THE independent panel assessing Victoria’s public land spent further time talking to interest groups in the Wellsford Forest east of Bendigo this week.
Victorian Environmental Assessment Council chair Janine Haddow met with horse riders on site to discuss their specific issues in accessing public land, the status of which is under review.
Ms Haddow said ahead of handing the final report to the state government next June, hearing issues about access specific to user groups was part of the investigation process.
Ahead of this month’s state election, the review has become a heated political issue and the subject of TV ads made by the Bush User Groups United representing prospectors, trail bike riders, horse riders, bush walkers, hunters and rally drivers, and lobbying to retain full access to forests in central west Victoria.
VEAC’s draft proposal is to turn 3160 hectares of the eastern part of the Wellsford into a nature reserve, banning horse riding, prospecting, dog walking, firewood collection and hunting.
A further 3950 hectares on the western side would be added to the Bendigo regional park, restricting hunting and timber harvesting, but allowing all other uses.
Nationals Bendigo East candidate Gaelle Broad and Democratic Labour Party Northern Victorian candidate Chris McCormack have echoed the group’s concerns.
“We believe public areas should be just that, available to all the public to enjoy and we will fight against any legislation to remove rights-of-access to these areas,” Mr McCormack said this week.
The Greens have publicly supported VEAC’s draft recommendations, but have left their final submission to the commission to complete after the election.
Ms Haddow said despite the extension of the deadline for final submissions after the election, the council and the process remained independent and she was confident the needs of all users could be accommodated.
“Until recently there has been bipartsan support for this process, but it seems to be eroding a little of late,” she said.
“People are always very passionate during these processes, it is not just confined to this particular investigation.
“People love their forests, they love their public land and every investigation has a lot of contrary views.
“It is always like this and from our point of view we want it to be like this, we want to hear from people.
“I don’t think it is a closed process.”