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An extensive stretch of public and private land along the Merri Creek corridor in Melbourne’s outer north will be handed back to the Wurundjeri and Woi-wurrung people to be managed as a new park.
More than half of the land designated to be returned to Indigenous management will need to be acquired by the state government, which has committed to the project as part of its $315 million suburban parks program.
A section of the future marram baba Merri Creek regional parkland, which will be handed back to traditional owners to manage.Credit: Jason South
The sprawling parkland, to be named marram baba Merri Creek, will be 2778 hectares, more than 16 times larger than Royal Park.
It will follow the course of Merri Creek for more than 34 kilometres, from the urban fringe suburbs of Beveridge and Kalkallo to the industrial estates of Campbellfield, ending where the creek flows beneath the M80 Ring Road.
It will include several areas of critically endangered grasslands that must be protected under federal environmental laws.
An agreement by nine agencies that manage public land within the future park’s boundaries to return the land to traditional owners is expected to be confirmed within days, The Age has been told.
The agencies – which include three outer-north councils, two state government authorities and two water corporations – have agreed to act as transitional land managers until the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung people are “provided with the capacity and resources to take on the land manager role”, a final plan for marram baba says.
Fifty-seven per cent of the future park is privately owned – across a mix of urban growth and rural-zoned land – and will need to be progressively acquired until the park’s completion in 2050.
By then, it is expected that the traditional owners will be in full control of the parklands.
It would be the largest return of land to Aboriginal custodianship within Greater Melbourne.
“Returning the land known as marram baba to the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung community is a long-term goal in parkland planning and development,” the plan says.
“Prior to land being returned to the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung community, land managers must manage the land in a way that respects Country until such time that the WWCHAC [Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation] has capacity to take on the land management role.”
The process of handing the land back has already begun. Late last year, the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action compulsorily acquired a 39-hectare site in Epping after its owner listed it for sale.
The land, which was listed as a commercial opportunity despite having an environmental overlay on it, was handed to traditional owners to manage following its acquisition in October.
The parklands will have a network of trails and recreation areas, but some sections will be restricted and serve as a haven for critically endangered plants and animals.
The park will also be used for Indigenous land management and cultural practices, including cultural burns, archaeological work and private ceremonies.
Advocates for the park welcomed the plan but said it would fail unless the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation was given secure ongoing funding.
They called for greater protection for critically endangered species that live in the park’s boundaries, saying that, without urgent action, the area’s conservation values would degrade well before the park vision was realised.
The land acquisition is tied to the progressive future development of new suburbs on Melbourne’s northern fringe and will take decades.
Volunteer group The Friends of Merri Creek has been involved in developing the parklands plan.
Friends of Merri Creek volunteers Nicole Lowe, Monica Williamson, Peter Ewer and Anne McGregor in a significant grassland in Campbellfield that will be included in the parkland.Credit: Jason South
The group’s vice-president, Ann McGregor, said the expected release of the final plan this month would give the project certainty. But she warned that the vulnerable grasslands ecosystem the park was intended to protect would remain under threat while it was in the hands of a patchwork of private owners.
“The long-term nature of the land transfers means that people in nearby new suburbs not only won’t get their parkland, but the ecological and cultural values will be degrading without active conservation management,” McGregor said.
Native plants and animals in the creek corridor were under relentless attack from invasive weeds, cats and foxes, with little to no environmental protection in most privately held parcels, she said.
In a submission to the Department of Energy and Environment, the Victorian National Parks Association said it had great concerns about the conservation values of the land within the park boundaries, given the current lack of protection.
Large tracts of the future parkland remain zoned for urban growth “and entirely unprotected by any appropriate conservation zoning”, despite being home to endangered species, such as the golden sun moth, striped legless lizard, growling grass frog and Australian bittern, it said.
“This represents a failure by government to take the conservation values of this grassland seriously, despite its inclusion in the proposed parklands,” the association’s Jordan Crook and Adrian Marshall wrote.
According to the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action, the parklands will continue to grow over the coming years as land is acquired.
Two smaller parks, at Jacksons Creek in Sunbury and Cardinia Creek in Clyde, will be handed back to traditional owners under the same management model.
The Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation was contacted for comment.
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