The Conservation Council has long had an interest in, and concern about, biodiversity offsets.

At first glance offsets are about destruction of some area of nature with a promise of future replacement of those destroyed values. Offsets are designed for development that is undertaken by developers and government. What could possibly go wrong?

But offsets are here with us for the time being. They have been adopted as a tool by governments and are being used for development here in the ACT and across Australia.

The ALP-Green Government passed legislation on 23 September 2014 that we suggested would lead to a net loss of biodiversity and needed to be fixed in relation to biodiversity offsets.

The Planning and Development (Bilateral Approval) Amendment Bill 2014 did not adequately apply the avoid, mitigate hierarchy through a referral and assessment stage to ensure offsets are only considered when appropriate and as a last resort. It did not include a referral stage which is currently available under federal environmental law. Further, it did not consistently apply the principles of additionality, like-for-like and security of offsets. Finally, there was inadequate transparency and accountability in the legislation in regards to proponents and how and when effective offsets management and reporting would be undertaken.

There was no public involvement in Offset Management Plans. It did not provide for public input and it did not actually even require the development of offset management plans.

The Conservation Council subsequently said in its 2016 election “asks” policy document:

Offsets: ensure annual public reporting of biodiversity outcomes of offset sites, offset management plans are subject to formal public consultation and the offset calculator reports are included on the public biodiversity offsets register.

At our Environment Exchange of 31 October 2017 we asked: Biodiversity offsets: are they working in the ACT?

We had a range of speakers who have looked at, studied, or implemented offsets. The discussion was a look at the processes used for offsets and how they are delivering in practice.

Speakers

Presentations

Phil Gibbons

Phil Gibbons discussed biodiversity offsetting over ten years in New South Wales. ACT’s biodiversity offset policy is based on the same assessment methods as the NSW Native Vegetation ACT 2005. 

The majority of offsets in NSW (82%) are currently obtained by averted loss i.e. avoiding future loss of biodiversity through protection and maintenance, for example clearing firewood. In theory, this approach offsets impacts on biodiversity that cannot be easily restored. However, averted loss will ultimately only slow the rate of biodiversity loss.

Restoration also has its issues. Seedlings can not compensate for clearing mature trees and the loss of native plant species richness, over-storey cover, and trees with hollows. Mobile species such as birds are particularly affected, with bird species richness observed to decline with clearing of woody cover.

A no-net-loss policy will only work if introduced alongside actions that address parts of society/the economy that represent the drivers of biodiversity loss.

ACT Parks and Conservation Service

Next we heard from a panel of ACT Parks and Conservation Service (PCS) officers responsible for implementing ACT biodiversity offsets.

Matters of environmental significance (MNES) currently requiring offsets in the ACT  include:

  • White Box – Yellow Box – Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy Woodland
  • Natural Temperate Grassland
  • Striped Legless Lizard
  • Golden Sun Moth
  • Pink-tailed Worm-lizard
  • Superb Parrot

Lexi Williams outlined how PCS are delivering offset commitments by securing long term funding, standardising monitoring, prioritising strategic data collection and increasing collaboration between different sections of government.

Michael Mulvaney, ecologist with ACT Parks and Conservation Service, described how research of Canberra’s Superb Parrot and other species will help to inform future planning and offset activities

Bethany Dunne presented a case study on Isaacs Ridge tree thinning. Previous land management practices left the site severely lacking strong and healthy tree canopy and minimal diversity in mid-story plants typical to Box Gum Grassy Woodland.

High densities of regenerating eucalypts are competing for limited resources and the trees are in poor health, showing signs of stunted growth, heavily infested with parasitic insects, and showing high levels of die-back across all age cohorts.

The project aims to thin regenerating eucalypts and wattles (targeting smaller trees) to reduce competition for nutrients and water.

You can view notes on Ranger Bethany Dunne’s case study on strategic conservation grazing in her presentation Environmental Offsets: Implementation case studies [PDF].

Jenny Bounds – Biodiversity Working Group

Our final speaker Jenny Bounds and members of the Conservation Council Biodiversity Working Group have looked at existing offset arrangements in ACT and developed assessment criteria from studying seven of the sites on the ACT offsets register. The criteria ask important questions relating to offset conditions and plans; habitat improvements; monitoring and reporting; and community involvement.

TheBiodiversity Working Group identified several issues and preliminary conclusions from the site assessments, amongst them a net loss of habitat; untested restoration projects being deemed unachievable; “False offsets” (one site was already a reserve and another a reserve enhanced by community/Parkcare); and issues with Commonwealth in compliance and auditing.

TheBiodiversity Working Group agreed with Friends of Grasslands that the three key questions on offsets are:

  • Have procedural requirements been fulfilled?
  • Has environmental quality of the site improved?
  • What lessons can be learned to improve policy and practice?

Further action

  • If you have knowledge or experience of any ACT biodiversity offsets sites please send your comments on the three key questions:
    • Have procedural requirements been fulfilled?
    • Has environmental quality of the site improved?
    • What lessons can be learned to improve policy and practice?
  • The ACT Government is developing a monitoring and planning framework for offsets (and broader) to inform land management decisions. Contact ACT Government Offsets Planning Team to make comment or add yourself to a mailing list to be kept informed of developments.
  • If you would like to get involved in the biodiversity offsets discussion you can direct any insights or questions to us here.

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