Pete Crowcroft announces his arrival at the spot where Spring Creek meets Torquay’s back beach with a bird call. His name badge – “Possum Pete” – sits among a bunch of nature pins peppered all over his hat. “A trained biologist, I studied possums,” he explains. He’s very on brand. “Don’t underestimate the value of an alliterative nickname.”
Crowcroft is best described as an all-round naturalist, and is presently knocking over a thesis about storytelling and science communication. But his day job is with the Great Ocean Road Coast and Parks Authority. He started out on the conservation team, in the field planting and clearing, “and then we sort of developed this education program where the kids do that for me instead”.
Now, Crowcroft tells stories to these kids for a living. “Over a lifetime I’ve built an interest in biodiversity stuff. Communicating that effectively in a two-hour session to teenagers to distil a bit of inspiration is what I try to do.”
Crowcroft’s latest story is about the estuary he’s standing on now. He’s been engaged by climate-change action organisation Surf Coast Energy Group to map the biodiversity of Spring Creek. This waterway, on Victoria’s Surf Coast, has become a lightning rod for a town consumed by the ever-growing grid of houses stretching from the once tiny coastal town of Torquay all the way to the regional hub of Geelong.
Every second bumper bar across the Surf Coast Shire has a purple “Hands Off Spring Creek” sticker on it. It’s not just the creek that’s in question; more specifically, it’s a reassuring roll of green hills with pine trees sloping down their spines, known as Spring Creek Valley.
The question is, quite literally, where to draw the line on urban development. And the answer, according to this campaign, is straight down the ribbon of Duffields Road.
The Spring Creek Valley west of Duffields Road is bordered by the urban fringes of Torquay, Jan Juc and Bellbrae, and is owned by a handful of landowners – most of whom, but not all, are keen to sell to developers. (The original proposal for a planning subdivision included up to 1700 homes.) The contested area isn’t exactly pristine bushland – much of it has been cleared – but the Protect Spring Creek campaign is armed with arguments against dotting the horizon with houses, with a few threatened species up its sleeve including the Bellarine yellow gum, the southern brown bandicoot, the growling grass frog and the eastern great egret.
Crowcroft, however, is most excited about the moths. He started obsessively collecting new species in lockdown – “Not much sleep during that period” – and marvels at the fact that it’s still possible, even now, to discover things. There’s “potentially so many new species. Be a shame to lose one of these last areas of refuge on the coast here.”
During the Victorian government’s public consultation on finalising the Surf Coast’s new “distinctive areas and landscapes” plan, 3163 public submissions were received. Of these, 94 per cent related to Spring Creek, with nearly three-quarters of those expressing support for the Duffields Road boundary.
Nearly half of these raised concerns about the environment: “The Spring Creek area is of huge ecological importance. One that is one of few homes to the endangered Bellarine gum, which provides an important food source.” (submission 238)
But not all of it is about saving the gums. Forty-one per cent of submissions raised concerns about settlement planning: “Any further developments would destroy the natural landscape and also impinge on the quality of life of residents in Torquay/Jan Juc as infrastructure is stretched as it is.” (submission 119)
The submissions echo the concerns of residents of regional towns across the country. The 2021 census showed that Australia’s regional population grew more than the capital cities for the first time since 1981. “I have watched my hometown be slowly overdeveloped for the last ten years and believe that we must save the last small green area we have left.” (submission 1707)
The Protect Spring Creek campaign led the push for submissions. Made up of an alliance of local groups including Surf Coast Energy Group, Surfers Appreciating Natural Environment and Jan Juc Coast Action, it has been campaigning hard since 2008.
The developers argue that everyone should get their chance to live here. But Protect Spring Creek points out that no battler will be building a house on these hills – it’s too expensive. This isn’t about affordable housing, not this stretch. It’s about sustainability.
The Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation (WAC) also made a submission. The creek – Doorangwar – along with all the main waterways in this area, is culturally significant. Of their Country the Wadawurrung write: “Great spirit Bunjil told us to take care of the great life within the land. To only take what you need without selfishness. Wadawurrung shared their knowledge of singing, dance, trade, camps, fishing, hunting, paintings, and homes to us to protect for our future generations. We all need to help.”
Crowcroft sometimes leads a tourist walk along the coastline with Wadawurrung traditional owner Corrina Eccles. While Crowcroft has lived in the area from a very young age and has an emotional connection to this place, he acknowledges the knowledge that Eccles brings that is beyond his understanding: “[The] more you learn, the more you realise that you don’t quite understand. The detailed knowledge that must come from living on Country – it’s something that I can never, ever achieve.”
Eccles has a generous way of describing the combining of Wadawurrung knowledge and Crowcroft’s field of expertise. He describes how “she uses the word ‘consilience’ – that coming together of knowledges from different angles”.
Crunch time came earlier this year. After considering hours of oral submissions and thousands of written ones, the state government’s advisory committee finally weighed in. It approved development.
But the then planning minister, Richard Wynne, overruled the decision: “In my opinion, the advisory committee gave too much weight to historical planning decisions and insufficient weight to the landscape, cultural and environmental character of the Spring Creek area west of Duffields Road.” He cited, in part, the vociferous community opposition to developing the space.
Crowcroft’s work is increasingly central to the ongoing fight. There’s a state election in November, and two developers and some landowners are suing both the council and Victorian government, citing, among other things, a failure to consult, the minister’s lack of consideration of land supply and a failure to take into account housing affordability. They also say the decision was affected by bias: Premier Daniel Andrews told a local newspaper in 2019 that “Duffields Road is the town boundary, not one foot further. I can’t be any clearer than that.”
The Protect Spring Creek campaign is watching the lawsuit with interest and, in the meantime, considering options such as land buyback schemes.
Meanwhile, Crowcroft is organising a citizen science campaign: people are encouraged to take photos of animals and plants in the valley and upload them on the shared science data platform iNaturalist. So far, the project has 259 observations and 184 species listed. If the campaign documents rare species it will benefit the cause, but Crowcroft is exploring another, wider, angle. “At the moment, I’m interested in an academic avenue of research called ‘witnessing’. Most people would use iNaturalist for the learning, the engagement. But I’m coming to think about it more as witnessing these species. We’re in the Anthropocene and we’re creating these mass extinctions. It’s about valuing something with the idea that it won’t always be around. It’s sort of potent, emotional work.”
Crowcroft has moved to the beach lookout point where you can see the beaches that settlers dubbed Point Impossible, Point Danger and Rocky Point (which is known to the Wadawurrung as Doon Marng Waring, a weather-scanning post and a place to watch for schools of fish migrating easterly in spring). He motions to the crumbling steps at the bottom of Point Danger.
“The winds this year, the easterlies, usually you’d count them on two hands. This summer, it felt like they never stopped. That’s why the beaches are so smashed out.”
How does it feel, this witnessing?
“I have young kids myself. It’s tough. I’ve gone on tangents talking to groups about species and extinctions and, well, found myself crying. That’s not necessarily a good look. I guess passion is a good thing to show to kids.
“There’s this ethical dilemma I’ve been fighting with myself about. I think about activities where I might be connecting kids to certain areas emotionally, but I understand that maybe that place won’t exist within their lifetime.”
Crowcroft had the opportunity to meet the philosopher Peter Singer recently. He emailed him about his dilemma and Singer replied, saying that the children might feel sadness and be affected throughout their lives, but the positive results of being connected with nature will outweigh that, and maybe they’ll help along the way.
Perhaps it’s important to feel like we can still draw a line.
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