The Yarra River that runs north-east from Melbourne has conservation-oriented parkland adjacent to it even in areas quite close to the city. The area provideas a continuous green link to vast reserve areas in the Yarra Ranges north of Melbourne. This afternoon I visited the Banyule billabong, a wetland conservation zone, in the midst of an concentrated urban setting.
It was a sunny Melbourne afternoon. Bike-riders and joggers carried out their masochistic rituals along the Yarra Trail while I got a Leica telescope and my son William and sedately looked at the water-birds at the billabong. I’ve done this so many hundreds of times before it scarcely deserves a mention but 3 things occurred to me.
1. These wetlands are socially useful purely through their role in reducing the nitrogen load in our waterways – in Melbourne, in particular, in Port Phillip Bay. Melbourne Water is encouraging their development throughout the Melbourne area. Even ignoring conservation values of the type I hold, conserving these wetlands, in highly-valued urban lands, make a lot of utilitarian environmental sense even if their opportunity value in terms of foregone urban and commercial development is high. They improve urban water quality and provide urban environmental services to residents proximate to them including many people who demand their services.
2. Numbers visiting and using these conservation areas are non-negligible – using economics jargon there is substantial ‘willingness-to-pay’ for such zones. It is somewhat unscientific but, in the single hour I was there, I encountered 2 people photographing birds in the vicinity of the wetland – they were photographing yellow-tailed back cockatoos in the eucalypts behind the wetlands as we arrived; also two people with fieldguide books in hand were trying to identify bird and plant species around the billabong plus there was a local with binoculars who joined my son and I scanning for birdlike in the billabong. We ‘bird-nerds’ and ‘greenie conservationalist types’ are no longer such an eccentric ‘weirdo group’. A PhD student in economics could do a ‘contingent-valuation’ study but my casual empiricism suggests the demand for conservation outputs is high.
3. The birdlife we saw on the billabong this afternoon was astounding for an inner urban area. I counted a dozen migratory Latham’s snipe on the mud-banks on the far side of the billabong, 2 Buff-banded rail, a Black-fronted dotterel, 2 Black-winged stilts etc etc. I was delighted that son William picked out a Mistletoe bird in the trees behind us at the wetland. Long-term I hope he will inherit my interests, conservationist ethics and pleasure in enjoying the natural environment.
The Banyule Council is one of the most environmentally enlightened in Melbourne. It has provided a fantastic conservation resource for its rate-payers. The scheme could be replicated in most parts of Australia where some undeveloped land exists.
Provision of such wetlands in valuable urban setttings makes good sense from the viewpoint of reflecting community demands for conserved environments and also from the purely utilitarian perspective of fostering general community environmental health.