Cathy Merchant, Member, National Parks Association of NSW
The mosaic network of 10,415 Travelling Stock Reserves (TSRs) covering over 2 million hectares across central and western NSW was initially included in the review scope of the independent process set up by NSW government in 2012 to reform Crown land management. At that stage over 50% of the network was under Aboriginal land claim under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983.
The independent review report recommended that Local Land Services (LLS) review the TSRs network to determine their future use and management, and the TSR network was excluded from the White Paper exhibited publicly in late 2015.
However, amongst the over 600 submissions forwarded to the White Paper, it became clear that the network was of interest and importance to a wide range of users, interest groups and the public. Government acknowledged the environmental, cultural and social values and the connectivity of TSRs as significant attributes that should be considered as part of the review and further consideration be given to who is best placed to manage TSRs.
As part of these considerations almost $5 million was allocated to undertake assessment of the conservation value of individual TSRs and stock watering places directly under LLS management. This represented about 500,000 hectares with the majority of the network managed by holders of Western Lands Leases, and largely unfenced. The conservation project was managed in two stages by the Environmental Trust, in co-ordination with a number of agencies.
Firstly a data compilation of previous TSR environmental assessments was undertaken to determine the extent of past assessment. This determined that around 75% of TSR under LLS management had had some sort of environmental assessment of values. Of these, 98% were considered to have medium (27%) and high (71%) conservation value, based on the condition of their vegetation.
Conservation status and landscape context were not included at this stage of the project. The next stage of the project developed a Rapid Assessment Method which included conservation status information. This was used to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the whole network including the previous 25% of TSRs which had never been assessed.
Outcomes of Review
There was an expectation in the Stage 1 report that if conservation status had been included as part of the assessment, those TSR considered to have a “medium” rating would rise to “high” due to the presence of Endangered Ecological Communities and threatened species and/or important connectivity and landscape values. Clearly TSRs have significant conservation values and critical function as refuge areas as our native flora and fauna responds and adapts to a changing climate.
Frustratingly, for those concerned to see the TSR network protected and properly managed to protect its significant conservation values, the results of the second stage have not been made publicly available. Some limited information is available on the SEED portal.
A separate Lands Department review recommended that 99% of the existing TSRs remain under LLS management. This review considered both current use of individual TSRs for travelling stock and their conservation values. The 1% of the network considered surplus to need were isolated reserves often in towns.
The current state of TSRs
During the period of the environmental assessment project TSRs were not available for permit, often due to extreme drought conditions. The recent rain in some regional areas has facilitated good regrowth of native species and improved habitat corridor.
Despite the documented significant conservation values of the TSR network it is under threat of further degradation and fragmentation with the recent announcement by LLS that applications for Management Agreement Permits are open. Currently Northern Tablelands, North West, Riverina, South East and Central West LLS are closed and Western, Hunter, Murray, North Coast and Central West “coming soon”.
Whether the management agreements will take account of the most recent comprehensive assessment of conservation values is unclear. The main supporting document to the permits, the state-wide Plan of Management, is generic and the Regional TSR Plans incomplete. While the conservation assessment project was a positive step forward it is arguable whether the LLS administrative structure has the capacity to be an effective manager of the state’s fragile and threatened ecosystems.