Ecologists see dangers in poor mapping of Victorian native vegetation

The petrolhead haven of Calder Park is normally dominated by drag racing and hot rods. But if state government mapping is to be believed, then the race track’s infield is also the unlikely home for rare native plants.

Over in Greensborough, the Yandell Reserve supports orchids known as Silurian striped greenhoods and is a breeding ground for the endangered Eltham copper butterfly. Yet the same maps record nothing of note.

These are some of the errors conservationists and scientists say are peppered through Victoria’s native vegetation maps, set to become the backbone of clearing laws under Napthine government changes.

Conservationists fear this will see rare native flora wrongly removed because under the changes vegetation less than a hectare in size, and mapped as low risk, will no longer need an on-ground survey before it is cleared.

More than 100 leading ecologists and scientists, and a further 70 conservation groups, are now demanding the state government drop the changes, which are yet to come into effect. In a statement to be released on Sunday they say the new regime significantly weakens the protection for species habitat, threatening Victoria’s biodiversity. ”Additionally, it compromises the value of native vegetation for landscape stability and amenity,” the statement says.

The government says it is modernising the system and cutting ”green tape”. A spokeswoman for Environment Minister Ryan Smith said the maps were developed so landholders could easily access information, apply for a clearing permit and avoid the need for a costly consultant.

The spokeswoman said the maps were based on the best available data and would be updated after a year in operation.

Victoria is Australia’s most cleared state. Two-thirds of its original plants and tree cover are now gone and what remains continues to decline.

In a report, the Indigenous Flora and Fauna Association says it has found 50 sites of endangered vegetation wrongly mapped as low risk, including areas in Altona, Bulleen and Castlemaine. Association president Brian Bainbridge said the sites did not take long to find and are hardly a comprehensive list. Vegetation experts are also finding unlikely sites considered at high risk of losing rare vegetation if cleared. Calder Park is one, buildings at Melbourne Airport are another.

”Anybody looking at the mapping will find factories and other things being showed as high value. It is quite funny, but it is also a huge alarm bell,” Mr Bainbridge said.

Melbourne University ecologist Dr Yung En Chee – who signed the statement – said there are also concerns about the removal of an overall goal for a net gain in the extent and quality of native vegetation. The vegetation laws will now aim for no loss to the contribution of vegetation to biodiversity, which Dr Chee says is legitimate, but much more difficult to measure.

She also says the way the new clearing system has been designed will leave native vegetation vulnerable to being ”chipped away at”, undermining the target. ”As an ecologist, I value native vegetation for itself, but it also provides a huge range of ecosystem services, things like erosion control, nutrient cycling, salinity management and water purification. And it provides habitat for all the wildlife we like and enjoy,” she said.

Tom Arup Environment editor, The Age

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