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Scientists fight freeway to save rare grasslands

by Claire Miller
Environmental Reporter

Victoria's leading experts on the state's most endangered ecosystem are appealing to the State Government to drop plans to build a freeway through remnants of the system along the Merri Creek at Craigieburn.

The 16 scientists from universities, consultancies and local government felt they could no longer stay silent in the face of government inaction to protect western basalt plains grasslands in Melbourne's north and west.

They believe grasslands flora and fauna are under threat of extinction from the plan to build the F2 freeway - which will duplicate the Hume Highway.

A spokesman for the scientists, Colin Hocking, the senior lecturer in conservation biology at Victoria University, said development already had destroyed 80 per cent of remnants mapped over the past 10 years, while governments at the same time were claiming they were committed to their conservation.

The grasslands once covered 21,000 square kilometres of western Victoria's volcanic plains. Only 200,000 hectares remain, with less than 2000 hectares protected in reserves.

Grasslands have gradually been destroyed since white settlement by cropping, fertilisers and exotic pasture grasses. Remnants closer to the city have been overtaken by factories, housing and roads.

Many plants and animals in the grasslands ecosystem are nationally endangered, such as striped legless lizards and lined earless dragons.

Dr Hocking said scientists did not want to see any more go the way of the once-profuse small golden moths orchid. The flower became extinct two years ago when the government failed to enforce a critical habitat determination order, allowing a warehouse to be built over its last haven in Laverton.

``Where does the designation of national significance or threatened come in?'' asked Dr Hocking. ``Scientists are saying this is serious ... this classification is put on because the species are that close to extinction.

``They are saying that if certain processes are continued, the species will become extinct ...

``A lot of scientists who have done studies in these areas have seen them go into filing cabinets and be largely ignored. There doesn't seem to be any effective way of getting protection ... but Craigieburn is an example where we can make a difference. I think it has got to the point where people are saying we have had enough.

'' In their submission to the government, the scientists say all four variations of the freeway development on offer will damage the Craigieburn, Craigieburn East and Cooper Street grassland reserves.

The submission says the reserves are among the largest remaining in Melbourne's small and threatened mosaic of grasslands, and their importance cannot be overstated.

The freeway would fragment them and earthworks would leave them vulnerable to weed invasion.

The survival of wetland plants, such as the critically endangered curly sedge, would be in doubt due to polluted run-off from the freeway and changes in the hydrology of the landscape, the submission says.

It goes on to say, ``However, all the talk in the world is of no consequence, if in the future we have squandered an opportunity to save these fragments of an ecosystem near extinction.

'' The government claims the F2 freeway, which will duplicate the Hume Highway, is necessary to ease congestion and provide a more direct route to the Western Ring Road.

Asked if Environment and Conservation Minister Sherryl Garbutt would order a critical habitat study, a spokesman said protecting threatened flora and fauna would be a key consideration for government, but the freeway was the responsibility of Planning Minister John Thwaites.

While Mr Thwaites has called for comment on four routes he says are aimed at protecting grasslands, experts fear the worst if the project goes ahead.

The Age Publication


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