New native vegetation clearing laws: retreat from ambition, facilitating clearing, enabling markets

In 2013, the Victorian Government signaled its intention to overhaul the policy and laws relating to the clearing of native vegetation in the State. The EDO and VNPA embarked on roadshow to talk with communities about the proposed changes, in particular the prospect of new laws contributing to higher rates of clearing and increased loss of habitat overall.

The Government’s announced changes in May this year represent no significant point of departure from its earlier Consultation Paper. The changes will come into effect in September. We have prepared a more detailed briefing paper on the incoming changes here.

The general approach, in principle and in effect, is to

  • limit the scope of controls over clearing,
  • focus the ecological outcomes of policy and regulation on maintenance and improvement of (‘strategic’) rare or threatened species habitat, and
  • facilitate market mechanisms for trade in rights to clear and obligations to offset losses from clearing.

This overall approach will be achieved in a number of ways.

First, the goal and objectives of restrictions on clearing native vegetation will no longer be as broad or encompassing as it has been over the last decade. Under the (previous) Native Vegetation Management Framework, clearing controls were aimed at a ‘net gain’ in quality and extent of native vegetation across the landscape, with a view to improving the habitat values, land protection (eg erosion and salinity control, water quality)  and social and cultural benefits of native vegetation. The formal purpose of the restrictions is now biodiversity protection alone and rare and threatened species habitat protection in particular.

The environmental and landscape ambitions of native vegetation rules are significantly narrowed.

Second, assessment and decision-making will now occur via ‘risk-based pathways’.  There will be low-, moderate- and high-risk categories of assessment and approval. Risk ‘pathways’ for applications will be determined by reference to digital mapping supplied by the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI).

The low-risk category is expected to account for the vast majority of applications. Locations identified as containing ‘low-risk’ habitat represent the large majority of all areas containing native vegetation on DEPI’s reference maps.

Rules applying to low-risk applications generally allow clearing, subject to offset requirements. In general terms, areas identified as of moderate- or high-risk require minimisation of clearing prior to any provision to offset losses.

No requirement to avoid clearing arises, at least under decision-making guidelines.

So clearing will be the order of the day, subject to obligations to offset. Offsets can be achieved in the same land to be cleared or elsewhere. Those wishing to clear native vegetation can engage someone else to meet the offset obligations. Hence, with more clearing permitted, there is greater scope for a trade (market) in offset obligations, driven by compliance with permits.

A more ‘functional’ market in native vegetation offsets is one of the key, practical objectives of the new arrangements, which is intended to help drive down the cost of offsets.

Clearing will be easier and, it is anticipated, cheaper. While offsets are to be directed into areas of rare and threatened species habitat, this will likely come at the expense of cumulative losses and impacts elsewhere. The new rules will likely contribute to a broad retreat in conservation outcomes. Some local habitat will be ‘collateral damage’ in the risk assessment process, the narrowing of ambitions and the facilitation of markets for ‘ecosystem services.’

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