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Conserving Victoria

15 January 2018 at 8:51 am
Wendy Williams
Victoria Marles is the CEO of Trust for Nature, one of Australia’s oldest conservation organisations. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 15 January 2018 at 8:51 am


Conserving Victoria
15 January 2018 at 8:51 am

Victoria Marles is the CEO of Trust for Nature, one of Australia’s oldest conservation organisations. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Marles, originally a lawyer by profession, joined Trust for Nature as CEO in 2009, after recognising the organisation’s work protecting biodiversity in the state of Victoria.

As the owner of a property near Wedderburn with a conservation covenant, she understood first hand the power of individuals to make a positive contribution to environmental protection, and wanted to play a bigger role.

Trust for Nature is one of Australia’s oldest conservation organisations.

It was established in 1972 through the Victorian Conservation Trust Act, and aims to protect and restore places in Victoria where wildlife and native plants can thrive.

It does this by working with private landholders, volunteers, government agencies and others with similar vision, to protect native plants and wildlife through the use of conservation covenants.

In addition to her responsibilities at Trust for Nature, Marles is also on the steering committee of the International Land Conservation Network and the Australian Business Biodiversity Initiative.

Prior to assuming this role, Marles was Victoria’s Legal Services Commissioner and CEO of the Legal Services Board.

In this week’s Changemaker she talks about how she came to be involved with Trust for Nature, the role private landowners can play in conserving Victoria’s wildlife and the importance of being innovative.

Victoria Marles

What attracted you to the not-for-profit sector?

I was attracted to Trust for Nature specifically. While I was working as a lawyer my partner and I purchased a property which had a Trust for Nature conservation covenant on it. The property is up near Wedderburn and was part of the Mallee Fowl restoration project I found it totally inspiring that we would be able to help conserve one of Australia’s unique and vulnerable bird species as a part of a large scale conservation project. That made a lot of sense to me. I wanted to do something for the environment and this was a way that I could do it.  So I was familiar with Trust for Nature before I came to work here.

What does a typical day look like for you as CEO of Trust for Nature?

A typical day for me involves a variety of engagement activities, with both external partners and internal staff and volunteers. I frequently work with my colleagues at other conservation organisations on projects and policies that we believe will make a difference to broader conservation outcomes at a national level. Internally here at Trust for Nature, we are always developing and working on projects that align with our Statewide Conservation Plan.  This plan has mapped the most important areas for conservation on private land in Victoria.  We’ve got quite a number of people who work in Melbourne and around Victoria, so a typical day might take me somewhere into regional Victoria. It is always great to meet with landowners who are protecting and managing their land for conservation and also to visit one of Trust for Nature’s own reserves which is being managed by a local committee of management.

In thinking about it now I guess a typical day doesn’t really exist for me, but the theme of engagement and partnerships generally underpins all of them.

What are the organisation’s current priorities?

We work in the area of private land conservation.  This means that our priority is the long term protection of land in Victoria which has important biodiversity conservation values. Because private land is our focus we work with private landowners to protect nature.  Ultimately what we want to do is conserve the state’s most threatened native plants and wildlife for future generations.

The trust was established by an act of Parliament in 1972 and as a result, it is one of Australia’s oldest conservation organisations. Over the years we have protected nearly a 100,000 hectares of bushland across Victoria, and we’ve done that by working with private landowners who are happy to attach conservation covenants to their land and also by acquiring land ourselves. The trust owns 44 reserves across Victoria. Collaboration is at the heart of what we do. Working with others is how we’re going to achieve the best outcomes and we’ve been doing that for 40 years. We certainly have a long track record and our challenge is to keep innovating our approach to conservation. A top priority for us continues to be our partnerships with private landholders and like-minded organisations.

As you mentioned, in 1978, Trust for Nature developed on title agreements known as conservation covenants as a way to protect native plants and wildlife. How do they work?

Conservation covenants are used to protect nature on private land. A covenant is legal on-title agreement between Trust for Nature and a landowner.  It enables a private landowner to protect nature forever, because it remains on the title regardless of the property changing hands over time. Conservation covenants are voluntary agreements and so Trust for Nature works with those landowners who are interested in protecting for the long term what they might have on their property.  

Landowners often see conservation covenants as a way of leaving a natural legacy for future generations. Across the state, private landowners are protecting threatened woodlands, wetlands and grasslands with conservation covenants and they are home to some of Victoria’s most threatened species, The helmeted honeyeater is a good example.

What is the Revolving Fund?

Trust for Nature also runs a revolving fund. The Revolving Fund is a great concept and is an innovative way of progressing conservation.  It based on using the real estate market.

When a property with high ecological significance comes onto the market, the trust might buy the property. The property is then on-sold to a new owner with a conservation covenant in place and the money from the sale goes back into the Revolving Fund so we can repeat the process. Each property which is bought and sold increases the amount of land which is permanently protected for biodiversity outcomes.  So far we have purchased 63 properties using the Revolving Fund and we’ve protected around 6,800 hectares as a direct result of this process. One of our ambitions is to significantly grow the Revolving Fund.  We would like to see a revolving fund operating at scale in Victoria.  As a conservation tool it has the potential to accelerate much needed conservation outcomes.

Because sale proceeds are continually reinvested in the purchase of more land the revolving fund is a great vehicle for keeping the money working and for magnifying conservation outcomes.

What challenges are facing your organisation?

Victoria has historically been the most cleared state in Australia.  Whilst we have benefited from this over the years in economic terms, the downside is that we have lost significant amounts of important habitat for our flora and fauna and the habitat which remains is often quite fragmented. In Victoria a lot of the best land that remains is privately owned and fragmented  So our big challenge is to protect in perpetuity what is left and in some instances re-establish what has been previously degraded or lost. It is also a challenge to raise awareness of these issues.

Recently the Victorian state government produced a biodiversity plan and it includes a target of permanently protecting an additional 200,000 hectares of privately owned land in Victoria by 2037.  This is a strong conservation target.  It is also ambitious.  The combined efforts of willing landowners and conservation organisations such as Trust for Nature will be critical to its success. We need to work with lots of partners.  In particular if there are people who have something important on their land that they want to protect, we are always very keen to hear from them. We are looking to create a conservation legacy for future generations of Victorians.  We are also looking to raise awareness of the issue.

You also chair the board of the Abbotsford Convent, what do you enjoy about that role?

The Abbotsford Convent is remarkable.  It is a multi-arts and community precinct set on 16 acres of land only 4 kilometers from the CBD.  It is really connected to nature as it has expansive and beautiful gardens and is on the banks of a bend in the Yarra River.  I believe that Melburnians will increasingly value this place – it is an natural oasis in a highly urbanised environment, and it really makes sense for me to be involved in such a wonderful urban project because of its connection to community and its connection to nature.

How do you keep motivated?

I keep motivated because of the successes we have along the way.  Ned’s Corner is a good example of this. At 30,000 ha it is the largest freehold property in Victoria and is up in north west Victoria on the Murray River and it is home to nearly 1,000 species.  The trust bought it in 2002 and since that time it has been restored and managed for conservation. All this has been done with the help of many supporters.  Many scientists and community organisations visit Ned’s Corner and since 2011 21 previously unidentified species have been found on the property.  Discoveries such as this demonstrate the value of our actions. The purchase of this land is a great gain for conservation and there is much more still to be achieved on the property.  

Finally it is easy to be motivated when you spend time with passionate landowners and other partners who are very proud of the land they are looking after and are full of enthusiasm and knowledge.  And when you work with so many donors and supporters of conservation that make it all happen.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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