Commercial tourism in The Gurdies, as proposed by the council, threatens a unique forest and its wildlife.
By Dick Wettenhall
VICTORIA’S ever dwindling native forests are important environmentally, economically and as tourist attractions. The competing interests for access to these resources are often in conflict.
A recent example of this is the Bass Coast Shire’s plan to promote commercial tourism by rezoning a small area at The Gurdies from Farming Zone to Rural Activity Zone (RAZ). The debate surrounding the rezoning process (Bass Coast Planning Scheme, Amendment C140) illustrates the difficulties faced by environmentalists in securing adequate safeguards for the protection of vulnerable native flora and fauna against commercial interests.
The proposed Gurdies RAZ comprises a cluster of privately owned properties along St Helier Road, embedded within a cluster of The Gurdies and Hurdy Gurdy Creek Nature Conservation Reserves (NCRs) and interlinking wildlife corridors. The high environmental significance for the conservation of The Gurdies nature reserves is reflected in their identification under State Legislature as two of only 45 Victorian reserves recommended for NCR status by the Land Conservation Council (LCC).
Importantly, The Gurdies and Hurdy Gurdy Creek forests were selected for reservation as NCRs because of their scientifically and environmentally important flora and fauna, including many rare, threatened and endangered species.
The Gurdies NCR is the largest remaining area of native timber and scrub-covered vegetation on the eastern shores of Western Port. The diverse vegetation comprises open forest and associated understorey, organised into several vegetation communities characteristic of the various types of terrain and, predominantly, dry low-nutrient conditions.
The relatively lush Hurdy Gurdy Creek NCR represents “an important remnant of the once more widespread vegetation communities of riparian forest and coastal forest” (LCC Review, 1994). It is also an important source of water for fauna resident in the neighbouring Gurdies NCR.
The Gurdies NCR appears unremarkable when viewed from the roadside, showing mainly stunted gum trees, sparsely distributed understorey and seemingly arid ground cover. But on entering the forest, the variety and richness of the vegetation is striking. The trees are grander, particularly in the vicinity of water courses, where the vegetation is quite lush, even riparian in character. Also striking is the richness of the intricate mosaic of ground cover, comprising a variety of mainly small plants, intertwined between layers of leaf, bark litter and decomposing wood. The “mulch” abounds with insects, small animals, fungi and microbes, all working in synergistic harmony to sustain forest health.
The nature reserve’s famous ground orchids, including the environmentally vulnerable cobra greenhood, appear seasonally in open areas. Critical to their survival are the interactions between their complex root systems and the orchid-species-specific mycorrhizal fungi, essential for nutrient storage and seed development.
The preservation of the remnant vegetation communities depends on maintaining the integrity of the supporting soil. Human disturbances often disrupt critically important soil structures incorporating hierarchical networks of microbes, invertebrates and fungi, essential to soil health, plant nutrition and interplant communications.
While the significance of native forests for conservation is generally appreciated, the importance of wildlife corridors connecting nature reserves is less well understood. These corridors are essential for maintaining the types and numbers of individual faunal species. More specifically, the corridors linking The Gurdies and Hurdy Gurdy Creek NCRs are crucial for sustaining their diverse fauna and maintaining biodiversity through intra-species genetic exchange.
Disruption of the passage of fauna through the corridors compromises gene pools and, therefore, the capacity of individual species to adapt to environmental stress (e.g. salinity and climate change) and resist diseases. Additionally, disruption leads to an imbalance in the composition of fauna within the nature reserves, which compromises ecological processes essential for maintaining faunal habitats.
Roadkill is a major cause of the disruption. It is already a serious problem in The Gurdies precinct, where wildlife corridors cross over St Helier Rd and where visibility is poor due to roadside forest cover and blind bends. Any escalation of commercial tourism in the precinct will exacerbate the problem.
Slow-moving wombats, echidnas and reptiles are extremely vulnerable. However, the unpredictability of the fast-moving kangaroos and wallabies places them at even greater risk. They move through the wildlife corridors between dusk and sunrise, in search of water in the Hurdy Gurdy Creek. The alert and highly nervous kangaroos take fright at the sight of vehicles, often leaping onto the road. Fast-moving vehicles give them little chance. Wallabies seem more cautious. However, their need to access water eventually drives them to recklessly dart across the road without regard for traffic.
The gory sight of the relentless road carnage is gut-wrenching. During one terrible week recently, two young kangaroos, a wallaby and a baby wombat were destroyed within a kilometre. Tragically, it seems only a matter of time before an often-seen echidna joins them.
The only feasible preventative measures against roadkill are more elaborate warning signs and a reduction in maximum road speed in the vicinity of corridors to 60km/h or less. But there seems no willingness by VicRoads to implement such measures.
The environmental significance overlay in the shire’s planning scheme places considerable emphasis on provisions for environmental protection. Schedule 3 of the overlay specifically identifies The Gurdies NCRs for their range of highly significant vegetation communities and faunal habitats. Given this policy, it was surprising and disappointing that the council, in adopting Amendment C140, dismissed residents’ concerns about the inevitably negative environmental impact of commercial tourism developments planned for the Gurdies RAZ in Amendment C140.
Over many years, there has been a relentless erosion of the precious Gurdies nature reserves by developments within the area; for example, expansion of rural residential zones and sand mining. Alarmingly, much of the damage to the reserves’ truly remnant ecosystems is irreversible. Without adequate environmental protection measures, the planned escalation of commercial tourism in The Gurdies precinct poses yet another threat to these precious systems.
It is hoped that the Council will agree to reconsider its decision with a view to modifying Amendment C140 to ensure the protection of our precious flora and fauna.
Dick Wettenhall lives in The Gurdies.