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Nature reserves have been in hot demand since the COVID-19 lockdown began. As people have been prevented from getting to their usual recreation activities, they have instead taken to their local streets – to walk the dog, jog, and ride their bikes – and heading into Canberra’s nature reserves often only a few hundred metres from home. 

For those who enjoy getting close to nature, it has been more challenging than usual. Namadgi National Park was closed in January after the bushfire, and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve was closed after it was inundated with people during social distancing restrictions. At a time when many of us have felt confined in our houses, being able to stretch our legs out in ‘the bush” has provided welcome relief, supporting both our physical and mental wellbeing. Indeed, we are lucky that we live in a city where so many people live within 500m of one of the nature reserves that make up the Canberra Nature Park, and many are discovering the benefits.

But while recreation is undertaken in nature reserves, they are primarily a haven for our wildlife and native plant species. As such, not all activities are suitable or permitted. A recent example of why this is so was an incident that involved a wombat burrow being excavated after an off-lead dog became trapped. Dogs, and for that matter cats, are not compatible with our native species, and are not allowed off-leash in reserve areas. Not only does this highlight that nature reserves are not compatible with all recreation activities, it also speaks to the importance of providing people with access to high quality urban green space close to their homes where they can recreate without putting biodiversity at risk. Urban open space has an important role in protecting nature by shifting the impacts of people away from sensitive areas.

The pressure on native flora and fauna from humans is not new, and the impacts that result from urban development in the ACT have been significant – loss of habitat, increased risk of weeds, the impacts of non-native animals including cats and dogs, and noise, on the habitats of bird species, and increased human traffic impacting on animals in grassland habitats, such as the endangered pink-tailed worm lizard or the perunga grasshopper. The ACT is home to seven Critically Endangered species, 18 Endangered species and 26 Vulnerable species under national environment laws, and swathes of wood and grasslands across the ACT have recently been officially designated as critically endangered. It is a constant challenge in the ACT to manage conservation areas in a way that not only protects them, but restores and enhances their health. Many thousands of hours of government and volunteer work is invested every year pulling out weeds, managing rabbit burrows, planting appropriate native plants and in other ways enhancing or protecting habitat.

Yet new urban developments are still being built too close to areas that need protection in the ACT which puts pressure on biodiversity. The conservation community is talking with government about protecting two such areas in Molonglo currently: one is a contested buffer between Kama Nature Reserve and the new suburb of Whitlam, and the other is the small area known as Coombs ‘tip’ – a peninsula of land that extends into the bend of the Molonglo River corridor. 

Kama Nature Reserve is home to a number of nationally important species, including Pink-tailed Worm-lizard, critically endangered Yellow Box – Blakely’s Red Gum grassy woodlands, Natural Temperate Grasslands, and a rarely remaining example of woodlands interfacing with grasslands. The importance of this area is reflected in the heritage listing of this biodiversity “hotspot”. The ACT Government has so far refused to commit to a 200m buffer zone along the eastern side of the reserve that was requested by conservation groups, instead opting for a buffer that shrinks to just 70m at the southern end. In addition, urban development was planned to occur in part of the area that is heritage-listed. Rather than just agree to the 200m zone that provides protection to both the reserve and the heritage-listed area, the Government appears intent on building housing as close as they can to the reserve. A major concern of the Conservation Council is that if wildfires arrive from the west, Kama will likely be a key forward fire fighting zone (including bulldozing breaks) in order to prevent property and life loss in Whitlam, currently being built to the east of Kama. Such damaging actions must occur outside the reserve, and the buffer must be big enough to contain such actions. 

In Coombs, the Government seems determined to pursue the development of a small area of land for the sake of just 30 residences, sacrificing a wonderful opportunity to put aside the Coombs tip as a spectacular urban open space with views over the Molonglo River corridor. In addition, retaining open space on this land would give additional protection to the biodiversity in the nearby river corridor, where there is identified worm-lizard habitat and platypus have been spotted. Importantly the Coombs Peninsula can provide a place for the local community to recreate that is not inside the nature reserve, a call that was reaffirmed by a recent Legislative Assembly motion in November 2019 which called on the Government to retain the area as open space.

Both these sites are relatively small, and could be put aside to help protect the nearby natural values. Yet the Suburban Land Agency has been charged with the task of squeezing houses into every available square metre of land to achieve the required housing “yield”, putting additional pressure on our local biodiversity. 

As our city’s population grows, there is a real threat that further greenfield developments will add pressure on the ACT’s important species and habitats. Without a change in approach, the death by a thousand cuts for our biodiversity will continue – like these small areas of land in Whitlam and Coombs – where the short-term drive for housing will overtake the need for environmental protection again and again. 

Yet what we’ve seen in recent times is that people do value nature, for what it gives to us, and for itself. People also need urban open space near their houses – wide open places outside where they can recreate without impacting on local biodiversity, something that will also become increasingly important as the city densifies in already established areas. If we genuinely do value our nature, we need to give it the space it requires to not just survive, but to flourish.