Friends of Grasslands
supporting native grassy ecosystems
PO Box 987
Civic Square ACT 2608
Phone: 02 62.. ....
Senior Legal Officer
Environment Protection Act Review
Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate
GPO Box 158, Canberra ACT 2601
Review of the Environmental Protection Act 1997
Friends of Grasslands (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 the conservation of grassy ecosystems, and carries out surveys and other on-ground work. FOG is based in Canberra and its members include professional scientists, landowners, land managers and interested members of the public.
FOG has a number of comments on the discussion paper for the review of the Environmental Protection Act 1997. Most relate to the questions raised, but the first is a definitional issue.
The definition of an “area of high conservation value” in the Act is
“(a) an area identified in the territory plan as—
(i) a wilderness area; or
(ii) a national park; or
(iii) a nature reserve; or
(iv) a cemetery or burial ground; or
(b) a place, other than a structure or group of structures, registered under the Heritage Act 2004; or
(c) the area identified in the territory plan as the river corridor zone for the Murrumbidgee River; or
(d) any other prescribed area.”
However, from the Act it isn’t clear to FOG what a “prescribed area” is. In particular, does it cover high conservation value natural temperate grassland (NTG) or yellow box-red gum grassy woodland (YBRGGW) areas on private land or outside a reserve? Are the sites identified in the ACT’s Action Plans 27 and 28 (ACT Lowland Woodland Conservation Strategy and ACT Lowland Native Grassland Conservation Strategy) prescribed areas? If not, should they be, given that they have been identified as areas of significant conservation status?
In general, FOG is concerned about two aspects of the current Act: its applicability to our current understanding of biodiversity, and problems with enforcement of the Act. Some details follow.
Question 1: Are the objects of the Act appropriate?
FOG’s view is that the Act should include conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity, and integrated environmental management, as is the case in other jurisdictions such as Victoria. Piecemeal approaches to environmental conservation and management are leading to continual degradation and loss of some of our few remaining quality NTG and YGRGGW areas. As well, the objects of the Act need to include enforcement and accountability – without these, environmental damage continues to occur, irrespective of legislation.
Question 2: Should the ACT broaden the scope of its environmental harm offences to include those which are ‘likely’ or have the ‘potential’ to cause harm?
FOG supports broadening of the scope of environmental harm offenses to include those that have the potential to cause harm. In particular it supports a definition along the lines of the Queensland Environment Protection Act 1994, i.e. any adverse or potential adverse effect on an environmental value. In this context, FOG raises the question of whether a “threatening process” should be included under the definition of “environmental harm”. The Act currently has a strong focus on pollution, but there are many other activities that can be an issue in terms of protection of the environment.
Question 3: Does the Act contain a sufficiently comprehensive and appropriate range of enforcement mechanisms? Are those mechanisms capable of deterring and responding to contraventions of the Act?
While FOG is unable to comment on this in terms of specific examples, it has the impression is that little is done in terms of enforcement in terms of accidental or deliberate damage to high conservation areas, and that the current mechanisms do not deter contraventions of the Act.
Question 4: Do you think the ACT Government, and/or the Commonwealth, should be bound, without exception, by the Act?
FOG considers that both ACT and Commonwealth governments should be bound by the Act. This is the case in other jurisdictions, and there is no good reason for government to be exempt from damage it causes to the environment, any more than the private sector.
Question 6: Should there be any changes to the way the compliance and regulatory functions of the Act are administered?
Question 7: Do you think such changes would lead to improved environmental outcomes?
The suggestion in the paper is that administration of the Act is more difficult because the ACT has no specialist environment court. FOG’s concern with setting up such a court would be resourcing. If resources for such a court came from general environmental funds, it would not improve environmental outcomes as other aspects of environmental protection would receive less funding. Any changes made need to have no impact on existing environmental resourcing.
John Fitz Gerald
29 October 2012