The charter sets out a list of six points. Here is some of the background discussion that led to these points.
Its not a simple matter of 'trees or human lives'.
Victoria rates as the most cleared state in the country, with only a third of its natural areas remaining and a total of 5 per cent of original vegetation left on private land. Much of this is in poor condition. Victoria already has more threatened species than any other state for its size. Indeed we are facing an extinction crisis.
"The declining health of Victoria's land and biodiversity is symptomatic of the range of challenges hindering our efforts to improve the environment… There is increasing evidence and consensus that the world is facing a biodiversity crisis. The first Millenium Ecosystem Assessment Report unambiguously showed that humans have changed ecosystems over the past 50 years in a way unprecedented in any other period of human history… In 2007, the United Nations Environment Program again highlighted the crisis in Biodiversity. In its fourth Global Environment Outlook report it warned that we are either on the cusp of or have already entered a period of mass extinction the like of which has not been seen since the demise of the dinosaurs.”
There is always a risk associated with living with the bush. This risk needs to be managed by a number of things including landscape planning, science based prescribed burns and educating people to take responsibility for their own safety. Clearing all vegetation near houses can be counter-productive. Some vegetation is less flammable than a house and can help protect assets and lives. No amount of planning and education can guarantee safety though, and at some stage we need to decide whether we can live with the risk of fire.
This is not a choice between human life and trees/vegetation. This is recognising that humans and the natural environment can co-exist, and have done so in bushland settings in Victoria for a long time.
The time for simplistic analysis and sensationalism has well and truly passed. The safety of human and natural communities will depend on a scientific understanding of fire behaviour and the effectiveness of fire protection measures rather than on public policy based on an well intentioned but misinformed opinion.
"We believe that one of the prime reasons why there are calls from sections of the community for simplistic and unachievable fuel reduction programs, is that there is a lack of understanding in the community of the complexities of fire management, and the complexities in managing ecological systems generally."
The existing planning rules have been misrepresented, as they do allow residents of bushland areas to undertake many of the fire prevention activities they want to. But a permit must be applied for. Some people are under the impression that because a permit is required the activity is not allowed - this is far from the case. After all, the word permit means 'to allow'. There are many factors to take into account when managing vegetation on private land, the permitting process ensures that this happens and that no one else's interests are undermined by an individual's actions.
A one size fits all approach does not differentiate between more urbanised areas and larger rural land holdings. It does not consider what the impact might be for communities that are more densely settled. What happens when the houses are between 10-24m of each other? In the worst case, the new 10/30 rule says 'remove everything'. The 10/30 rule treats all areas, from Macedon to Anglesea as if they were exactly the same.
Vegetation removal on private property for bushfire risk management is usually guided by local planning provisions set by the state government. These take into consideration the specific and often unique character of each site, including aspect, slope and vegetation types. Many in the community simply do not have an understanding of how all these factors interact on their own property, let alone across a mountainside. Planning controls allow for the cumulative impact of individual actions to be factored into a decision, for example, if there is a level of landslip risk in an area, then it may not be what a person does on their own property that will effect their level of risk but rather it is what their neighbours upslope does. These upslope neighbours may clear land that they judge to be in their best interests but then may have undermined the safety of those down the hill from them. This is one of the main reasons that we have a planning system, not to frustrate personal action but to ensure that the bigger picture is factored into small decisions so that we don't have unintended consequence that infringe on other peoples best interests. The scenario where we don't have a process to consider how individual decisions affect broader issues is commonly known as 'the tragedy of the commons'.
In many areas in Victoria local and state governments have allowed a significant amount of development to occur. In these areas there are both houses and cleared land, however much of this cannot be seen from a distance, or from a roadside. Both houses and cleared land often finish at roadsides that have vegetation on them, or are on properties that have a number of tall trees on them which gives the appearance of a forested area from a distance. This is one of the wonderful things about the these areas. People can live in a semi-rural environment and enjoy all that that brings without feeling like they are in the suburbs, even though they may have a house either side of them within 10 metres of their own.
Clearing of trees and vegetation in these areas will destroy the illusion of a treed area, make houses visible from the road and neighbouring houses, and houses that are nestled into the mountain will be seen from major roads and thoroughfares.
Roadsides vegetation has great environmental significance. Roadside vegetation in some parts of Victoria are the only examples of continuous vegetation left. Roadside vegetation provides linear connections for wildlife, retains old vegetation, and are places of great beauty. In some areas roadside vegetation is the only remnant vegetation left, so to destroy these would be devastating in more ways than one.
There is a misconception about the role roadside vegetation plays in a fire. Fires generally do not start on roadsides, rather fires burn onto roadsides from adjoining grassland on private land, or from public land on to the roadside. Roadsides can slow the rate of progress of a fire and act to limit ember attack. Roads cannot act as fire breaks, and the clearing of roadside vegetation may actually assist in the fast movement of a fire.
It is true that once a fire is burning in roadside vegetation that can lead to trees falling and blocking the road which can prevent traffic from getting through. Rather than cut the trees from roadsides and destroy the vegetation on a roadside, this should highlight the importance of leaving early, and not leaving your house by car where you can get caught by a fire. It would be impossible and ludicrous to cut down every tree on a roadside that has the potential of falling over a road in a fire, just to take that risk away. Even the removal of all fine fuels and vegetation at the base of trees along roadsides would not guarantee that the fire would not travel in to the trees and therefore fall over the road.
Native vegetation provides major tourism and other economic benefits and its widespread removal will detrimentally affect the Victorian economy and in many locations increase the dangers and costs to residents from land slip and erosion. Trees have major economic benefits. For example, the trees of the Dandenongs have helped make the ranges Victoria’s second most important location for tourism. Trees make money for a wide range of businesses catering to visitors.
Large areas of the Dandenongs are subject to land slip. Without trees to stabilize land, many hillsides covered by houses will become unstable.
Houses burn down in areas devoid of trees. Under certain conditions, grassland fires are fast and dangerous – it was a grass fire which burnt Upper Beaconsfield to the ground on Ash Wednesday. Houses themselves become fuel as shown by the devastating 2002 Canberra fires and the Black Saturday fire which burnt down 500 houses in Bendigo to within one kilometre of the town centre. Trees and vegetation are known to reduce the wind speed and hence slow the fire and can trap or limit ember attack.
Current Victorian planning schemes include provisions for fire protection work that include lopping or removal of vegetation that overhangs dwellings and the removal of fine fuels and 50 per cent of shrubs within 30 metres of a dwelling. Tree removal is controlled by a planning regulations which vary between areas. These regulations have been maintained for a long time and have adequately balanced the need for fire prevention, protection of life and property, and the protection of conservation value of our natural environment. Without them, regions like Mt Macedon, Eltham, the Yarra Valley, the Dandenong Ranges and the Mornington Peninsula would not retain the vegetation cover or economy they have today.