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Australasian Plant Conservation (formerly Danthonia)

Originally published in Danthonia 9(2), September 2000

Conserving Threatened Plants and Communities in Victoria: The Protected Area Network

Paul Foreman, Conservation Manager, Trust for Nature, Victoria

Today there is growing recognition that plant conservation requires an integrated approach, involving public agencies, private landholders and the wider community. The days of giving responsibility for plant conservation to just one organisation or agency are gone; the issue is far too big and complex. In this article I describe how the Protected Area Network concept is being applied in Victoria to protect vital habitat for threatened species and vegetation communities across tenures.

The nationally endangered subshrub, Dwarf Kerrawang (Rulingia prostrata Maiden & Betche) is one species which stands to benefit from this approach. R. prostrata is endemic to south-eastern Australia where it is only known from a handful of small populations in Victoria's far east and in NSW, clustering around Newcastle, Penrose and Jindabyne. It is a very seriously threatened species that has been pushed to the brink largely by habitat loss. It is a peculiar taxon of the predominantly tropical and subtropical Sterculiaceae, and in Victoria it grows primarily as a creeping prostrate shrub on the margins of ephemeral temperate wetlands dominated by Lepidosperma spp. Whilst there are about a dozen records for R. prostrata in Victoria, some experts believe there now may only be as few as three extant populations (David Cameron, pers. comm.). The region where it now occurs has been so severely fragmented that landscape level ecological processes have substantially broken down - changes that have already resulted in the extinction of many species and some of the worst outbreaks of dieback in the state. If we are not careful, and this damage is not repaired, threatened species like R. prostrata will be 'next in line' for extinction.

The Perry River Protected Area Network

The Perry River runs through the centre of the Gippsland Plains of east Victoria. This region is the heartland of the Victorian R. prostrata populations and Victorian endangered Red Gum Grassy Woodland habitat that was once widespread across these plains. Trust for Nature (TfN) has a vision of establishing a network of protected land surrounding the Perry River between Stratford and Bairnsdale. TfN is a non-profit and independent conservation organisation whose mission is "to ensure that all significant natural areas in private ownership in Victoria are conserved". The aim of Protected Area Networks (PANs) is to protect, enhance and restore existing remnants (rather than revegetation), over large tracts of land, strategically linking new with old reserves and establishing a consistent and agreed regime of conservation management across tenure. In this instance, the key mechanisms for affecting change are land purchase and TfN conservation covenants (described below). Over 500 hectares of the best remnants have been purchased and retained by TfN. These will be managed with the assistance of a specially formed management committee consisting of local interested landholders and facilitated and run by TfN.

Although initially, the intent of the PAN project was to help protect the Red Gum Grassy Woodlands, it is now clear that many associated threatened species such as R. prostrata will also benefit. For example, TfN has recently obtained funding through the National Reserve System, brokered by TfN Regional Coordinator Robyn Edwards, to purchase some areas of land in the Perry River region on which two previously unknown R. prostrata populations have since been found. Given the size of these new reserves it is possible more populations will be found with further searching. Along with land purchase, TfN has also been working hard to broker permanent protection on private land via its unique Conservation Covenants. Covenants are agreements with landholders which are placed on land title to ensure long-term conservation and have been so successful that other states are looking to establish similar programs based on the Victorian model. Landholders with Conservation Covenants receive management advice through TfN's stewardship program; regional staff revisit each site at least every three years, and in between people can participate in management field days and workshops, and receive information through bulletins. Stewardship is a very important part of the work, because it demonstrates TfN's long term commitment to each covenanted block.

One of the key implications of the Perry River PAN, and indeed other successful models around the country, such as the Grassy White Box Woodland Conservation Management Network (see Danthonia Vol. 8, no. 2, September 1999) across the inland slopes of NSW, is that a more lateral view of reservation systems is required to effect landscape scale change in order to deliver real biodiversity conservation. The Grassy White Box Woodland CMN really leads the way in illustrating what can be achieved in fragmented landscapes over vast scales. This project now has its own coordinator and newsletter to help keep the diverse group of stakeholders focused and informed, and is very much where TfN sees its PAN heading. The recent land purchase is obviously a positive development for R. prostrata, but its longer-term conservation is still by no means secured. The next step will be to understand its ecology. For example, it is currently not clear whether R. prostrata's reproductive strategy is linked to the ecology of these tertiary Marine swamps, or whether it is only hanging on in least optimal conditions under the protection afforded by unpalatable perennial sedges. Marshalling the collective know-how and resources of PAN participants to facilitate such ecological research, as well as to implement recommended management, is one of the most powerful and exciting features of this strategy. Clearly a considerable amount of water must flow under the bridge before this vision is realised, but the Trust is taking the first tentative steps in establishing PANs all over Victoria for a range of ecological communities, especially grasslands, grassy woodlands and associated habitats.

Please contact Trust For Nature if you are interested in getting involved in establishing and growing your local Victorian PAN or would like further information: Ph: (03) 9670 9933 or freecall 1800 999 933 or visit the Trust for Nature website

Thanks to David Cameron of NRE and Arthur Chapman of Environment Australia for details on R. prostrata, and Robyn Edwards for background information.