A remarkable impact on the environment

On October 22 2004 Bangerang elder Uncle Wally Cooper provided the catering for an RACV planting day at Lake Mokoan in Victoria – now the Winton Wetlands. The blog knows this because a remarkable man painted the scene and has included it in an illustrated pamphlet, Caring for Country: One person’s thoughts.

The pamphlet draws together the thoughts and experiences of Rob Youl – forester, Landcare activist, former National Service Officer and a consultant for re-afforestation around the world – with particular emphasis on how environmental restoration can help accelerate reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Victorians. It is illustrated by Rob’s wonderful artworks depicting both the Victorian bush and the metropolitan area.

There has been much published about indigenous land management ranging from Gary Presland’s First People to Bill Gammage’s controversial but convincing The Biggest Estate on Earth. One of the pioneers of research into indigenous plant use, Beth Gott, also published a definitive work on the subject now long out of print but currently selling – at least according to eBay – for more than $800. Surely some publisher must take the hint eventually and reprint the work.

Rob says: “We need somehow to bring together scientific systems and Indigenous knowledge accumulated over 40,000 years or more.” He proposes a number of general principles ranging through the use of IT and Google Earth, alternative energy sources, building knowledge of nature and protecting and re-introducing rare and endangered indigenous species. Appropriately for an ex-Newman College resident he regrets that Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment didn’t include a section on Australia’s Landcare program.

The argument then encompasses practical reconciliation measures such as recording Indigenous knowledge, linguistics and etymology; mapping, recording, interpreting and protecting Indigenous sites – noting in passing that the Dja Dja Wurrung and Gunaikurnai peoples have both already mapped and assessed their own country; jointly managed national parks; a GPS linked app telling you whose country you are on; following the West Australian lead of using more Indigenous names for plants and animals (“indeed many European names for flora and fauna are pretty boring” Rob says); increasing use of Indigenous names to replace “the banal names of the new communities around Melbourne. Woodlea! Atherstone! Riverdale on Plenty! Renaissance Rise! Laurimar! Bellevue!”; and, with the approval of Koories, many more bilingual signs throughout Australia.

He also discusses a variety of rural land management practices for both agricultural and public land; urban land management which would limit suburban sprawl, encourage community participation and make planning more community-centric; better coastal management; higher environmental levies on major projects; greater emphasis on Indigenous tourism; and much greater emphasis on waterways, lakeside and wetlands restoration.

Rob’s career has varied across forestry work; the Land Conservation Council; roadside conservation; urban park development; managing 268 hectares of bush for biodiversity, landscape and carbon sequestration; working with Iwi (Maori tribal groups) and Pakeha (people of European descent) on co-governance and protection of lands and sites of spiritual significance; and, a large-scale pest control program around Auckland covering more than 23,000 hectares and involving nineteen Iwi groups.

For Victorians Rob recommends two priority projects – restoring Moonee Ponds Creek to a normal working waterway (“Seoul’s urban streams provide a guide”) and getting on with the rehabilitation of the Winton Wetlands between Benalla and Glenrowan in Victoria’s north east. While his arguments centre on Victoria it is easy to see how they are applicable to every other Australian state.

Interestingly in terms of waterways, the blog was recently on the inaugural trip of the Birrarung Cruises offered by Star Class Tours. The trip went up the Maribyrnong River and one of the guides outlined how the natural flood plains around which local Indigenous groups had organised much of their life were now hemmed in by water management systems and infrastructure which were wonderful in normal times but might well lead to disaster in less normal ones. He did seem to regard the prospect of his ancestral lands, currently occupied by a variety of expensive housing developments, being inundated with a degree of wryness.

As for the Winton Wetlands it is also interesting to note that they occupy the site of the former Lake Mokoan which was once the subject of one of the most successful framing strategies the blog has seen. Lake Mokoan was an artificial lake created by damming off some wetlands. Some years ago the Victorian Government decided it was neither needed nor environmentally sensible. The public servants involved developed policy papers which described how Lake Mokoan would be ‘de-commissioned’. Clearly if this suggestion had become public all sorts of opposition might have been mounted from loss of a resource to reduced bushfire-fighting capacity.

The answer was simple – the plan was re-framed to describe the project as “returning Lake Mokoan to its natural state” – allowing the project to go ahead free of controversy and demonstrating to communicators everywhere that whoever frames the