Friends of Grasslands
supporting native grassy ecosystems
PO Box 987
Civic Square ACT 2608
Phone: 02 62.. ....
Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment
PO Box 356
DICKSON ACT 2602
Dear Mr O’Loughlin
Expanded role of Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment (the Office)
Friends of Grasslands (FoG) is writing to provide comments on the above. As you are aware, FoG is a community group dedicated to the conservation of natural temperate grassy ecosystems in south eastern Australia. FoG advocates, educates and advises on matters to do with conservation of grassy ecosystems, and carries out surveys and other on-ground work. FoG is based in Canberra and its around 200 members include professional scientists, landowners, land managers and interested members of the public. FoG has a long term interest in the conservation and management of remnant natural temperate grasslands and grassy woodlands in the ACT. The following comments address the information sought by the Office.
v What FoG members like best about living in the ACT and the surrounding Region
Given that FoG's
- vision is that 'The biodiversity values and ecosystem function of natural grassy ecosystems in south‑eastern Australia are recognised, valued, protected and enhanced,' and its
- aims include things like 'improv(ing) knowledge and understanding of, and support for, grassy ecosystems', 'identify(ing) threats to grassy ecosystems, and influenc(ing) decisions relating to protection and management', 'improv(ing) management of grassy ecosystems on public and private land',
although we have not asked members this question directly, FoG is confident that most of its members like living in the 'bush capital' in the southern tablelands, that retains significant remnants of its former grassy ecosystems as part of that setting. And within that interest, there are many levels of 'liking' from the aesthetic appreciation of the landscape, to botanical and zoological passions at the species and population level.
v What FoG thinks are five big sustainability issues facing us (in no particular order)
Biodiversity conservation (protection and management), particularly of grassy ecosystems in and around the 'bush capital'. Urban pressures, particularly development (at all scales from intensive built environment, to utilities and rural residential), place ongoing stresses on these vulnerable ecosystems. All proposals with potential risk on grassy ecosystems, especially where threatened species or threatened ecological communities are involved - that cannot be avoided altogether - should include comprehensive mitigation that is implemented, and compliance monitored with real disincentives attached for non-compliance. We need to keep what is left, what little there is, and keep/restore its condition.
Management of cumulative impacts. While environmental concerns are considered in assessing development proposals in the ACT (particularly major ones such as Molonglo/North Weston and Gungahlin town centre), there is still continual loss of grassy ecosystem remnants through development, and incidental or accidental loss or damage from related construction activity. The few percent of original extent that remain are under ongoing and increasing risk, because of where they are in the landscape - too easy to get at, and convert to other uses. The problem is that decisions tend to made site by site (fragment by fragment) as each is assessed individually - a 'tyranny of small decisions', often leading to irreversible loss.
Landscape management. Poor management, especially during the drought, of high conservation value areas - and of buffers and urban/rural vegetation generally -including specifically failure to manage weeds that threaten grassy ecosystems. One example is the accelerated spread of Chilean needle grass, at least partly because of mowing practices, including in public areas. It is not acceptable to expect volunteers to help manage weeds, using their very limited resources, if infestations could have been avoided. Accountability for landscape management practices is critical.
Continuing policies of growth. There would seem to be a need to have a community discussion about a population target for the ACT, to ensure that it is sustainable from the perspective of resources like water and natural ecosystems, and in managing waste, transport needs …
The need for ecosystem function to underlie understanding, planning and decision making. This is a process based approach which seeks to integrate all relevant aspects such as soils, biodiversity (at all levels), water, landscape, use … to work with the environment.
v How urgent FoG thinks it is to take action with respect to your top issues, and why
Very, ongoing. For reasons stated elsewhere in this and other submissions: there is not much of the original grassy ecosystem left; its condition is sometimes already degraded; it is threatened by removal and further loss of condition, by competing land uses or neglect.
v Action that should be taken by:
Fulfil community expectations of ecologically sustainable development.
Follow processes and policies under legislation, including cooperatively across jurisdictional borders i.e. ACT/Cth/NSW.
Be strategic in decision making, rather than reactive and in short term interests of a few. Ensure that decisions, especially on threatened ecological communities/species are considered cumulatively, across the landscape (and across jurisdictional boundaries) and time, so that national protection policies and local conservation strategies are pursued practically and effectively.
Require/establish/run effective community consultation processes (e.g. credible, inclusive, transparent, responsive) to improve proposals and increase acceptability for communities. Community participants generally participate in good faith and with very limited resources and do not like being ignored.
Follow up recommendations of agreed process documents e.g. conservation strategies (especially Action Plans 27 and 28), in a timely manner. This includes positive actions such as additions to the reserve system through formal reservation, and practical conservation management agreements with landholders.
Make best use of community resources in managing land. Work cooperatively with communities, including to encourage and support volunteer effort - for long term outcomes.
Set an example as effective land managers of grassy ecosystems. Require land managers with conservation or land management agreements to comply with such agreements, and take action if they do not.
Believe, share and seek to protect the value of the 'grassy ecosystem story' as part of the ACT's unique appeal - a capital 'in the bush'. Build community awareness and support.
Fulfilcommunity expectations of ecologically sustainable development, ensuring that ecological concerns are integrated with other objectives in decision making, and including use of the 'precautionary principle'. Do triple bottom line accounting.
Continue to work strategically and cooperatively with others, to the extent possible for a small, volunteer -based community organisation.
v FoG's view on the importance of having an independent Office that can investigate and comment on sustainability and environmental issues in the ACT (and surrounding region); and why
FoG considers the role of the Office to be of major importance. Natural temperate grassy ecosystems occur in areas favoured for development. With the competing demands and uses of business and government for these areas, the views of an independent body on environmental issues are critical.
However, FoG is concerned that recommendations from planning and development processes, for long term protection and management of areas, are not always followed through (e.g. recommendations in Action Plans concerning natural temperate grasslands and vulnerable/endangered species within them). FoG would welcome any measure to strengthen the Commissioner’s role in ensuring that such recommendations - and its own recommendations e.g. from inquiries - are carried out, in a timely manner.
v Other things
Need for a range of new policies including via updated legislation. As FoG has stated in recent submissions, the ACT needs legislation to frame an effective policy on offsets for native vegetation lost or degraded through development. For example, in its submission to the ACT Legislative Assembly's Standing Committee on Planning and Environment inquiry into DVTP281 Molonglo and North Weston (6/08) FoG noted the need for offsets:
'FoG accepts that there will be cases where natural values will be lost or degraded because of community acceptable developments, but this should only be in exceptional circumstances, and should be offset adequately. Other Australian jurisdictions have updated native vegetation legislation and seek to achieve 'no net loss', for example by: prohibiting clearing, especially of vegetation listed as threatened; and providing for clearing only where there is an offset. …
FoG also notes, and supports, the need for not only securing offset areas, but providing for their active conservation management in the long term. …
FoG advocates for improvements to ACT conservation legislation (via the Nature Conservation Act 1980 review) to include an appropriately precautionary approach to future clearing, the principle of no net loss, a quality biodiversity assessment system and strong offsetting provisions. Hopefully, such a legislated approach will support better planning in the future.'
[FoG fully supported recommendations in Proposed Molonglo urban development and their significant impact on endangered woodlands: a report prepared by the Conservation Council ACT Region (6/08) based on a convincing assessment of potential biodiversity loss]
Further, where offset native plantings are offered as replacement for loss, FoG's view is that unless they adjoin high quality natural ecosystems they are unlikely to become as diverse and high quality as the areas being lost. For this reason, it is better to retain the original native vegetation wherever possible. FoG is very concerned that 'offset planting' may become an easy way to justify use of high quality areas for other purposes.
Need for support processes. As a small, volunteer based, community organisation, FoG would appreciate assistance in identifying areas and issues of concern or at risk. FoG regularly scans websites, and sometimes newspaper notices, to identify relevant opportunities to participate in public comment processes. It is not unusual for FoG to miss or loose time in such processes, and a role for the Office could be to ensure that groups are advised e.g. through an email bulletin, i.e. the Office has a dedicated 'search and inform' function for registered interested bodies at least.
Require/support accreditation. As noted in its submission on the draft agreement between the ACT and Australian government on environmental impact assessment (6/08) FoG suggested that the ACT should require quality ecological assessment of all proposals, and expressed concerned that there may be cases where consultants are not sufficiently expert for the task. In the submission, FoG suggested that perhaps the Australian government could take the lead to ensure that 'professionals involved - throughout the EIA process - are sufficiently trained and experienced to ensure adequate assessment of impacts, and recommendations for mitigation.' FoG further suggested that such an approach may 'include a requirement of registration of environmental consultants, e.g. by the decision making organisation, against criteria agreed with someone like the ACT Conservator of Flora and Fauna'. It may be appropriate for the Commissioner to have an interest in such an initiative, as an independent body.
The meaning of 'ecologically sustainable'. It is quite a few years since 'ESD' was incorporated, in various ways, into policy/legislation across Australia. It would be good for the OCSE to consider and communicate what 'ecologically sustainable' decisions and actions look like, and to seek to avoid unsustainable ones in public and private sectors.
Need to encourage new approaches (government with others) - to improve awareness by and support from the broader community, e.g. effective information about priority weeds and their management, such as Chilean needlegrass that is taking over north Canberra; perhaps well-timed blitzes.
FoG also draws the Office's attention to its submission to the inquiry into Lowland Native Grassland management, which addressed grassy ecosystems more broadly (1/08). This and other FoG submissions of recent years are on the FoG website.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Commissioner’s expanded role.
17 November 2008