National Parks Amendment (Prohibiting Cattle Grazing) Bill 2015

April 15, 2015

Second reading

I rise to oppose the National Parks Amendment (Prohibiting Cattle Grazing) Bill 2015.

I do so because I believe it is the right thing to do.

The amendment proposed to the legislation is wrong in that it takes away a discretion from the minister, from the department and from people who know and can make decisions at certain times in history as to what is best.

I dislike and feel very uncomfortable with the notion that that discretion is totally removed.

It is good for ministers to be able to hold onto some level of discretion to make the right decisions at the right time.

The Barmah National Park falls squarely in my electorate. It is a beautiful river red gum forest, but it has changed dramatically since European settlement. I had the great privilege of being involved in the Yorta Yorta case — the first native title case in Australia after the passing of the commonwealth Native Title Act 1993. For a great many days the evidence given in that case was given in the Barmah forest, in the lower Goulburn River area and along the Murray River. Clearly in the time before white settlement those forests were open parklands with beautiful huge red gum trees. As white settlement took over the timber industry became a dominant force in the red gum forests. The trees were cut down and used for the development of rail throughout the country, up and down the east coast, and for a lot of other infrastructure works. So the forest we see there now is not the forest that was there when the Yorta Yorta and Bangerang people roamed freely along the banks of the Murray River. It is an entirely different system.

Since I was elected I have had many people come to me with concerns about the Barmah forest and many of those concerns relate to what could only be described as poor management. Arising out of that poor management are things like the huge fire risk people see as existing there. People like Peter Newman, whose farm adjoins the forest. He tells me that on hot days he is extremely worried, along with many other people in that local district, about what would happen if a fire started either in that forest or in the Milawa forest on the other side of the river. If a north wind blows, if it is 45 degrees — and let us face it, just about every summer we now have those sorts of days — it could be a disaster for the forest.

I do not choose to rely on a lot of scientific evidence, but there are some very basic facts about the red gum, and I would like to read briefly what happens to a red gum in a fire. I refer to a CSIRO document entitled Water for a Healthy Country that speaks of red gum being:

… very fire sensitive and even low intensity fires may cause cambial injury … Fire kills regeneration and even mature trees are susceptible if the fire is intense enough …

We now have a situation there, and I spent Good Friday afternoon and Easter Monday morning in the Barmah forest — at different ends of the forest — being shown by local people what their concerns are.

I was able to observe that on Barmah Island, which is a heavily used camping area and not a part of the park, most of the firewood is dispersed, there is not much of it and there is not a lot of undergrowth. If there were a fire, it would probably be easily put out. From time to time campfires get away and are easily put out. But as you drive further into the forest and into the national park it is a very different picture. There is tall grass everywhere and saffron thistles and saplings growing at all different heights. There are younger trees that are perhaps 10 centimetres in diameter and slightly bigger ones. In amongst them you have the beautiful old habitat trees that remain — they are the home of the superb parrot and many other species that have been much studied.

The forest is no longer what it was. The way it is now, and the way I saw it last week, it is a great fire risk. I can see what the locals are concerned about. This is exacerbated by the lack of management within that forest. The tracks used to enter that national park area have deep ruts in them that would make it impossible for a normal two-wheel drive vehicle to make its way to the river. You would need to be in a four-wheel drive to enter that part of the national park because of the very poor quality of the tracks. It is obvious they have not been graded for quite a long time.

In addition to that, people who are involved in the fire brigade pointed out to me that the firebreaks that are generally graded through the forest have not been graded for a very long time and that there are trees growing in areas that would normally allow entry for the Country Fire Authority (CFA) trucks. It is quite apparent that a fire truck, fully loaded with water, would not be able to make its way to a fire in the forest simply because of the poorly kept roads and fire tracks.

The local people in the area raise many other issues in relation to the forest. They are concerned about their firewood collection rights being stopped on 30 June. They worry about the risk of flood, which could happen at any time given the history of that area. The flood levies have not been maintained for a long time; they have holes in them and trees growing in them, and they are not likely to be able to restrain the sort of flood that often happens in that area. The local people worry about the removal of the brumbies, of which locals say there are only 150. It is believed that young men going to the First World War left their horses behind with the forester who was looking after the stockyards in that area. When many of those men did not come back, the horses were set free, and their descendants now roam the forest.

Many issues worry the locals, but fire has to be the greatest of them. There are times when decisions have to be made and things have to be done which may not seem to be ideal. I would like to read from the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council's report entitled River Red Gum Forests Investigation, which was tabled in Parliament in 2008. It was really that report that led to the establishment of the national parks. Many of its recommendations were adopted and are still in place in relation to national parks. In relation to grazing the report noted that:

Grazing for ecological management purposes is unlikely to be required very often and when it is, the framework under which it is managed would be different from the current general approach. That is, domestic stock grazing should only occur to address a specific, explicitly stated problem and with grazing-specific management planning and research …

The recommendation of the council was to allow for targeted grazing in the forests as a management tool to address particular environmental or management problems, such as controlling particular weed infestations and maintaining a specific grassy habitat structure. It was envisaged that some grazing might still take place. It is for that reason I say discretion should be maintained. There will be times when it will perhaps be appropriate for cattle to be put into parts of that particular red gum forest to manage it. Looking at what is happening now and the lack of proper management, and understanding the intense fire risk that exists there — which could ultimately wipe out that beautiful red gum forest — I oppose the bill because it withdraws a discretion that should remain.

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