Saving old trees in farming landscapes

Environmental Justice Australia, on behalf of local citizens, recently won a VCAT review to set aside a decision to clear 34 Black Box trees (Eucalyptus largiflorens) in Kaniva, far west Victoria. The application to review the planning permit was based on issues associated with impacts on the amenity and biodiversity values of the native vegetation, the site and surrounding area. 

The site in question is a farm paddock adjacent to the township. Like many farms in the district there are mature old trees, approximately 120, remnant of the woodlands that once covered the whole area. Several of the trees proposed to be cleared have hollows that can provide nesting habitats for fauna, including the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo. The permit successfully set aside, allowed for the clearing of approximately 25% of the scattered trees to facilitate easier and more efficient access of agricultural machinery for cropping.

EJA submitted that the trees proposed to be removed had not been adequately assessed by the authorities prior to a permit being granted, that the removal of the trees would be a loss to biodiversity and habitat as well as landscape character and amenity of the area. We noted that the local planning scheme, recently introduced, contained reasonably strong and proactive safeguards for local biodiversity. Further, it was noted that as extensive cropping already exists in the area, the main basis for the trees removal essentially boiled down to convenience.

The council’s original decision largely fell over due to significant procedural shortcomings, in particular the grounding of their decision on inadequate assessment of the trees proposed for removal. The assessment used by Council to make its decision to grant a permit derived from online mapping and modelling typically used for such decisions.  The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) similarly advised the Council based on the same information sources. In fact, as the Tribunal member found, that digital information was incomplete and inaccurate: notably, a number of trees proposed for removal did contain potentially important habitat and one was incorrectly described. The Council and DELWP’s approach, inconsistent with the policy guiding decision-making, inhibited their ability to effectively determine what significance the trees may have on habitat and biodiversity values at the site.

This win for the local Kaniva community emphasizes the need for proper site based ecological assessments. It highlights a number of other important issues around rules regulating the management of native vegetation:

  • There are circumstances in which local councils and DELWP need to be held accountable for the quality of the impact assessments they rely on and their use and interpretation of guidelines for decision-making;
  • Councils in rural areas in particular are likely to be under-resourced in terms of making quite specialist planning decisions such as the one in this case;
  • This case also highlights significant shortcomings in relying solely on digital mapping to make permit decisions – an issue EJA has been campaigning on since the current native vegetation clearing rules were first proposed.
  • The crucial role of local community members and/or organisations using legal and administrative avenues to protect local environments and achieve public interest outcomes.
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