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Red Gum Lock-up is not the Solution

02, November 2007

Red Gum Lock-up is not the Solution

Mark Poynter

THERE is no doubt that more water allocated to the environment would improve the health of Victoria's mid-Murray red gum forests and benefit all those with an interest in them ("Red gums are not just a green issue," Matt Ruchel, Business Day, 5/10).

However, there is far less certainty about whether the community and the environment will benefit from the simplistic conservation edict that all red gum forests must be encompassed in a national park, which underpins the philosophy of Matt Ruchel's environmental lobby group, the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA).

The VNPA has campaigned for decades to expand the park estate by opposing traditional land uses and activities. In the case of Victoria's red gum forests, they have targeted a variety of recreational pursuits, and in particular, timber production and grazing, which have occurred for more than 150 years and continue to a limited extent in designated zones outside the substantial areas of red gum forest and wetland that are already contained in parks and reserves.

The region's current balance of public land use has hardly been unpopular with the wider community as is illustrated by the success of tourism and recreation which has grown and co-existed with timber harvesting, grazing, apiary and other activities for decades.

Despite this, the VNPA instigated a concerted campaign for red gum national parks in 2001 after securing a substantial funding grant for this purpose from the Myer Foundation. In 2005, the Government directed the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) to formally investigate public land use in the red gum forests.

Ruchel's endorsement of the VEAC red gum investigation appears to be predicated on the fact that its recently released draft proposals almost fully delivered on the VNPA wish list. This follows a path blazed by earlier VEAC investigations that have invariably been commissioned specifically in response to environmental activism and, without exception, have resulted in a substantial expansion of national parks.

This has largely occurred without sufficient justification, given the pre-existing balance between forest conservation and use. In particular, VEAC has always either eliminated or grossly reduced local timber harvesting, which seems to be the raison d'etre for environmental activism in Victoria's public lands.

That Premier Brumby recently publicly rejected VEAC's environmental water proposals for the red gum forests suggests that its apparent predilection to favour simplistic conservation outcomes may now come under greater scrutiny. Ruchel's concern over the influence of Brumby's intervention on the integrity of the VEAC process is rather hollow given the VNPA's silence on past government interventions, including the sudden shelving of VEAC's partially completed Goolengook forest investigation in late-2006 to facilitate a pre-election promise of more national parks in East Gippsland.

The future of Victoria's red gums will only be assured by measures that allow more water to be diverted for environmental flooding. These are likely to be complex instruments, integrated with the socio-economic fabric of the affected local and regional communities. Their development will not be helped by sacrificing regional economies to satisfy the unrealistic urgings of city-centric lobby groups such as the VNPA, which mistakenly view tourism as a compensatory economic cure-all for an ideology that sees no place for productive resource use and active environmental management.

(Mark Poynter is media spokesman for Institute of Foresters of Australia. This article was originally published in The Age on 15 October 2007.)

Published in The Age on 15 October 2007.

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