Friends of Grasslands
supporting native grassy ecosystems
PO Box 440
Macquarie ACT 2614
Mr. Andrew Barr MLA,
GPO Box 1020
Canberra ACT 2601
Dear Chief Minister
Friends of Grasslands Budget Submission
We refer to your letter dated 9th February to former Friends of Grasslands President, Geoffrey Robertson, seeking our perspectives and priorities for the ACT 2021-22 Budget. We offer the following perspectives and recommendations and we would like the opportunity to discuss these with appropriate members of the government.
Canberra as a “City in the Landscape”
As you are aware, the Standing Committee on Environment and Transport and City Services released its “Inquiry into Nature in our City Report” in February 2020. Its recommendations, promoting the “Concept of a City in the Landscape”, totally accord with our Vision for Canberra which we have been developing since our inception in 1994.
We start from the premise that Canberra has been built on natural grasslands, fringed by yellow box red gum grassy woodlands, and largely capped on our hills and ridges by dry sclerophyll forest. Lower in the landscape are rivers and the creeks and drainage lines that feed them. Our long-standing vision is to restore our indigenous vegetation communities along major corridors (such as major road and water courses), linking our rich biodiversity nodes (our reserves and remnant vegetation patches). Canberra wildflowers could make spectacular flower displays in spring and early summer at the entrances to Canberra and major arterial roads. Many obvious benefits would flow: residents and visitors would be encouraged to embrace nature; the connection between First Nations People and Nature could be underscored; we could begin to reverse biodiversity loss; we could create in Canberra a biodiversity industry with numerous research, innovation, investment and job opportunities; it would add to Canberra’s tourism attractions; and it would build on Canberra’s reputation as a national and international leader in addressing biodiversity loss and climate change.
Within our community (governments, universities, business, rural lessees, surrounding NSW farmers and volunteer conservation organisations) we have the knowledge of the structure and function of our remnant vegetation and the skills to restore it. However, that knowledge remains somewhat fragmented and we have lacked the vision, strategy and critical investment mass to realise the concept of a city in the landscape.
To create this city, we believe we need the following components:
- A long-term plan to restore the indigenous grasslands, woodlands, riparian vegetation across the city along major road and corridors and in large open spaces, especially linking our biodiversity nodes. The initial emphasis should be to create the ground storey layer and to restore and link our grasslands;
- A plan to supply seed for up to 200 native grass and wildflower species as part of a revegetation program - including a major seed orchard and local seed suppliers;
- A plan that identifies and maps corridors (linking remnant nodes) to be revegetated;
- An overall plan to upgrade biodiversity nodes, improving or restoring vegetation structure and reducing weed load;
- A strategy and plan to create a steady supply of quality seed at reasonable prices and industry seed quality standards;
- A strategy to develop specialist teams with a high level of skills in bush regeneration, regenerative farming and land rehydration, biomass management (through fire, grazing, supplementary watering, and mowing), feral animal control, weed management and other threat abatement);
- The creation of a unit that will acquire appropriate equipment (e.g. seed harvesting, sowing, soil removal) that can also be made available or rented to business and individuals to participate in the scheme;
- A public awareness program (also targeting schools) and incentives to promote Canberra as a garden city focused on biodiversity in our residential, commercial, institutional and school gardens;
- A program of incentives (e.g. subsidies, subsidised loans, free plants, brochures, assistance in preparing garden plans, seminars and uTube) to encourage creation of biodiversity gardens;
- A greater recognition of the link between Nature and First Nation People and adoption of their traditional land management practices;
- The identification of research projects that could investigate many aspects of plant families, seed production, sowing and growing, and habitat requirements for plant, fauna and other species;
- A plan that recognises and consults existing not-for-profit and volunteer conservation groups (Catchment, Park Care, Landcare & TCCS Groups) to facilitate their input and ongoing involvement in the program;
- Promotion of conservation volunteering as an opportunity to care for nature, learn skills, acquire formal training and certification and meet social obligation. This should appeal to students to meet assignment requirements; to unemployed to learn skills and meet social obligations (with Commonwealth Government agreement), and others wanting to get closer to nature, develop skills and socialize; and finally and most importantly.
The other major element is the creation of a specialist unit within government that is responsible to play a leading and active role to establish the revegetation program, including meeting the dot points above - it is important that people with the right type of skills are recruited and that a reference group is established to guide and monitor the work of the specialist team. Amongst the services it offers, we believe the team should be able to advise areas of government, learning institutions, rural leasees and landowners and community groups about the alternative approaches to conservation land management, where to apply for funding, seed and so on. For example, within government, the knowledge of conservation management by land managers is variable, covering a spectrum from extremely knowledgeable to non existent. FOG is often requested to provide advice on these matters (which we do our best to do). We believe that the unit should be semi autonomous with its own career structure, however, we are not prescriptive about this.
We have prepared this submission with the assistance of Associate Professor John Morgan (La Trobe University), possibly Australia’s leading grassland researcher and visionary, and Dr. Paul Gibson Roy, the innovator of the “scrape and sow” method of grassland restoration under whose supervision many hundreds of hectares have been established as high functioning and diverse grasslands. Both gentlemen are happy to provide additional advice and input.
What is said in this submission has a heavy emphasis on grasslands. It is equally applicable to other vegetation communities. However, we consider the grasslands need more attention as they are the most disconnected of our vegetation communities. Many other issues also need to be considered as part of this plan, especially older trees, trees with hollows, habitat for threatened species, and so on.
An example of a highly effective, respected, tech savvy, and influential specialist unit within the ACT government is the ACT Weeds Unit. We envisage that the proposed specialist unit would perform similarly, working with researchers, private and government land managers, growers and volunteers.
The specialist unit would eventually impact on reserve management and current practices such as mowing. In fact, by helping to coordinate biodiversity programs and activities such as mowing, there may be suitable savings.
In the first year of operation, priorities would be: establishing the specialist unit, mapping existing remnants and potential connectivity, consultation with stakeholders, devising clever incentives, negotiating future contracts, and establishing a seed orchard. Extensive surveying of local businesses and landholders (including backyard operators) about current plans and opportunities to produce seeds would be an important preliminary step. Ordering, or designing, seed collection, sowing and other equipment (for use or hire) would also be a priority.
We estimate that the creation of a specialist unit and the other elements above would require an investment of about $1m in the first year or two and $3-4m, annually afterwards. However, we would like your assistance with the costings. We suggest that the project be funded for five to ten years and reviewed after that.
We consider that the investment by the ACT government would be a modest one. Another possible source of funding would be “biodiversity offsets”. Yet another might be from private sources, including larger businesses which might see opportunities to invest in seed production in Canberra.
While we believe this may be a modest investment by government, it could have far reaching consequences, providing a framework and coherence, leadership, and drawing together many innovations taking place in grassy ecosystem management, restoration and evaluation. Currently, many of the recommendations outlined above are being trialed but without a sufficient critical mass to sustain them. To succeed, this initiative requires your full support as Chief Minister to promote it as an important government initiative within government, industry and the community, and to ensure that visionary, skilled and “can do” staff are employed. Staff should be aware of the importance of the project and proceed with haste but not speed.
The ACT is fortunate in having both reserves and remnant vegetation patches of high quality Natural Temperate Grassland (NTG) and Box Gum Grassy Woodland (BGGW). The restoration and regeneration activities for these nodes that form part of the “City in the Landscape” concept need to be complemented by other actions to enhance their long term survival. For example, of all of the NTG sites in the ACT, only 33% are protected in ACT government reserves. A further 24% are on Commonwealth land, but the remaining 41% do not have any protection for conservation values. With a little more investment by government, the specialist semi-autonomous unit mentioned above could identify many of our nature strips, verges and open spaces occupied by native grassland (with forb species present), implement strategies to improve their protection, develop more sympathetic mowing regimes, while also targeting more effectively the transformer weeds that surround them. An added benefit to such an approach is that many of the native grasses, being summer-growing, are not as big a fire risk as many exotics.
Natural resource manage plan
The ACT government is currently developing its next natural resource management plan. We would like the government to underscore its commitment to future natural resource management by stating its intention to adopt the recommendations in this submission as part of the natural resource management plan.
Franklin Grasslands Reserve
As you are no doubt aware, FOG has made a strong commitment to Franklin Grassland which is now part of Canberra Nature Park. Your Chief Minister’s Grant of $1,000 some years ago contributed to the development of the Franklin Grassland Concept Plan which received wide support. In late 2019 and early 2020, FOG was involved in discussions with government staff about the offset plan being developed for the reserve and separately the landscape plan for the reserve. In 2020, FOG established a Park Care Group and held fifteen work parties. The volunteers attending those work parties contributed 166 hours in 2020. So far volunteers have been familiarizing themselves with the site, learning plant identification and weeding techniques, attending weed and first aid training, establishing a nursery to replant wallaby grasses, and working closely with ACT government staff. Four work parties have been held for far in 2021. On Saturday 13 March, Suzanne Orr MLA organised a clean up day at the reserve attended by thirty people. We greatly appreciate her efforts in support of the reserve.
We believe that the next budget should commit to a clearly established implementation plan that incorporates the landscape and offset plans. Having been an important ACT Government focus in 2020 – creating Franklin Grasslands as a reserve and part of Canberra Nature Park, releasing the draft landscape plan, and raising community expectations – we consider that momentum on these initiatives, slowed by COVID 19, should be renewed. FOG would like to be involved in planning the implementation plan, especially to ensure that our submission on the landscape plan to ESPDD on 24 September 2020 is carefully considered. We also understand that an important item of expenditure is the treatment and removal of the soil dump at the south end of the reserve. This needs quick resolution.
Since 2009, FOG has organised work parties at Hall Cemetery in partnership with the ACT Public Cemeteries Authority. Initially work parties removed vegetation that has threatened the endangered Tarengo leek orchid and, more recently, has weeded the woodland areas. FOG organised four work parties in 2020, involving 29 people and 120 hours. One work party had to be rescheduled due to COVID restrictions. Work parties are being conducted in 2021. In addition, there were many solo work parties, under COVID 19 restriction, to control the amazing burst of weeds. At Hall Cemetery, there were 107 solo efforts that contributed 472 hours.
In addition, additional government assistance proved particularly welcome, including your Chief Minister’s grant of $1,800 which was spent on professional sprayers, the ACT NRM program on Box-Gum Woodlands which contributed $1000 towards some costs of weed control, and Jobs for Canberra which provided assistance on three occasions - this is explained in more detail in our annual report. FOG greatly appreciates this assistance.
In next year’s budget we would like to seek more resources from government to assist us in getting on top of the weeds; and to create a mown pathway through the woodland (including some signage) that would provide an opportunity for people to visit the site and to facilitate access by volunteers.
Support for the not-for-profit sector
In 2020, FOG received an Environment Grant of $20,856 for work on TCCS land at Blue Gum Point. We greatly appreciate receiving this grant as recognition of the work our volunteers undertake, and as an opportunity to restore this important area of natural grassland and grassy woodland on the south side of Lake Burley Griffin. For 2021-22 we note that the Government has advertised ACT Environment and Nature in the City Grants worth $300,000. We consider that these are very important elements in the Government biodiversity restoration. However, we consider the quantum should be increased as there is a growing number of skilled organisations and volunteers seeking these funds and the investment of such monies is more than justified by the effectiveness of these grants, the opportunity to increase volunteer effort and the public awareness created by work done under the grant program.
Professor Jamie Pittock
President, Friends of Grasslands
11 May 2021