THE final hearing for the Inquiry into Ecosystem Decline in Victoria focused on the Gippsland region.

The Legislative Council’s Environment and Planning Committee has been conducting the inquiry since May 2020, examining measures to restore habitats and populations of threatened and endangered species.

Under the terms of reference, issues bring considered included:

• The extent of the decline of Victoria’s biodiversity and the likely impact on people, particularly First Peoples and ecosystems.

• The adequacy of legislative framework protecting Victoria’s environment and ecosystems, particularly in the context of climate change impacts.

• The adequacy and effectiveness of government programs.

• Opportunities to restore the environment while upholding First Peoples’ connection to Country.

The committee heard from more than 100 witnesses and received nearly 950 written submissions, including from Gerard Drew, executive member of the South Gippsland Conservation Society, who presented in the final hearing.

“Some of the members seemed to take serious consideration and listen to the recommendations of the witnesses,” Mr Drew said.

Mr Drew targeted sand mining during his presentation, which is extremely prevalent in the Bass Coast region.

“It’s a very broad subject, so I wanted to focus on something tangible. I don’t have a deep history in the region, but I don’t think [the sand mining companies] do anything to benefit the community,” he said.

Mr Drew focused on sand mining throughout the Western Port woodlands, which he said posed a threat to the environment and overall health of the ecosystem.

Mr Drew reported in his presentation that sand mining was mostly private land tenure, with poor observation records.

He said threats are cumulative from each incremental quarry, arguing sites are assessed one by one, providing “convenient diffusion of threats” by each applicant.

Mr Drew said mining is generally subject to the Native Vegetation Removal regulations, but sand mining is exempt in the planning scheme that is administered by the Earth Resources Regulations, arguing this was a conflict of interest.

And long-term environment protection may conflict with generalised economic development or short-term political imperatives, he added.

Vegetation offsets can help compensate for loss created by sand mining, however, Mr Drew said these transactions are designed to boost liquidity and are lacklustre solutions.

“If we don’t do something, our environment will get trashed by the government’s ‘Big Build’ agenda,” he said.

As a solution, Mr Drew suggested prioritising the long-term protection of the ecosystem, removing conflict of interest from decision making, ensuring adequate funding to bring effective laws in place, and building a culture of compliance.

An overhaul of offset culture would help save the biodiversity across Bass Coast Shire, he said.

The report is expected to be tabled by November this year.