Friends of Grasslands
supporting native grassy ecosystems
PO Box 440
Macquarie ACT 2614
Environment Assessment Branch
Department of the Environment
GPO Box 787
Canberra ACT 2601
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, included related fauna species. 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 site concerning this amendment, i.e. York Park. We have, for instance, responded to several proposals concerning development impacts to the Park in the past, e.g. EPBC referrals 2010/5548 (5 July 2010) and 2012/6606 (19 November 2012 and 21 March 2013 – reconsideration request), and to the NCA’s development application concerning Block 14 Section 22 Barton - Redevelopment of 21 National Circuit - Stage 1 Works. FOG has visited the sites on multiple occasions, and undertook monitoring for the Golden Sun Moth (GSM) (Synemon plana) there in 2008-20091. In Jan 2013 FOG also wrote to the Department of Finance concerning deficiencies in management of the site, in particular weed control (see Appendix A).
FOG is appalled by this referral and the accompanying Draft Amendment 88 to the National Capital Plan. We have a number of concerns with the referral and supporting documents, provided below, and are completely opposed to the proposal.
Content of the referral
In FOG’s view the referral is incomplete, making it difficult to provide fully informed comment on it. Particular concerns include:
- The main part of the referral does not acknowledge destruction of the GSM population at York Park. There is mention of GSM habitats on the site in sections 1 to 3. In fact, the impact table in 2.4.1 mentions the GSM population on the nearby median strips, but only GSM habitat on the site itself. It isn’t until section 4 that the referral mentions destruction of the GSM population. This lack of concern about GSM individuals reflects poorly on the proponent and leads us to wonder about the level of past management (see Condition of bock 3 section 22 Barton below).
- In section 1.13, public consultation has occurred only with government or with nearby private land owners. In contrast, there has been no consultation with the scientific community, despite the long term studies of the site (see Scientific importance below)
- The vegetation management plan for the proposed offset site has not been released and probably needs updating.
- The reference containing the GSM density data used in the offset calculations has not been released (“Umwelt (2016f) Golden Sun Moth Survey Results, Lot 1 and Block 48 Wallaroo Road. Briefing Note prepared for Department of Finance, January 2016”)
Condition of bock 3 section 22 Barton
In the current referral:
- The block is stated to contain 0.32ha of Natural Temperate Grassland (NTG)2, and
- It is claimed that the NTG and GSM values are decreasing.
The data presented indicate that, while GSM habitat has decreased, GSM numbers may still be reasonably stable. Evidence for a decrease in the moth population has not been presented, and the population has been quite stable for many years, despite the condition of the site.
As we stated years ago in a 2013 letter (see appendix A), FOG believes that the land manager for York Park is obliged to maintain matters of National Environmental Significance in its jurisdiction under the EPBC Act. There is no evidence from either the current quality of the site or the material presented as part of this referral that the Department of Finance has made anything other than a token attempt to maintain the values of the site. The referral is noticeably lacking in information about the management that the Department has undertaken on the site, or reasons why good weed control and other management are inadequate to maintain the Park’s biodiversity values. There is no information about why the Department ignored the messages from multiple sources that its weed control in the Park was inadequate. It is difficult not to think that the neglect was deliberate to allow justification of future development and short term financial gain.
Along related lines, the Department of Finance claims (referral section 6.1) that it has a "history of managing properties with environmental management plans", that "outcomes are met", and that "weed...strategies...are maintained to a high standard that is consistent with key environmental objectives". FOG must disagree, citing the steady and long term degradation of values documented by the proponent's own monitoring at York Park, a property with an established environmental management plan designed to protect matters of NES. Further information about this is presented in Appendix B.
One of the values of York Park is the length of time over which quantitative and qualitative data about the GSM population has been collected. Much of the early knowledge of the population biology of the species was gained from these studies. There is population and habitat monitoring data going back to the early 1990s, with a number of studies undertaken since then, and no other GSM site has a comparable longitudinal data set.
Most remaining GSM sites in Australia are very small. York Park is delivering the best information we have on viable population size for GSM, its prospects of long-term survival on a small site, and the effects of grassland management on GSM population health. This is an added reason to retain the site for conservation purposes, and actively manage it for the GSM. As well, this is the site that first raised the profile of the GSM as a threatened species, before it was listed under ACT or Commonwealth legislation. There is no recognition of these values in the referral or supporting papers.
Other conservation values
Table 2 in the Umwelt briefing note3 states that the vulnerable Striped Legless Lizard (Delmar impar) is unlikely to occur at the site. In fact, Striped Legless Lizard have been confirmed to occur at the site, with a consultant doing GSM work to monitor the effects of the 2012 development approval on the site in December 2016 hand-capturing and photographing a Striped Legless Lizard. Details of the record have been passed onto the ACT government’s Conservation Research area, and verified on Canberra Nature Map (http://canberra.naturemapr.org/Community/Sighting/3377557). Surveys need to be undertaken to understand the population and extent of area occupied by the Striped Legless Lizard at York Park and in adjacent areas. In the absence of this information, it is not possible to understand the potential impacts that loss of habitat within York Park would have on the Striped Legless Lizard.
The national conservation status of the natural temperate grassland community has been upgraded from endangered to critically endangered recently, increasing the importance of this site.
As well as preserving a rare remnant of the original lowland grassland vegetation community of the Parliamentary area, the site contains another rare grassland insect, the Canberra Raspy Cricket (Cooraboorama canberrae)6.
Alternative divestment options
FOG’s view is that there should be no development that impacts on vulnerable or endangered species habitat or ecosystem communities. However, we recognize that at times public infrastructure or similar may impact on MNES sites. This is hardly the case with the current proposal. The reason for the referral appears to be the proponent to divest itself of the site and make it available for development. It is not clear if the main aim is the divestment itself (i.e. Department of Finance no longer wants to manage the Park), or if the sale is aimed at providing some money to offset government expenditure in other areas.
If the latter, we suggest that such short term benefit from the destruction of part of Australia’s biodiversity is inappropriate. It will provide short term profit to the Department of Finance and to the successful developer at the expense of our children’s heritage.
Offsets analysis report
FOG is completely opposed to any development that proposes offsetting as the only mitigating process. This referral is not to create a piece of critical infrastructure, instead it represents a plan to transfer a public asset with significant environmental value into private ownership for construction of what will almost certainly be expansion of office, residential, and commercial property little different to that already in adjoining buildings. However, we have provided comments on the proposed offsets in case the lamentable decision to go ahead with development is made.
FOG takes major issue with the offset calculations as presented in the Offsets analysis report4. The report states that the amount of NTG and GSM habitat to be offset is 0.3ha. We argue that the actual offset area should be significantly higher for the following reasons:
- In 2008 the area of NTG was 0.5ha. That it is now 0.3ha is a failure in meeting the approval conditions for referral 2009/4871. Thus the core area to be offset is 0.5ha.
- The surrounding 0.4ha of nature strips containing GSM are outliers from the core population at York Park. Once York Park has gone, it is unlikely that these other populations will survive, so this 0.4ha needs to be added to the offset amount.
- Thus the actual area of GSM habitat to be offset is 0.9ha
Similarly, the density of GSM on the site has been understated:
- In the Offsets analysis report4 it is listed as 156/ha in 0.3ha, i.e. a total of 46 flying males as the highest day density
- However, in Appendix 4 of the Umwelt report2, there is an estimated 66 male moths (57-85) flying on one day in Dec 2011, so the moth population could well exceed that used in the calculations. Further, female GSM (though less often detected) are usually present in similar numbers to males, and the standing population would also include two to three generations of larvae developing underground.
- In addition, our arguments above apply – the moth population size to be offset should be taken as that present in 2008, since management failings in the interim have contributed to reductions in habitat quality and possibly population size
In addition, no offsets for impacts on the Striped Legless Lizard population in the area have been included.
FOG is not able to comment further on the details of the offset calculations as presented. However, we suggest that the derived values for site condition of York Park are likely to be understated and should again be based on the site condition at the time of the previous referral.
As well the calculations need to include:
- The scientific values of the site that will be destroyed
- Destruction of possible Striped Legless Lizard habitat
- Allowance for bushfire management buffers in offset Block 48 outside the areas of conservation value, not within them
Offset site management
We are unable to comment on the management plan for the proposed offset site, since this was not released in the referral documentation. From the management information provided in the referral, the offset management activities appear to be basic management of a site containing low to moderate numbers of moths. The Vegetation condition monitoring report5 describes the presence of numerous noxious weeds, including serrated tussock, St John’s wort and blackberry, but it is not clear whether the proposed management would reduce these and lead to an increase in GSM numbers.
In FOG’s view, any offset strategy needs to include a clear program for increasing the GSM population on the proposed offset site over time, with key indicators to reach and penalties for non-compliance.
Any offset needs to be in place before the Barton block 3 is sold. This means that
- The values of the offset site need to be measured fully and at an appropriate time of year
- The proposed management activities need to be put in place
- Once these activities have been in place sometime (say three years as suggested in the Offsets analysis report), the values of the offset site need to be re-measured to determine the level of improvement in both NTG and GSM population levels (not just GSM habitat)
- The proposed divestment and development of Barton Block 3 should only go ahead if there is sufficient improvement in the offset values (both NTG and size of GSM population) after three years
- There needs to be sufficient funding placed in trust to ensure that the offset area is managed appropriately in perpetuity
- A conservation agreement or similar needs to be in place
If the offset site is to be managed by the proponent, a greater level of accountability is needed than has occurred with York Park. Based on past experience FOG does not consider that the Department of Finance is a suitable land manager for any offset block. Whether this relates to lack of interest or expertise is not clear. Site management needs to be transferred to another area that is capable of managing NTG and GSM habitat.
Without these issues being resolved, FOG considers the proposed offsets to be inadequate and will ultimately lead to a net loss of NTG and GSM..
In conclusion, FOG opposes this referral. We consider that:
- The reduction in NTG and GSM habitat have come about because of inadequate management, despite earlier EPBC referrals approved with the condition that the block be managed for conservation
- The impact of removal of York Park on the newly-discovered Striped Legless Lizard population in the area has not been assessed
- The scientific values of York Park have not been considered
- The offset analysis significantly understates York Park’s values, so the offset proposal is not clear cut
- There is likely to be a net loss of GSM and NTG in the offset block over time based on past evidence that the Department of Finance lacks the processes to manage such an offset.
- There has been a lack of consideration of alternatives to the current proposal that might retain our biodiversity.
Our recommendations are that:
- The development proposal be rejected since it totally destroys a place where matters of NES are well documented.
- Department of Finance provide funding now for appropriate weed control in the NTG at York Park, as compensation for non-compliance with conditions of previous approvals, and that it professionally surveys the current GSM status in and around the site in October-December 2017.
- York Park be directly and permanently added to the national conservation estate and managed by an area of government that has expertise in conservation, e.g. Department of the Environment or Parks Australia.
10 September 2017
for Sustainability and the Environment,
ACT Conservator for Flora and Fauna, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Margaret Kitchin, Conservation Research, Margaret.Kitchin@act.gov.au
Kirsten Lawson, Canberra Times, email@example.com
Appendix A: FOG letter of 2013 concerning York Park
Property Portfolio Branch
Department of Finance and Deregulation
Parkes Place West
PARKES ACT 2601
Dear Mr Smith
Friends of Grasslands (FOG) is a community group dedicated to the conservation of natural temperate grassy ecosystems in south-eastern Australia. FOG has been interested in the conservation area at York Park in Barton for many years, and regards this site as iconic. It is one of the sites identified in Action Plan 28 ACT Lowland Native Grassland Conservation Strategy as being of high value. Despite being small, this area of endangered Natural Temperate Grassland has survived urban pressures over 100 years and still supports a sizeable population of the critically endangered Golden Sun Moth (GSM). It has been monitored over a number of years, and has been identified by consultants (D.McC. Hogg in A strategic approach to the conservation and environmental assessment of Golden Sun Moth sites in the Canberra area, Dec 2010) undertaking environmental assessments elsewhere in the ACT as “The most important of the Central Canberra sites … particularly for its cultural scientific value and extensive monitoring records, rather than necessarily the quality of its GSM habitat”.
The Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment (CSE), in her Report on ACT Lowland Native Grassland Investigationn (released in 2009), observed that weed invasion was becoming a problem in York Park, and that it was approaching a critical threshold. FOG understands, from the CSE, that a comprehensive Grassland Maintenance Plan exists for this site and provides clear and scientific guidelines on the management of environmental weeds.
FOG visited the site in December 2009 and noted that, while there was an issue with weeds, the site was in better condition than it had been in the past. In its submission to EPBC referral York Park – Carpark Access Road (reference number 2010/5548), FOG anticipated that, with improved management and no impacts from development activities, the site could be restored to a very good condition, maintaining and perhaps increasing the GSM population.
FOG visited the site again in December 2012, and found that the quality of the grassland has now deteriorated. While it appeared that much of the Chilean Needlegrass (CNG) has been sprayed during spring, some has been missed and has set seed, which will worsen the CNG problem in coming years. St John’s Wort is abundant all along the western edge of the block and did not appear to have been treated at all. There are also isolated plants occurring across the block that need treating. Unfortunately, this is also likely to have dropped seed before anything is done about it, again worsening this weed problem in coming years. Other less invasive weeds are also a problem, with the Wild Oats becoming more prevalent in the south of the block, and a sizeable patch of Narrow-leaved Clover (Trifolium angustifolium) evident. Seeding of the native grasses in the face of this competition is uneven, with Tall Speargrass (Austrostipa bigeniculata) setting seed but little of the Wallaby Grasses (Rytidosperma spp) that supports the GSM population doing so.
FOG is aware of development pressures on York Park at present, and has made submissions concerning these. FOG considers that York Park represents a unique part of our natural heritage right in the heart of Canberra. There is an excellent opportunity to make this a feature of central Canberra, rather than see it as a patch of vegetation that is in the way of commercial developments. For instance, educational material about the significance of the area could be provided to adjacent hotels, to increase appreciation of both staff and patrons as to the uniqueness and special values of this area.
FOG believes that the land manager for York Park is obliged to maintain matters of national environmental significance in its jurisdiction under the EPBC Act, including listed endangered ecological communities like Natural Temperate Grasslands and listed endangered species such as Golden Sun Moth. FOG is writing to you to ask that you do so at York Park by rectifying the weed situation and returning to the site’s Grassland Maintenance Plan.
If this request should be directed to someone other than yourself, FOG would appreciate your advice as to who it should approach.
John Fitz Gerald
13 January 2013
Dr Margaret Kitchin, Manager, Conservation Research, ESDD
Appendix B: Recent history of the York Park site
FOG has already pointed out above that it was centrally involved in a community program monitoring GSM around the ACT, including at York Park, as openly published in 20091 and accessible on our organization’s website via www.fog.org.au/Reports/GSM final report 20100100.pdf.
Block 3 section 22 Barton has been subject to several EPBC referrals already. In the 2009/4871 referral FOG notes that:
- The block contained 0.5ha of NTG6
- Population estimates for the GSM were provided: 524 in 1992, 456 in 1993, 736 in 1994 and either 440 or 1230 in 2006 (depending on the estimation method used, and females underestimated or not included, larvae not included)7
- An NTG maintenance plan was developed2. Objectives of the weed management in this plan included
- eradication – no plants of the target species remain on subject site
- suppression – reduce density of weeds within infested area and prevent infestation from spreading
- containment – define the boundary of existing infestation and prevent spread beyond that line
- The maintenance plan identified a number of threatening plant species, including several that are declared pest species in the ACT, such as Chilean Needlegrass and African Lovegrass.
- A condition of approval for this referral was that “the action will be undertaken in compliance with the Natural Temperate Grasslands Maintenance Plan that was submitted as part of the referral…”
At a similar time the ACT Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment(CSE)8 noted that:
- “weed…. invasion is serious at the site and a critical threshold is being approached …” and
- “A comprehensive Grassland Maintenance Pan was available and this provides clear and scientific guidelines on the management of environmental weeds at the site”.
Three years later, in the 2012/6606 referral, the block is noted as containing 0.4ha of NTG99
FOG visited the site in 2009, and again in 2012. On its second visit we observed deterioration in the quality of the NTG area In January 2013 FOG wrote to the Department of Finance and Deregulation pointing out the degradation of the EPBC-protected site due to weeds increasing. That letter is copied here for reference (appendix A). FOG did not receive any response.
In his report to the CSE in 201410, Dr. Kenneth Hodgkinson stated that, in relation to York Park,
“The Management Plan is comprehensive, specific and is an excellent example of what a MP should contain. However on completion of the third visit to the site, it became apparent that management of weeds at the site is inadequate. The MP stated that the significant weed species should be eradicated from the site (this had not been achieved) and that the two planted native grasses should be contained to the planted areas (these two grasses were actively spreading beyond their planted areas and were beginning to threaten the habitat of the GSM). The action required in the immediate to short term is to commit more resources to weed elimination and native grass confinement at the site under the guidance of a qualified botanist with knowledge of weed management in NTG.”
1. A Richter, W Osborne, G Robertson and S Hnatiuk. Community Monitoring of Golden Sun Moths in the Australian Capital Territory Region, 2008-2009. November 2009
2. Umwelt. Golden sun moth and natural temperate grassland vegetation management plan, block 3, section 22, Barton ACT – final. January 2016
3. Umwelt. Briefing note to Department of Finance. August 2017
4. Umwelt. Offset analysis report, Block 3 Section 22 and Proposed Offset Sites – FINAL. January 2016
5. Umwelt. Year 2 / baseline vegetation condition monitoring report, block 48 Wallaroo Road, Hall ACT – final. January 2016
6. Department of Finance and Deregulation. Natural Temperate Grassland Maintenance Plan, Block 3 Section 22 Barton, ACT. June 2008
7. A Rowell. Survey and impact assessment at Golden Sun Moth Synemon plana site, Blocks 3 and 7, Section 22 Barton (York Park). May 2007
8. Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment. Report on ACT Lowland Grassland Investigation. March 2009
9. DMcC Hogg, DJ Moore and K Nash. Barton section 22 block 14 stage 1 development ecological assessment including potential shading impacts on the York Park conservation site. October 2012
10. KC Hodgkinson. Condition of selected Natural Temperate Grassland sites in urban and peri-urban Canberra. March 2014