks are ‘national’ in name only. Largely the creation of state governments, these should-be national treasures enjoy very little national oversight or protection.
In an important move, the Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke’s decision to stop cattle grazing in Victoria’s Alpine National Park illustrates the critical need to place our national parks under federal oversight.
When the Baillieu Government made the decision to introduce cattle into a national park it walked away from its responsibilities to manage the state’s natural environment. At a state level, the decision was widely viewed to be politically motivated. At a national level, it highlighted the fundamental flaws in our national legislation to protect these critical areas.
It started in 2010 when, despite an electoral promise to do so, the Coalition failed to release its environmental policy as part of its election campaign. In place of a policy, a multitude of special interests jostled for precedence and only months after the election, the results of this policy vacuum were evident in the hoof prints that had trampled a delicate, finely balanced ecosystem.
Under the guise of a scientific grazing trial the government quietly, if not secretly, introduced 400 cattle to the Alpine National Park. Popularly compared to Victoria’s version of Japan’s ‘scientific’ whaling, the decision ran contrary to scientific evidence and was widely criticised by the scientific and wider communities alike, including in open letter from 125 leading ecologists.
Freedom of Information requests and investigations by both conservation groups and the media found a litany of holes and flaws in this ‘scientific’ trial which, as it transpired, was the first instalment in significant and disturbing list of government actions that continue to chip away at core environmental management controls in Victoria.
In the last 12 months, the Baillieu Government has exposed a number of threatened species to logging by changing the key regulatory instrument of the Code of Practice for Timber Production. In effect, changes to the code of practice allow the Secretary of the Department of Primary Industries to exempt areas identified for logging from threatened species laws.
At the sweep of pen we have also seen the government dismantle a necessary system of firewood permits in Victoria’s state forests that had been in place since the Bolte Government in the 1950s. The government also introduced legislation to extend firewood collection in red gum national parks.
In the 1990s the states and the Commonwealth agreed that states would have responsibility for threatened species management in areas targeted for logging under regional forest agreements. In short, national environmental laws do not apply in logging areas, an issue that places our threatened species at the mercy of state-owned logging interests.
This may explain why, in early December, the Baillieu Government released a Timber Industry Action Plan effectively sanctioning logging in parks and reserves. Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh later ruled this out but there has been no apparent change to the formal written policy.
Since 1993 Australia has been a party to the global Convention on Biological Diversity. Under the Australian constitution, the federal government is responsible for delivering on international obligations for nature protection, with states largely responsible for land management, a point formalised in the Inter-Governmental Agreement on the Environment in the early 1990s.
Recently, Minister Burke proposed a regulation that damaging activities such as cattle grazing, mining and land clearing in national parks and other key protected areas are referred to the federal government for review and approval. The regulation is still open for feedback but it would certainly be an important step in making national parks national and would restore greater integrity to our magnificent network of national parks and protected areas.
Taking it a step further, the Victoria National Parks Association and other environment groups are discussing the desirability of national parks becoming truly national by making their management a ‘trigger’ under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999.
Some state governments, including Victoria’s, have responded negatively to this perceived attack on their rights. But can it be really claimed as a ‘right’ if a government abrogates its responsibility to care for key area under its jurisdiction? The return of cattle grazing to Victoria’s Alpine National Park illustrates this point.
The federal Environment Minister stepped into Victoria’s cattle debate because of the potential impact of grazing on the threatened alpine tree frog and the nationally listed alpine sphagnum bogs and fens are listed under national environmental law. The fact that the trial was in a national park was not in itself a trigger for federal involvement.
National parks are the most efficient and effective way of conserving nature, particular threatened species. Now is time to recognise the importance of national parks to the nation as a whole.
Matt Ruchel is executive director of the Victorian National Parks Association.
Author: Matt Ruchel
Source: ABC – Australian Broadcasting Corporation