A decade and nearly $20 million after it was launched, the Winton Wetlands is as dry as a chip. Billed as the largest wetland restoration project in the Southern Hemisphere, even the most casual observer would struggle to equate any notion of success with the parched landscape.
Lake Mokoan, a failed and wasteful water storage but very popular recreation and hunting destination, was decommissioned in 2004.
In its place emerged the opportunity to rehabilitate the landscape and recreate a natural wonder that would attract community interest, volunteer effort and most of all, a flood of visitors who would generate significant economic value to the local economy.
Positioned just off the Hume Hwy, the Winton Wetlands should be achieving all those things, but it isn’t.
Prior to the construction of Lake Mokoan in 1971, the Winton Wetlands was a series of interconnected redgum and open cane grass wetlands covering more than 3000 ha.
It was traditionally hunted, and hunting remained a feature of local activity until the decommissioning.
Surprisingly, given the track record of hunters in conserving and rehabilitating Victorian wetlands, there was no invitation to take part in the new Winton Wetlands project.
The rehabilitation of this massive area (87050 ha including woodland) and its promotion as a natural wetland attraction has been impacted severely by two things: the inability to secure environmental water and exceptionally long dry periods.
When the Wetlands fill it is a sight to see, but since the project began it has been mostly dry, and a wetland without water is about as attractive a proposition as a pub with no beer.
Field & Game member Simon Webster asked the question, could we help?
After a lot of research and conversations locally it was clear we could, but would the Winton Wetlands Committee of Management entertain the idea?
The answer was yes, and CEO Dean O’Hara and Simon were given the opportunity to present to the committee.
What FGA put forward was an opportunity to tap into our knowledge, experience, and volunteer base to drive environmental outcomes on site. We also wanted a limited, trial reintroduction of duck hunting on parts of the wetland.
This would have been small and managed depending on the ecology of the wetland.
We were happy to advocate for much needed environmental water so the wetting and drying cycle could be managed and introduce partners willing to invest in wetland conservation projects.
Above all, we sought an opportunity for hunter conservationists to reengage with an important wetland in the north-east of the state. Benalla Rural City Council and Wangaratta Rural City Council supported a limited trial, based on a desire to generate greater community involvement and economic activity.
The 2014 book Winton Swamp to Winton Wetland by Jenny Indian and Stephen Routledge is sold at the visitors’ centre and café. It acknowledges the significant economic value generated from recreational activities on the wetland, with hunting and fishing the largest two contributors.
Ultimately, the pitch was rejected, with the committee advising that while interesting and enlightening, the decision was to focus on the economic, social, educational and research opportunities and a trial of hunting was “not a priority”.
Hunters won’t be back on the Winton Wetlands in the immediate future, but they will be keeping a close eye on this important wetland complex.
The aim was for the project to be self-sustainable in 10 years, but it is generating only a fraction of the funds needed to sustain current operations.
Some decent rainfall would help both the ecology and the economics of Winton Wetlands but the real question is whether this test of the eco-tourism model will ever deliver the benefits that were delivered when hunters and fishers enjoyed access.