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Launch of the World Wide Fund For Nature report on Native Grasslands in South Australia

Speech by Senator Hill
Minister for the Environment

August 1, 1996

Thank you for inviting me to launch this report 'The temperate grasslands of South Australia: their composition and conservation status' . It is great to be here to talk about one of the less glamorous, but ecologically very significant environmental issues.

One of the key challenges this nation faces is to preserve its natural environmental capital for the benefit of our children and future generations.

My government is not just interested in the flagship issues of wilderness, world heritage and the like, but also in the 'browner' issues such as water quality, sustainable agriculture and improving the management of remnant vegetation, including grasslands, not only in reserves but also in the 95% of the landscape outside of the reserve system.

I think it would surprise Australians to know that the ecosystems that contain the most plant species and plant communities threatened with extinction are native grasslands - not our tropical forests or our eucalypt forests.

Before European settlement, there were extensive areas of native grassland and grassy woodland in Australia. Lowland native grasslands of southern and south-eastern Australia covered an area of some 3.5 million hectares. Now substantially less than 1% of this remains in good condition. In fact this report finds that in South Australia of 1.5 million hectares originally present 5,000 hectares - or 0.33% - remain.

When you consider this, and the fact that much of what remains is very fragmented, you realise just how endangered our grassland communities are. These are significant findings and highlight the need for urgent conservation.

The report has also found that 17 of the grassland areas of South Australia are potentially worthy of listing in the Register of the National Estate which will of course be considered by the Australian Heritage Commission.

The government is very supportive of the identification and conservation of native grasslands and sees the $318 million National Vegetation Initiative, under the Natural Heritage Trust, as contributing substantially to the conservation of native vegetation, including grasslands, over the next five years.

I will speak further on this initiative in a moment.

The tiny remnants identified in this report are part of our national heritage and important for that reason alone.

They are also the only benchmarks available to us on the condition of the land prior to the advent of European agricultural practices. As is abundantly evidenced by the very existence of the National Landcare Program, modern agriculture can only advance through improved stewardship of our natural resources.

Protection of remnant vegetation is essential if we are to develop any real understanding of the changes that 150 years of agriculture have brought to soil structure, nutrient levels and acidity, water tables, water quality, salt levels, and to assist us in developing strategies for the restoration of degrading natural resources.

It is worthwhile to reflect for a moment on some of the reasons why grasslands are so valuable.

Native grasslands, with their many species, contribute significantly to Australia's biodiversity. For example, seven hundred and eleven indigenous vascular plant species have been recorded in the lowland grassland communities in south eastern Australia alone.

Grasslands provide habitat for native species that depend on them for protection, food and nesting areas. They form the vital understorey of many woodland and forest ecosystems. They provide resistance against fire and drought as native species are better adapted to Australian conditions than introduced grasses. They stabilise soil on river banks and steep slopes.

Native grasslands also provide economic benefits. Their uses for pasture and landscaping are now being re-evaluated because they need little water, mowing or fertilisers. The horticultural and tourism potential of species of native grasslands has hardly been explored. For example, just one grassland remnant in Gippsland was found to contain 320,000 flowers of the Chocolate Lily, 570,000 flowers of Scaly-button and 240,000 flowers of Common Everlastings - all within one hectare. This gives us some idea of the abundance and diversity of our native grasslands.

Such strategies would certainly include the increased use of native species to improve the sustainability of Australian agriculture. There is an enormous degree of interest in the potential for native species to replace exotic pasture grasses. Many perennial native grasses produce new growth well into the dry summer months, are demonstrably more resistant to drought and are much better adapted to growing on low nutrient soils than the exotic pasture species generations of farmers were taught to prefer. Groups such as the Murray-Darling Basin Commission's Community Grasses Network and the South Australian Native Grass Resources Group are questioning the use of species which require the heavy input of fertilisers, which produce the bulk of their available biomass in spring and early summer, and which frequently need to be re-established.

The Commonwealth has initiated a range of grassland conservation projects. These projects have included surveys and ecological studies in almost every state. The National Estates Grants Program managed by the Australian Heritage Commission is an important way for the Commonwealth to provide support to conservation issues, such as grasslands, that cross state borders.

The Australian Nature Conservation Agency within my Department has also undertaken a substantial range of projects through the Grasslands Ecology Program over the last few years. The governments commitment to the Natural Heritage Trust and in particular the National Vegetation Initiative will significantly increase the work that can be undertaken within this program.

Overall the government wishes to spend an additional $1.15 billion over the next 5 years, on a comprehensive package of measures aimed at tackling the environmental and sustainable agriculture challenges facing Australia. The Trust is the centrepiece upon which this extensive package of measures depends.

It will help address what is probably the most compelling environmental challenge facing Australia - that is - turning around the relentless long term decline in the quality and extent of our native vegetation, and the loss of biodiversity that inevitably follows from this action.

As I mentioned briefly earlier, the aim of the Government's $318 million National Vegetation Initiative within the Trust is to ameliorate the land and water degradation and the loss of biodiversity associated with the reduction in native vegetation cover since European settlement.

The pace of clearing our native trees, shrubs and grasslands has increased dramatically over the past 30-40 years. It is estimated that we now have 20 billion fewer trees than 200 years ago. In the past 50 years, as much land was cleared as in the 150 years before 1945.

The National Vegetation Package will tackle the protection of remaining native vegetation and sharply raise the level of revegetation activities, aiming to ensure that by 2001, the rate of vegetation establishment will exceed the rate of vegetation clearance.

Guided by an expert Council for Sustainable Vegetation Management, we wish to allocate over five years:

Biodiversity protection must be addressed through vegetation protection and restoration both on and off conservation reserves. It is only by protecting native vegetation on private land as well as public land that the extremely diverse range of ecosystems, habitats and individual species can be secured.

It is worth noting that current community demand for Save the Bush funding is five times the level of existing resources. The National Vegetation Initiative will dramatically increase funds to community activities, building on the work of Save the Bush, One Billion Trees, Corridors of Green, and working with community networks, landcare groups and local governments. It will promote an integrated and coordinated approach across public and private land.

The Initiative will support a range of revegetation activities and develop incentives for the protection and sustainable management of remnant native vegetation, including grasslands.

The details of the individual programmes under the National Vegetation Initiative are still being developed but could include:

I would expect that the protection of significant grassland areas will be a priority of the Initiative and that this will build upon the work of projects such as this one to protect significant areas of native vegetation, and to develop much more sustainable management regimes for such areas.

I am therefore pleased that the Commonwealth Government has funded this project and I congratulate the AHC, ANCA, WWF and the author Michael Hyde on helping provide us with the information base which is critical to the conservation challenge which lies before us.

Commonwealth of Australia