30 August 2022

The Conservation Council ACT Region and Friends of Grasslands is calling on the Federal Government to withdraw Defence Housing Australia’s proposed urban development over nationally significant and critically endangered Natural Temperate Grasslands in the Belconnen region.

Defence Housing Australia, a wholly owned Commonwealth Government agency, has put forward a proposal for approximately 443 dwellings, leading to the loss of approximately 15.8 hectares of what are critically endangered ecological communities under Commonwealth environment laws, and likely the degradation of much more. The proposal has just been referred for assessment by DHA under federal environmental laws despite the clear environmental damage that will occur should it proceed.

The housing development would cut the threatened ecosystem in two, and greatly increase the danger to the surviving remnants from weed invasion and recreational use, and fragment populations of the vulnerable striped legless lizard.

Given the Federal Government’s shared concerns about the recently released 2021 State of the Environment Report, which showed most of Australia’s environmental indicators are in decline, it is disappointing that DHA, as a Federal agency, are even proceeding with this project that reaches into areas previously considered most suitable for conservation.

More than 100 experts and environmental organisations have spoken out against the development, and over 650 people have signed a petition calling on DHA not to proceed. In the lead-up to the 2022 Federal Election, over 70 Canberrans rallied at the site opposing the development, and many more wrote to their local candidates calling for action.

Helen Oakey, Executive Director of the Conservation Council ACT Region, said:

“We are living in an extinction crisis. The state of our natural environment is in a poor or declining state almost everywhere across the country. Against this backdrop, it is obvious that proposing to build over critically endangered grasslands at Lawson is unacceptable.

“Building 443 houses at Lawson north, including over areas of critically endangered habitat, has always been a bad idea.

“Two significant reports in the last two years – the Samuel Review into the EPBC Act and the 2021 State of the Environment report –  have clearly demonstrated that the federal environment laws are failing to protect the environment. Species and habitats that should be protected are actually in decline.

“The Federal Government is the proponent in this project – the same Federal Government that was concerned and outraged at the findings of the State of the Environment report. Here is a great opportunity for Ministers Matt Thistlethwaite and Katy Gallagher, with their shared oversight of DHA, to cancel the project and conserve the environmental values at this site.

“Lawson north contains not one, but two critically endangered ecological communities, and given the status of these types of habitats, it is unacceptable that we should lose any more.

“The environment at Lawson is nationally significant. DHA knew this when they purchased  the site in 2017; they also know that current planning laws have already determined that the majority of the site should only be used for conservation purposes.

“This project is a classic case of death by a thousand cuts to our biodiversity. If you are wondering why our biodiversity is in decline, then look no further.”

Rainer Rehwinkel, Grassy Ecosystems Ecologist, Friends of Grasslands said:

“The ACT is a national stronghold for the Commonwealth-listed critically endangered Natural Temperate Grassland. Once widespread across the south-east of Australia, less than 1% are now formally protected.

“Grasslands support many threatened species, for example, the Golden Sun Moth, Striped Legless Lizard, and Perunga Grasshopper. Destroying their habitat at Lawson will only make their survival more precarious.

“Although it may not look like it to the untrained eye, critically endangered Natural Temperate Grasslands, like those at Lawson North, are incredibly diverse. Over 500 native plant species call the habitat home and an even greater number of animal species, most of which are insects.

“It’s disappointing to see DHA persist with this project knowing that these nationally significant environmental values exist at the site. While the proponents claim that protecting the rest of the site is an adequate offset, the reality is we should not lose any more of this critically endangered ecosystem. There comes a point when you can’t offset environmental destruction anymore.”