Friends of Grasslands

supporting native grassy ecosystems

PO Box 440
Jamison Centre
Macquarie ACT 2614

email: advocacy@fog.org.au
web: www.fog.org.au

Referrals Gateway
Environment Assessment Branch
Department of the Environment
GPO Box 787
Canberra ACT 2601
email: epbc.referrals@environment.gov.au

 

Dear Sir/Madam

Blocks 3 and 15, Section 22, Barton, ACT Divestment

Referral no: 2017/8028

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 had a long standing interest in the area identified as the York Park Conservation Site, and provided comments on the original referral. In the short comment period we have not been able to go through the extensive documentation in detail. Instead we are providing comments about the Preliminary Documentation focussed around the key points we raised in our earlier submission.

As a side issue, for a community group trying to come to terms with this document, its presentation as a 741 page document rather than several smaller documents that could be accessed separately made our task even more difficult.

Content of the referral

In our previous submission we identified a number of areas in which we felt the original referral was incomplete. We are pleased to see that some of these are addressed in the Preliminary Documentation, although we were still unable to find raw Golden Sun Moth (GSM) density data over time for the proposed offset site.

Condition of bock 3 section 22 Barton

The PD states in Section 7 that “The Proponent has a history of managing properties in accordance with environmental management plans, which ensure the appropriate outcomes are met. This has included undertaking weed and pest management strategies to ensure its properties are maintained to a high standard that is consistent with key environmental objectives.” However, this section gives no information about the reasons for the deterioration in the site’s condition since 2013, so consider our views under this section of our previous submission to be valid and needing to be addressed.

Scientific importance

While York Park doesn’t meet Commonwealth heritage criteria, the fact that there are scientific heritage values associated with the natural heritage of the site at the ACT (i.e. local) scale shouldn’t be brushed aside.

We note that one of the ten principles of the York Park Master Plan (Appendix T2 to the National Capital Plan, as amended in 2005 through Amendment 42) is that significant natural and heritage values of the area should be identified and protected.  One of the policies under ‘Environment and Heritage’ is stated as follows:

(a) Part of Block 3 Section 22 (site of investigation for rare moth Synemon plana) will be the subject of further study to determine its ecological and habitat value in the long term.  Pending that study, the site is to be protected.

Block 3, Section 22, which is Commonwealth land owned by DOFD, does not include all of the land that is currently managed as the York Park Conservation Site. The northernmost part of the site is on Block 15, Section 22, which is Territory land but is nevertheless subject to National Capital Authority planning jurisdiction and is included in the Natural Temperate Grassland Maintenance Plan for the site’.

FOG fails to see how destruction of the site can be warranted given the ‘significant natural and heritage values of the area should be identified and protected’. We fail also to understand why effort was expended to prepare and ostensibly conserve the natural heritage values, when the outcome will be the loss of the site. There is a blatant disregard for consideration of the matters of national environmental significance in this proposal. What appears to be misunderstood is that, despite significant disturbance to the surrounding areas and edges and the loss of some of the NTG and shading by the building on Block 7, all surveys indicate that the Natural Temperate Grassland has retained its integrity and populations of threatened species.

Considering the section on social and economic impacts of the action (section 3.5, page 36), the PD states that “The proposed action is considered to have a positive economic impact through reduced maintenance costs associated with Block 3 and the sale of the land.” We fail to see how maintenance costs will be reduced if management of block 3 is to be replaced with improvement and long term maintenance of the offset block. Surely there will be no reduction in maintenance costs, unless the intent is to neglect the offset block! The positive economic impact is the sale of the land and is the price of destroying yet another piece of our critically endangered native species.

This section also understates the social impact of the action on that part of the community that cares about our natural heritage. It is not just the loss of biodiversity on the site specifically that has an impact on the community. The other impact is the frustration conservation groups like FOG and scientists working in these areas experience when seeing one site containing NTG or species habitat after another be lost, with no surety that the proposed offsets will actually be effective. This engenders a loss of confidence in the processes that are meant to protect critically endangered species and communities, and a sense that they will not be around in the long term. In this regard it is ironic that this PD has been released at the same time that the Senate is undertaking an inquiry into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis.

As Australians we should be proud to maintain this site for a critically endangered species so close to our seat of national government, and to showcase it to visiting dignitaries as a demonstration of Australia’s commitment to preserving the natural environment. What needs to be recognised and acknowledged is that York Park is one of only two remaining areas of Natural Temperate Grassland in the inner city area, all of which was once Natural Temperate Grassland. The other is being managed for conservation by Charles Sturt University at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture on Blackall St in Barton. Other sites in the area, such as Campbell block 1 section 5, have already been.

Other conservation values

FOG notes the record of a Striped Legless Lizard from the 2017 Umwelt survey, and evidence of probably more individuals of this species – also the conclusion that the NTG is probably core habitat for this species in this area. While acknowledging that the York Park individuals are not a key population of the SLL in the ACT, in our view this finding increases the importance of the site and should strengthen the argument to retain it. At least, the loss of the SLL population must be acknowledged and included in the offset package.

Alternative divestment options

The view that we stated earlier: “[this development] … will provide short term profit to the Department of Finance and to the successful developer at the expense of our children’s heritage” remains relevant (see Scientific importance above for more information).

Offsets strategy

We note that there is discussion of increasing the area to be offset, due to the inclusion of the 0.4ha of NTG on nearby median strips, and 0.74ha of moderate quality habitat in the remainder of block 3. However, we were not able to find reference to inclusion of the areas no longer of high quality due to poor management, i.e. weed incursions and replanting of a disturbed area with Themeda triandra (not a GSM feed species). As we have already noted, it was the responsibility of the land owner to maintain York Park in its original condition. To neglect the area sufficiently to result in such a decrease in the high quality area (and not meet obligations under referral 2009/4871 as we understand them), then argue that only the reduced area be used in any offset calculations, is appalling. This shows a complete disinterest in the values of the site or the importance of conserving our native flora and fauna for future generations.

Following on from this, the same land owner will be responsible for improving the quality of the offset site and maintaining it in the long term. While acknowledging that “Funding will be obtained through Finance’s regular budgetary processes” (section 4.2), this will be subject to budget cuts and similar events over time, and we unsure if this will actually provide the funding needed to maintain the offset site in the long term.

There is inadequate information to justify why this site would be an appropriate offset for the loss of the York Park Conservation Area. We note that other monitoring of GSM at Hall Block 48 has occurred and has been published(1), and don’t understand why details of this report has been excluded from the analysis.

The GSM management measures relate to GSM habitat improvement. While this is essential, the offset is not a true GSM offset unless GSM numbers increase – this needs to be monitored and included in the offset considerations, including alternative options if the GSM population at Hall Block 8 does not thrive.

We are also not sure what will happen if the offset conditions are not met. With other such projects, there is not always compliance with EPBC referral conditions, particularly with regard to reaching offset targets. We are not aware of any follow through or penalties imposed when offset conditions are not met, nor are we convinced that proponents will take remedial action when this occurs. The siting of the offset block means that a community group such as FOG is unable to visit the offset site and reassure itself that offsets are indeed working. With this particular proposal, this is a real loss, since FOG members view the site and enjoy its values on an informal basis.

In the discussion of the GSM offset calculations, it isn’t clear what “forage species diversity” is actually measuring, other than C3 grasses in general. Are these species that the GSM is known to use actively? What are “GSM feed species” (section 5.5.2, page 724) and “fodder for GSM” (appendix 2, page 734). How do they differ from “forage species”? What is forage species diversity; no-one in FOG has ever heard of this term or what it means.

The offset commitments (section 6.2, page 726) mentions “Manage agricultural practices so that they align with the ecological and biological requirements of GSM”, although a later paragraph mentions restrictions on use of the offset area under the lease conditions. What agricultural practices are meant – those in the adjoining paddock or those on the site itself?

The paragraph (appendix 2, page 733) “Any vegetation type that does not fit into one of the vegetation structure types should not be considered GSM habitat from a structural perspective. As information pertaining to the cover and abundance of GSM forage species specifically, this has been used to inform the forage species diversity score. In circumstances where this information is not available, general species’ diversity could be used as a substitute.” is cryptic from our point of view. It sounds as if general species diversity rather than diversity of species specifically used by the GSM has been used in the calculations, which throws some doubt onto their validity.

Inspection of the diagram showing the proposed offset area (figures 1.2 and 3.2 in Appendix 8) shows that the area has an irregular shape which will increase edge effects such as week invasion. As well, there is mention of a firebreak being needed in the original referral, but no indication in the offset strategy of whether this buffer will be taken out of the offset area itself. The buffer zone must be in addition to the offset area, since management of such zones for bushfire purposes is often incompatible with management for conservation. Our recommendation is that a bushfire buffer be established around the offset area in such a way as to smooth out the boundary of the protected zone, and that this buffer be managed for weed invasion.

Another aspect of offsets is that FOG believes that they should be in place before any destruction of the original site commences. In our view this does not mean agreement to implement an offset package into the future. In a case such as this, actions to start restoration of the proposed offset site should be underway and at least some improvements in NTG quality and GSM numbers (not just habitat) should be achieved before anything happens to York Park. We see no reason why this can’t be the case for this proposal – there is no particular urgency for a commercial development in an area that already has ample structures of this nature.

The offset analysis needs to be expanded to include the SLL.

We fail to see how Hall Block 8 will be an adequate offset if there is no protection provided to this site.

Summary

In conclusion, FOG strongly opposes this referral. We disagree with some of the additional conclusions in the PD, and consider that a number of our original objections are still valid. If this proposal goes ahead, we think that there will be a net loss of GSM and NTG across the landscape, both in the short and the long term. Additionally, this iconic 0.4 ha site in the centre of our seat of national government is representative of the dominant landscape that has been destroyed throughout central Canberra since the 1920s is surely worthy of protection. All areas critically endangered species and communities should be protected and restored to optimum functioning over time. While we realise that critical infrastructure will sometimes impact on these areas, this development does not fall into that category, and we are appalled that a hotel and similar developments are considered more important than critically endangered native species and communities. We refer you to our earlier recommendations for this referral:

If, in the unfortunate situation that approval for the destruction of this part of our biodiversity is given, our recommendation is that

Yours sincerely

 

Geoff Robertson
President

17 August 2018

(1) Rowell A. Riverview Project: Ginninderra Drive Extension Golden Sun Moth and Ecological Surveys. Report to Umwelt 2015 (https://ginninderry.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Riverview-Project_Ginninderra-Drive-Extension-Golden-Sun-Moth-and-Ecological-Surveys_Rowell-2015.pdf)