Strathbogie Ranges IPA – SOSF recommendations

Acknowledgment of Country

Save Our Strathbogie Forest acknowledges the Traditional Owners of this land. We respect the rich culture and intrinsic connection Traditional Owners have to the land. We pay our respects to Elders, past, present and emerging and recognize the primacy of their obligations, responsibilities, and rights to care for their Country.

This document summarizes the position of Save Our Strathbogie Forest committee in response to the recent consultative meetings with the Eminent Panel for Community Engagement.

Old-growth Mountain Gum with friends, Strathbogie Ranges IPA

Summary

  1. SOSF generally agrees with the content and conclusions in VEAC’s ‘Assessment of the values of the Strathbogie Ranges IPA (SR IPA).
  2. Insofar as VEAC’s assessment is concerned, the boundary of the proposed Conservation Park and Forest Park should be moved west, to the north-south running Dry Creek Rd. This would minimize potential conflict between hunting and agriculture (which is a real issue) and protect high conservation value forest in the Goldsworthys Tk area whereDELWP surveys recorded high Greater Glider densities.
  3. We strongly support TO self-determination through cultural landscape principles and shared governance.
  4. We support Taungurung Land and Waters Council (TLaWC) becoming legal custodians of this forest, in its pursuit to heal culture and heal country.
  5. We urge the EPCE to identify the mechanisms and a reserve category that would enable TLaWC custodianship and strong biodiversity protection of the Strathbogie Ranges IPA during this term of government. We suggest a pathway to achieve this.
  6. Commercial timber harvesting should be explicitly excluded from the future SR IPA reserve, including the south-west section of forest where VEAC suggests a Forest Park is the most appropriate reserve category.
  7. Establish and resource a reserve ‘advisory committee’ under the auspices of the TLaWC to oversee transition of the reserve from state forest to reserve, including the development of a management plan.
  8. Commit to developing a reserve management plan within 12 months of declaration and allocate adequate resources to maintain and implement the plan.
  9. Preparation of the management plan should include assessment and reduction of the impacts of bush camping and recreational vehicle use. It should also consider how best to promote the growth of low-impact activities such as walking, hiking, cycle touring, day visits etc.
  10. Unregulated, recreational hunting of feral deer and pigs, as is the current situation, should be stopped or at least regulated and drastically reduced, to mitigate the risk of conflict and environmental degradation, but also to make better use of such a potentially valuable food resource.
  11. Bush camping in its current form and with likely increased visitor use requires regulation and should be part of an advisory committee’s remit. Improving camping facilities in areas around the forest should be a high priority.
  12. Highest priority and investment should be in low-impact recreation activities that are inclusive and promote both visitor usage and effective forest management. Visitor experience and safety will be improved by better road signage and visitor information.

Introduction

In declaring the Strathbogie Ranges Immediate Protection Area’ (SR IPA), the Victorian government has made a clear statement about the important natural values of the area. A variety of government and scientific reports argue that these values require improved management and Minister D’Ambrosio has spoken about this at length. Those sentiments are emphasized in the current VEAC Assessment. A principle argument for establishing the SR IPA is protection of the EPBC and FFG listed Greater Glider and its habitat. A key conservation measure listed in the Greater Glider Action Statement is “Immediate protection of [24,000 ha] of State Forest in the Strathbogie Ranges.”

SOSF endorses TLaWC becoming legal custodian of the forest and we hope to be part of a broader initiative to build support for this position.

We are also conscious that the future is unpredictable and that we have a responsibility to the many hundreds of people that have contributed to the designation of the Strathbogie Ranges IPA, to ensure that the goals we’ve been striving for and have partly already achieved, are met and maintained. Namely, that:

  • The TLaWC is recognized as the legal custodian of the forest
  • Commercially driven native forest logging is permanently excluded from the forest and
  • The natural values and biodiversity assets for which the forest was declared an IPA, are managed using evidence-based and culturally appropriate actions.

The Climate Crisis

Current IPCC projections based on the Paris commitments of greenhouse gas reductions, which it has to be said are optimistic, suggest it will be difficult to keep average global temperature increase below 1.5o C. We’re already witnessing the substantial changes in global biological systems with about 1o C of warming and given the time-lag of many environmental responses, change will continue even if emissions were to plateau now.

The planet requires bold action to address climate change and this is as true in SE Australia as anywhere. Because forest management encompasses a complex, living system, it is difficult to predict the outcomes of individual, local actions. The most robust approach is to consider the SR IPA as a whole and ensure the trend in its overall health increases. The removal of significant anthropological threats, principally commercial logging, was a huge step in that direction. Addressing the negative impacts of planned burning will be more complex, but also important. Other threats like illegal off-road recreational vehicle use and bush camps that enlarge substantially over time, can have significant local impact and do not promote the values of caring for country and low impact use. Yet, climate action in this context is underpinned by exactly such values. Future management of the forest should always be considered through a climate crisis lens and should not shy away from unpopular decision making, if those decisions improve forest health and resilience.

Traditional Owner self-determination

SOSF agrees with the content and conclusions in VEAC’s ‘Assessment of the values of the SR IPA i.e. a combination of Conservation Park and Forest Park (though with the express exclusion of commercial timber harvesting, more on this below). We strongly support TO self-determination through cultural landscape principles and shared governance and we support the forest being under TLaWC custodianship.

We endorse the final paragraph in the VEAC assessment:

“VEAC supports the future incorporation of Traditional Owners’ thinking about cultural landscapes into the categorization and management of the Strathbogie Ranges native forests, as well as reforms that enable Traditional Owners to directly manage land.”

Culture and in this case indigenous culture goes deeper than parliamentary politics, policies, guidelines and regulations. Institutional norms can be evidence-based, effectively implemented and lead to good biodiversity outcomes, but are also top-down, ephemeral and easily ignored, or even corrupted. Indigenous culture, though damaged by 200 years of colonization, goes deeper than the nation-state and offers the opportunity of multi-generational, hands-on cultural stewardship. Enabling TOs to be decision-makers over some of their traditional lands (self-determination) will foster culture and heal country. The Strathbogie Forest is an ideal location to explore this opportunity:

  • It is of moderate size with existing, though not onerous, management infrastructure (eg forest roads).
  • It is large enough to allow diverse cultural practice over an extensive area.
  • The forest has a history of indigenous occupation, though still poorly understood.
  • There is strong community support for TOs and a willingness to share and learn.
  • Economic opportunities through employment, cultural practice and tourism for TLaWC and the local rural community are diverse.
  • Once achieved, TO stewardship of the forest could be a new model in managing some Victorian forest ecosystems.

Critical will be a high and realistic level of support for TLaWC (training, funding, partnerships, time etc) to manage the forest over the next decades and achieve the goal of healing country and culture. Part of Minister D’Ambrosio’s 2019 IPA announcement was allocation of $8M (we think) for the transition of the IPAs into the reserve system. Utilizing some of this funding to support TLaWC custodianship should be considered.

Risk

Given the importance of the Strathbogie Forest for conservation of the Greater Glider and a range of other threatened and hollow- and forest-dependent species, it is important that commercial timber harvesting be explicitly excluded from the entire SR IPA, including the south-west section of forest where VEAC suggests a Forest Park is the most appropriate reserve category.

There is also real risk of not achieving the Minister’s goals if the timeline stretches into 2023. A change of state government in November may well preclude any legacy of the years of hard work done by community and also the Victorian government, unless the reserve is gazetted before the state election (see below).

In the event that Vic. Labor is returned to government in Nov 2022, but with a new Environment Minister that is less sympathetic to TOs/forest protection, or some political reason emerges to delay/sideline TO self-determination, or reward regional voters with e.g. ‘timber jobs’, then a Forest Park, as proposed under the Forest Act, could see logging return to this forest. This would clearly contradict the government’s conservation priorities for the Greater Glider and the Strathbogie Forest, rekindling the forest conflict that we’ve seen over the last 8 years.

When TLaWC achieves custodianship and shared governance of the SR IPA there may still be a need to secure arrangements, in the unlikely event the TLaWC cannot maintain its management role of the forest. Making allowance for such a circumstance seems prudent (and may be part of legislation anyway). The legislation created to enable TO custodianship of the forest must ensure the forest returns to an appropriate reserve category, for example Conservation Park managed by Parks Victoria, if at some point in the future TLaWC cannot meet its legal custodial obligations.

Establishing the reserve

We question the need to delay declaration/gazettal of the new reserve. The SR IPA is surrounded almost exclusively by either public land or crown lease (mainly HVP plantations) and has been managed by DELWP for decades without conflict over boundaries.

We urge that the EPCE recommend the government gazette the new reserve prior to the November election as a demonstration of its genuine intention to manage the forest for its natural values and, as importantly, a concrete signal that it supports TO goals of self-determination and healing country.

We argue that management of the forest under the Crown Land (Reserves) Act (which rules out all commercial timber harvesting), until the new Public Land Act is finalized, offers the best chance of realizing the aspirations of community, TOs and government. The actual category/name of the reserve is less important than the Act that the reserve sits under and the stated Purposes of the reserve.

If acceptable to TLaWC, the entire forest, could be declared a Bushland Reserve with a TLaWC Committee of Management, until the Public Land Act comes into effect. Though VEAC comments that this category isn’t necessarily a good fit for the SR IPA, the category does include the purpose to “Provide for sustainable, controlled, low-intensity use of natural resources where consistent with the purposes above.” We urge the Panel and VEAC to investigate such an option and amend the reserve Purposes as necessary.

If a category like Bushland Reserve is deemed inappropriate by the TLaWC, SOSF would support the category Forest Park, if it was under the Crown Land (Reserves) Act and the Purposes explicitly rule out commercial logging for pulp, sawlog, firewood and specialty timber.

Regardless of the reserve details, critical will be the development, maintenance and implementation of a reserve management plan. Such a plan need not be developed immediately, but must be committed to within a reasonable timeframe and adequately funded.

Planning & partnerships

Whatever happens next, the future of the Strathbogie Forest will be very different to its past. To manage the change inclusively, constructively, imaginatively, we need to:

  • Build relationships and partnerships among forest users
  • Identifying supportive community leaders
  • Develop a network of supporting organizations
  • Develop a collective vision, plan and objectives
  • Develop a framework for action that supports both forest and ecosystem health, and development of skills and capacity among Traditional Owners.
  • Implement the plan to achieve objectives and on-ground outcomes

We suggest the EPCE support the establishment and funding of a reference, or advisory group during the transition period and perhaps beyond, to address the many management issues, facilitate partnership building between TO and non-indigenous communities and oversee the development and implementation of a management plan for the new reserve, noting the emphasis of cultural practices and healing country.

Specific comments regarding recreation activities

Hunting

The major feral species attracting recreational hunting are: Sambar Deer, Fallow Deer and Feral Pigs.

Recreational deer hunting has little to no impact on populations of feral deer in the SR IPA, though we acknowledge it as an activity enjoyed by some members of the community. Currently, hunting in the SR IPA is problematic as there is considerable opportunity for conflict between the hunting and non-hunting community. Farmers bordering the forest regularly have cattle shot by shooters. Some hunters clearly act illegally, spotlighting and shooting from vehicles, trespassing, and damaging private and public property. Because the forest is relatively small with numerous forest tracks, the risk of accidental human injury is real. The bush campsites frequented by a minority of hunters are often littered with rubbish and the remains of the hunt – empty cartridges, deer remains, camping refuse, felled trees.

In recent years pig numbers and activity appear to have increased markedly in both forest and rural areas. Anecdotal information suggests pig populations in the SR IPA are at least partly maintained by deliberate releases of young pigs (likely from the Riverina), for later sport. Damage to pasture and crops has increased noticeably in 2020-22, yet departmental and farmer control measures appear to have limited impact. Because of the capacity of Feral Pigs to damage property and habitat and for their impact to increase and spread, control of their numbers appears to be urgent.

SOSF is opposed to the current practice of unregulated recreational hunting of feral game species in the SR IPA. Instead, we suggest trialing hunting in designated areas and/or times, perhaps through a permit system and in partnership with e.g. Field and Game. Better monitoring/regulation might enable other cross-community benefits, such as sharing of the kills and disposal of carcasses (many carcasses shot for trophy are left in the forest and feed feral predators) and better relations between hunting organizations and local communities. Such approaches will require thoughtful consideration and might also be a role for the proposed ‘advisory committee’.

Somewhat analogous to hunting deer and pigs for the table, is the concept of traditional use of resources – sustainably harvesting the productivity of the forest. SOSF encourages the management of both feral and indigenous species such that country and culture are healed.

Camping

There are existing commercial and free camping facilities at various locations around the SR IPA and in surrounding districts, for example at Swanpool, Bonnie Doon and Lima South. Many forest visitors also enjoy the experience and freedom of bush camping, though it is having significant local impact at several locations. An assessment of the impact of unregulated bush camping could be part of the development of a comprehensive reserve management plan. SOSF considers it desirable that some level of regulated bush camping be allowed in some parts of the forest, where environmentally and culturally appropriate.

We encourage the government, or the proposed and funded advisory committee, to work with local government and community groups to improve camping facilities in close proximity to the forest such that negative environmental impact from camping is minimised and positive consequences (such as contributing to local economies) is maximized.

Walking tracks and other low impact activities

Low impact activities, such as walking, hiking, trail running, cycle touring, day visits, environmental education etc. should be the primary focus of forest recreation. Some of these activities already occur, but all could increase without compromising forest management. In fact, encouraging such activities will improve forest management outcomes and make the task more straightforward, effective and enjoyable.

Integrating low-impact activities with indigenous cultural history awareness would benefit all aspects of forest management and cultural learning.

Access and signage

Though the forest is relatively small, the plethora of roads and lack of good signage diminishes the visitor experience. Improving road signage, including road condition and distance information, is important regardless of reserve category and recreational activities. Visitor education via pamphlets, brochures, self-guided tours and interpretation signage/information (both on-line and hard copy) would all enhance the visitor experience and improve safety. Some of these improvements are straightforward, others would benefit from consideration and thoughtful design and could be part of the management plan process.

Plantation estate

Around the time of the 2019 IPA announcement was a state government initiative to increase Victoria’s plantation estate – announced by the then Agriculture Minister, Jaclyn Symes. We are unsure whether that initiative still exists and what progress has been made. SOSF requests the EPCE to encourage the Victorian government to consider how best to support establishment of biodiverse eucalypt timber plantations on already cleared land surrounding the SR IPA, as part of the future of the district. The Strathbogie ranges are good tree growing country and hardwood plantations could become a valuable part of the region’s economic resource base.

Bertram Lobert, Save Our Strathbogie Forest 3.06.2022

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