Australia — THE Baillieu government has received a humiliating rebuff to its alpine cattle grazing trial, with the scientist handpicked to investigate its effect on bushfires refusing to take part.
In the latest criticism of the trial, University of Sydney forest ecologist Mark Adams – named in January as the leader of the government’s grazing research program – has told the state government he would not become involved while there were flaws in its experimental design and management.
Professor Adams said the trial needed a ”more complete” research design and should be confined to forest areas – not grasslands, where there had already been ”plenty of research” into whether grazing limited bushfire. Advertisement: Story continues below
His withdrawal further fuelled accusations that the release of about 400 cattle into the park in January, less than two months after the state election, was a purely political step to reward the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria for its support.
It comes as cattle are removed from the park in line with an order from federal Environment Minister Tony Burke that the state government should have sought his approval before launching the trial.
Professor Adams, the University of Sydney dean of agriculture, said he had agreed to be involved in the trial before it was announced, but the details and terms of the project had not been discussed.
He has not visited the grazing areas or signed a contract to run the research, and was surprised to be named in a press release as its leader.
Late yesterday the Department of Sustainability and Environment website still said he would start work on the trial later this year.
Professor Adams said he was disappointed about how his involvement in the trial had been portrayed.
”We’ve turned down involvement in what they have done so far,” he told The Age. ”I’ve offered my views as to research priorities [in a letter two weeks ago] and I’m waiting to hear back from them.”
Professor Adams said it would have been ”very helpful” if the government had spent more time designing the research before releasing cattle in the park, including how to measure the animals’ impact.
He said he believed a trial was justified, and he would be involved if a redesigned program met his terms and the project received federal approval.
Victorian National Parks Association spokesman Phil Ingamells said the rejection of the first three months of the trial by the scientist named to lead it was further evidence it had been politically motivated.
”It is just another indication that the government got this very wrong,” he said. He called for creation of an independent scientific body to look at how to reduce bushfire risk, based on the recommendations of the Black Saturday Bushfires Royal Commission.
The return of cattle to the park reversed a five-year ban introduced by the Bracks government after it received advice that grazing harmed the environment and was not significant in reducing bushfires.
Mr Burke last month said the Baillieu government had failed to answer key questions about the trial and he ordered all cattle to be removed by April 8.
The state government said they would have been removed by about then anyway – the grazing season ends on April 30 and there is plenty of feed at lower altitudes. It accused Mr Burke of grandstanding.
Environment Minister Ryan Smith last night said he understood Professor Adams was still looking forward to working on the trial in the future.
A decision on whether cattle return next grazing season, starting in October, will depend on a federal environment department assessment of whether they would have a significant impact on protected wetlands and endangered species, such as the alpine tree frog.
Mr Burke is due to speak in Box Hill tonight at a public meeting organised by groups calling for a permanent ban on national park grazing.