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Speech: Native Vegetation (Revegetation Projects Register) Amendment Bill

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:21): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I rise to speak on this very simple but, I believe, important legislation that would establish a Revegetation Projects Register in our state. This is a vital step for conservation, and I hope that it stands as the very first step towards this parliament tackling the many serious gaps we have in our biodiversity legislation. On that, I do note the pledges of the incoming Malinauskas government made during the election campaign but echoed last night at the Environment Awards by the Premier himself.

To quote David Freudenberger in his study on the effectiveness of revegetation in South Australia, 'the past 30 years of restoration activities in Australia has been mere cautious fiddling in the face of continental-wide native habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation'. We need to be much more ambitious in the size and scope of revegetation projects in South Australia, and we need to keep track on whether or not they are improving local environmental outcomes.

One of the greatest threats to biodiversity in our state is past and ongoing clearing of native vegetation. Native vegetation provides essential habitat for our wildlife, filters water and keeps erosion and salinity in check. Well planned revegetation delivers many important benefits. It conserves, buffers and enriches native plant communities and wildlife habitat. Native plantings reduce the risk of wind erosion and improve livestock welfare and productivity through greater access to shade and shelter. We have a great deal to gain from re-establishing native vegetation throughout our state.

But unfortunately we cannot know the full story of revegetation in South Australia. We do not know how effective it has been. We do not know, long term, which ecosystems are doing better than they were, because governments have consistently failed to invest in long-term monitoring of revegetation.

Further, the scale of restoration activities has not met the scale of the monumental task ahead of us if we are to properly restore even a fraction of our native ecosystems. Existing revegetation projects provide many ecosystem services and benefits, but the quantity is insufficient. Past governments have done a great job of encouraging revegetation with native species, but the rhetoric has not been matched by the necessary investment, monitoring or management. A patchwork approach with little connectivity between projects and existing remnant vegetation has been the norm for far too long, which means that we have failed to maximise ecological function when restoring native vegetation.

A Revegetation Projects Register would allow for more regional coordination of revegetation projects to suggest more ecologically useful approaches. It is an excellent tool to allow us to maximise the area of existing native habitat or restored fragments, joining isolated islands of habitat to increase connectivity, and create more efficient projects by combining otherwise independent proponents—e.g. adjacent landholders.

Successful revegetation relies on proper planning and preparation to produce the best results. Most revegetation projects in South Australia are not specifically linked to particular conservation outcomes. This needs to change, and having proper oversight over revegetation projects in our state is an essential part of that process. The proposed legislation before us envisions a Revegetation Projects Register that is operated by the Native Vegetation Council for the recording, management and prioritisation of revegetation projects throughout the state.

For the first time we could have an accurate record on the following of any revegetation project in South Australia:

the proponent of the project;

the area that is or will be revegetated;

a list of species planted in the area described;

the number of individual plants of each species listed;

the manner and extent of any monitoring of the project that is or will be arranged;

the cost of the project; and

any other information that could be prescribed by regulations.

The register would be required to be publicly available online, and this could mean that anyone—particularly policymakers and researchers—could access and get a much more holistic picture of the state of revegetation and revegetated habitats in our state.

The aim of this would be to enhance collaboration between persons and bodies that are involved or interested in revegetation projects throughout the state. That could include statutory bodies, departments, councils, developers and NGOs, local communities and landowners, but beyond that it would also ensure that we take a long-term view on and an approach to conservation and revegetation projects in our state. This would ensure that their benefits are long lasting and actually deliver environmental benefits into the future.

I must also acknowledge that where protected and revegetated areas have increased, the capacity to manage those areas has not. It is not the best use of time and resources to undertake mass plantings and revegetation projects if they are then left unmanaged, unmonitored and unsupported to become properly established. The legislation would ensure that the Native Vegetation Council is properly resourced. Not only would this create and maintain this register but also enable them to carry out the rest of their duties.

If we are to get serious about revegetation in this state, and not just about conserving but actually improving our precious environment, this piece of legislation is a simple but necessary step. The areas of remaining habitat that we have can only support a certain number of species and, with native vegetation clearing still being approved at quite alarming rates, future species lost without active management and revegetation programs is inevitable. But our current ad hoc, haphazard approach to revegetation will not be good enough to address this problem.

For revegetation to recreate habitat lost through clearance it needs long-term planning, monitoring and maintenance. We need to stop treating revegetation projects as a box-ticking exercise for projects, either for offsets or as a replacement for native vegetation that has been lost to clearance. You cannot replace lost vegetation overnight, and of course a sapling planted will not provide the same ecological functions as a decades-old tree that it replaces. It will take many years—many decades sometimes—for that ecological gap to be filled, if it ever is.

Revegetated landscapes and those with remnant native vegetation do not necessarily offer the same benefits. That does not mean that revegetation projects are not worth it, but it does mean that we should be aware of their functions and what it takes for them to be successful. For example, revegetation often favours birds that forage in shrubby areas. In contrast, species that depend on older trees are less likely to be found in revegetated landscapes. This again demonstrates that we cannot use revegetation projects as blanket solutions to vegetation clearing.

A revegetation register will help us track the extent to which this is happening. I could go on, and my staff member certainly would like me to. I am sure that those in the conservation community will welcome this bill, but quite honestly it is a very simple idea whose time has come. We desperately need this to fix our approach to revegetation in our state and to improve biodiversity more broadly.

The environment sector has been crying out for years for improvements to our laws such as this, and there are certainly flaws in particular in our Native Vegetation Act. We have an opportunity here with this very small, simple bill to take that step—to start gathering evidence, collaborating on revegetation projects in our state and ensuring that we are improving their environmental outcomes.

I hope this can lead to a better, more informed discussion about improving biodiversity in our state, in particular on our approach to managing native vegetation habitats and ecosystems. I look forward to the further conversations on the area of biodiversity to come, and indeed far more complex legislation to come, but with that I commend this bill.

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