Friends of Grasslands
supporting native grassy ecosystems
PO Box 987
Civic Square ACT 2608
Phone: 02 62.. ....
Mr Malcolm Turnbull
Minister for the Environment and Water Resources
PO Box 6022
CANBERRA ACT 2600
Dear Mr Turnbull
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC)
I am writing to you to express Friends of Grasslands (FoG) concerns about administration of the EPBC Act.
FoG is a community group dedicated to the conservation of native temperate grassy ecosystems, such as grasslands and woodlands. FoG is based in Canberra and its members, numbering over 200, include professional scientists, landowners, land managers and interested members of the public. FoG advocates, educates and advises on matters to do with conservation of grassy ecosystems, and carries out surveys and other on‑ground work.
FoG understands the practicalities of administering such a complicated piece of legislation for biodiversity outcomes: including both the listing of communities/species across Australia and assessment of potential impacts on them; in the context of other jurisdictions' processes; and with limited staff resources. However, our recent experiences have led to frustration - about the value of our participation, and our capacity to influence decision making.
Because of our recent track record - commenting on five project referrals during July-October - officers from DEWR provided an opportunity to meet to discuss our issues. This was a worthwhile meeting, which clarified some issues and highlighted opportunities for FoG to use the referral process effectively, but left a residue of concern.
What FoG seeks in providing comments on proposals that may affect grassy ecosystems is to protect sites of value wherever possible (i.e. prevent them being destroyed or degraded by works/developments), and to mitigate impacts where these are unavoidable. The issues that continue to concern FoG are as follows.
Complex decision processes. In the ACT there is ACT and Commonwealth land, including land designated under the National Capital Plan. The ACT Government has made a lot of progress in the past decade on listing communities/species under the Nature Conservation Act 1980, and to develop related strategies including Action Plans which describe/map values, describe issues/threats and identify conservation actions. When decisions are made that may affect threatened communities/species in the ACT things can get complicated, and the value and influence of state/local (i.e. ACT) level conservation arrangements - in the context of Commonwealth level decisions - are not clear. Two examples follow.
EPBC project 07/3554: caravan park servicing at Symonston. Also triggered a draft variation to the Territory Plan and a draft amendment to the National Capital Plan. This is a relatively small project, but FoG is concerned about the long term conservation outcome for the grassland earless dragon (GED), a threatened reptile in the area; although the site is less important for GED than some others, with the drought and poor management of habitat locally (see below), there is a risk the species could go extinct. FoG made submissions to all three processes, which is a big undertaking for such a small group. This is now a controlled action and may yet deliver a conservation outcome, but is a long way from finished.
EPBC project 07/3756: transfer of Defence land at Majura to DoTaRS, to be on-sold to the Canberra Airport Group (CAG) for construction of a road. There is a cascade of decisions, and the impacts will come at the construction stage. There is no detail yet of the road and its alignment, although subsequent approval of construction works will be being implied by the transfer/sale stages. The land includes an endangered ecological community and a range of threatened species, which are currently being inadequately managed by both Defence and CAG. ACT conservation provisions (via the Territory Plan) will cease to apply when the land is transferred. The 'need' for the road relates to previous inadequate planning/approval. FoG commented on the referral, and will try to stay engaged as this project goes forward - but the political influence of airport owners is profound.
Significance thresholds and cumulative impacts. Many projects are referred because they include threatened species/communities. FoG's view, supported by Action Plans, is that even small remnants are part of the bigger picture of grassy ecosystem conservation in the ACT region, and potential impacts should be considered very seriously and avoided where possible. Where DEWR does not make a 'controlled action' decision, it is less likely that the ACT (also under-resourced and in a political climate of 'development is good') will take action to protect remnants. This means that small sites with real value (e.g. containing local populations) continue to be lost or degraded or further separated by a series of 'small decisions', i.e. death by a thousand cuts. There appears to be no strategy to consider such decisions on a cumulative basis.
Recovery planning. A related feature of the EPBC Act is that listed communities/species have recovery plans. Such plans are useless unless they can influence decisions about land use and lead to long term protection and management for conservation. This means sufficient specificity to address future developments and unsympathetic land uses, adequate resources for implementation and follow through; not just documents that sit on shelves.
FoG encourages DEWR to work with jurisdictions such as the ACT to look beyond administration and procedures and to seek conservation outcomes for our threatened communities and species. A strategic approach to proposed development in the Molonglo Valley would be a good first step, to ensure that the design of future residential developments does not compromise the functioning of the relatively intact systems that remain there, and supports threatened communities and species. FoG also notes that the ACT Chief Minister, Mr John Stanhope, has called an inquiry by the ACT Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment into the 'adequacy of the management of Canberra's grasslands, and the vulnerability of their ecosystems'. FoG's view is that it would be very poor process if any relevant EPBC project referrals were approved before this inquiry is completed.
The EPBC Act was an initiative of the Howard Government; it arrived with a fanfare, but the model of cost-neutrality in its administration has not delivered. The Commonwealth Government should lead in biodiversity protection and environmental impact assessment. Strategic and cumulative impact assessment have been part of the rhetoric since the beginning and need to be actively pursued.
29 October 2007
cc David Borthwick, Secretary DEWR
cc Senator Gary Humphries
cc Senator Kate Lundy
cc Mr Peter Garrett, Shadow Minister for the Environment
 for example, A vision splendid of the grassy plains extended: ACT lowland native grassland conservation strategy, Action Plan No. 28