Photo: Walpole North Road. Credit: E.Wajon
The Roadside Vegetation Sub-committee have been busy over the past two years and this report details their activities funded by a Mary Bremner Bequest grant.
Wildflower Society of Western Australia’s (WSWA) Roadside Vegetation sub-committee was awarded $12,000 on 30 November 2017 for a project entitled “Strategic Response to Clearing Applications”. This funding was to be used to employ a suitable person for up to one day per week to prepare submissions and appeals under the guidance of the Sub-Committee. This was to allow more effective responses to Clearing Permit proposals as well as freeing Sub-Committee members to undertake other strategic actions to conserve roadside vegetation, such as arranging and attending meetings with Government Ministers and Departments, Local Governments and proponents.
The period of the Grant was from 1 January 2018 to 31 December 2019, but because of delays in establishing the administration arrangements, was not formally commenced till March 2018, and a Project Officer was not appointed till July 2018, following interviews with 3 candidates.
Two Project Officers were employed during the term of the grant, the first Project officer resigning when the scope of the position proved to be much more demanding and time –consuming than the incumbent realised. The Project Officers and their official (paid) terms of service were as follows:
- Ms Heather Waugh: 27 July 2018 – 29 January 2019
- Dr Graham Zemunik: 5 March 2019 – 23 January 2020
PROGRESS AND SUCCESSES
During the 18 month period of operation of the Grant, the WSWA prepared 42 submissions and 21 appeals on proposals to clear roadside vegetation for the purposes of upgrading or widening roads. Because of the time lag between preparing submissions and appeals, it is not possible to say how many of these did not proceed, but over the last 3 years of operation of the Roadside Vegetation sub-committee, only 8 proposals have either been refused or withdrawn. However, in a large number of cases, there have been changes to the proposal as made initially by the applicant, or there have been additional or strengthened conditions placed on the proposal by the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER).
Whether this has been due, solely or partly, through the efforts of the Roadside Vegetation sub-committee and Roadside Vegetation Project Officer is not clear. However, informally, the Director General and senior executive staff at DWER have acknowledged and commented that the WSWA has made a significant difference and impact on the way DWER undertakes Clearing Permit assessments. Some of these changes have been as follows:
- proponents now need to provide evidence of options to avoid and minimise native vegetation clearing that they have considered, though many still do not. This has resulted in both DWER and some proponents re-considering the area requiring to be cleared, either up-front, or subsequent to DWER questions or WSWA submission.
- many Clearing Permit applications have reduced the size of the area proposed to be cleared subsequent to our submission
- several Clearing Permit applications have been withdrawn or allowed to lapse, probably at least in part because of environmental requirements.
- one instance of unlawful clearing which Roadside Vegetation sub-committee reported has been penalised with a Vegetation Conservation Notice requiring no further clearing and establishment of 10 Carnaby’s Cockatoo nest boxes.
- to mitigate potential impacts to Black Cockatoo breeding habitat, conditions have been placed on some Clearing Permits preventing the removal of tree species that have a diameter of 200 millimetres or more at breast height, and/or any vegetation within 10m of such habitat trees, subsequent to our submission.
- proponents are increasing the steepness of the batters from 4:1 to 3:1.
- proponents are installing safety barriers to minimise clearing.
- proponents are considering pruning instead of clearing.
- one proponent withdrew an application to clear an area along a road because of WSWA request that trees containing hollows should be retained, require hollows to be relocated to an area of native vegetation or be replaced by artificial hollows.
The Roadside Vegetation sub-committee and the Roadside Vegetation Project Officer now meet the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) twice per year, at the Director General of the DWER’s request. At these meetings, WSWA has raised the following issues:
- improvement to the Clearing Regulations
- EP Act amendments
- Native Vegetation Policy
- alleged unlawful clearing
- Compliance and Enforcement Policy
- representation on the DWER/WALGA Working Group
- System Stewardship and associated proposals
- Wildflower Friendliness Rating Scheme
- Strategic clearing assessment
- scientific evidence base for determination of “insignificant environmental impact’
- Clearing Permit exemptions
- clearing in the Wheatbelt and Swan Coastal Plain
- Wheatbelt Strategic Freight Network and Revitalising Agricultural Freight Strategy strategic assessment and clearing approval
- revegetation and offsets, including along roadsides, and status of offsets fund
- surveys done by applicants for clearing permits
- annual review of vegetation coverage in wheatbelt and south-west
- health impacts of clearing
This is what the Director General has said about these meetings:
“I would like to thank you and the members of the Roadside Vegetation Sub-committee of the Wildflower Society for taking the time to meet with me and other Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) staff on 19 February 2019.”
The Roadside Vegetation sub-committee and the Roadside Vegetation Project Officer have an excellent relationship with the Appeals Convenor. The Roadside Vegetation sub-committee and the Roadside Vegetation Project Officer have met personally with the Appeals Convenor to discuss at least 20 appeals. These meetings have resulted in significant transfer of knowledge from the WSWA to the Appeals Convenor, some of which has reached the notice of the Minister for Environment. For the first time to our knowledge and certainly in our experience, the Appeals Convenor has met appellants either at their remote location (eg Walpole) or on-site to discuss their appeal. Further, for the first time, the Appeals Convenor has met with the appellant and the applicant together on site to discus the appeal.
One of these occasions was a meeting between the WSWA, the Appeals Convenor and the proponent/applicant, the Shire of Gingin, who proposed to upgrade Orange Springs Road as part of the Agricultural Freight Network Strategy. The WSWA made a submission and submitted an appeal on this project because it was proposing to clear areas of a TEC and containing Priority plants. However, after meeting the proponent and the Appeals Convenor on site, having detailed discussions with the proponent about their design, and inspecting the proposed clearing line, the WSWA withdrew its appeal. Further, the WSWA and the Shire of Gingin jointly released a Media Release announcing this decision, and complimenting the Shire on its efforts to minimise environmental impacts. In this example, the Shire of Gingin’s approach was to avoid or minimise the amount of clearing as much as possible, while providing the required safety, by widening the seal and sealing the shoulders, lowering the road profile, and dispensing with table drains. This was a result of using engineering experience and judgement to achieve a win-win. This outcome was not without issues, including pressure from Councillors and others to comply entirely with AustRoads guidelines in the interest of safety and liability, and the cost of the engineering design, but demonstrates that clearing can be avoided and minimised while still meeting purported safety requirements.
The Roadside Vegetation sub-committee and the Roadside Vegetation Project Officer have met with a large number of senior Government and Agency personnel to discuss roadside vegetation issues. In addition, the Roadside Vegetation sub-committee and the Roadside Vegetation Project Officer have prepared, or assisted the whole of the WSWA to prepare, submissions on a number of major government enquires and consultations. This includes the following:
- Clearing Permit fees
- Compliance and enforcement policy
- Native vegetation policy
- Wheatbelt Strategic Freight Network
- Revitalising Agricultural Region Freight Strategy
- Road Safety Strategy
The Roadside Vegetation sub-committee has had very useful meetings with the Road Safety Commission in which, rather than fearing we would have to lobby very strongly and un-successfully for the retention of roadside trees, it felt like the Commissioner was singing from our song sheet. In other words, the Road Safety Commission does not believe that trees along roadsides are the be-all and end-all of safety considerations along roads. Rather, they believe that Main Roads WA (the only agency with whom they are involved) should be looking outside the box and considering other avenues to make roads safer e.g. road safety barriers, wider medians (without necessarily widening road pavements and clearing vegetation). The Road Safety Commission also believes other agencies need to become involved to address the major developing reasons for increased road accidents – fatigue and distraction. The Road Safety Commission also believe there are grounds for reducing, rather than increasing, speed limits, particularly on non-major thoroughfares. Indeed, at the meeting, they did express an interest in getting the Wildflower Society to help them lobby for reduced speed limits, though this has not progressed further since. As a consequence of this, the Roadside Vegetation sub-committee was well-informed when preparing its submission on the WA Road Safety Strategy.
The most successful engagement was perhaps with the Minister for Tourism who requested WSWA prepare a Wildflower Friendliness Rating Scheme for country Local Government Authorities (LGAs). In my opinion, this is the best initiative, and the most government support we have had, for roadside vegetation protection in the last 20 or more years.
Six entries from 101 LGAs were received in 2019, with 1 (Shire of Merredin), qualifying for a 3 star rating. Although this was disappointing, it did flush out some entrenched views which confirmed long-held suspicions about the opposition to roadside vegetation protection in favour of road safety, which are likely to be useful in preparing strategies to addressing these attitudes.
The Minister and the Minister’s Office supported this Scheme very strongly, despite disparaging comments and criticisms from some LGAs, sending out a Media Release promoting the Scheme. This Scheme was launched at the time of the ANPSA National Conference in Albany in September 2019, and as fortune would have it, a reporter in the audience heard about it and interviewed the Chair of the Roadside Vegetation sub-committee twice to talk about different aspects of roadside vegetation clearing and protection.
The employment of the paid Roadside Vegetation Project Officers has made a tremendous contribution to the outputs and success of the efforts of the Roadside Vegetation sub-committee. Without their contribution, the number of submissions and appeals on Clearing Permit applications, on proposals to upgrade roads and on government position papers, as well as meetings with proponents and government agencies, would have been much fewer and of a lower standard with a reduced diversity of issues and recommendations raised with respect to preserving roadside native vegetation.
In summary, the activities of the Roadside Vegetation sub-committee and the Roadside Vegetation Project Officer do not appear to have stopped many projects that have reached the stage of becoming public, and in most cases do not appear to have substantially reduced the amount of clearing that might otherwise have occurred. However, it is impossible to be aware of those proposals that might not have proceeded because of the advocacy of the Roadside Vegetation sub-committee.
Overall, it does appear that the Roadside Vegetation sub-committee has been successful in reducing native vegetation clearing in at least some cases, and has changed the attitudes and approaches of some government agencies and proponents with respect to valuing and conserving native vegetation. This would not have been possible without the hard work and efforts of the Roadside Vegetation Project Officers.
Chair, Roadside Vegetation sub-committee
23 March 2020
Roadside Vegetation Committee site meeting at Orange Springs Road. Credit: E.Wajon