ACT State of the Environment Report: Biodiversity Issues
The Conservation Council welcomed the release of the 2015 ACT State of the Environment report, tabled in the Legislative Assembly in February 2016. The report gives a wealth of detail, and diligence in identifying issues for the environment in the ACT. There are a range of concerns the report raises for our environment. We cover a few top issues relating to biodiversity conservation in this weekly wrap.
Our first concern is lack of progress: “progress in conservation of biodiversity, including both habitats and species, remains a challenge. In addition, pressures leading to habitat loss and modification threaten the ACT’s biodiversity” (Section 7).
The Conservation Council supports the view that biodiversity has its own intrinsic value and notes that the report also points to many reasons biodiversity is important to human systems – including ecosystem services such as clean air, clean water – and biodiversity also has a role in maintaining the resilience of ecosystems: “Many scientists consider that biodiversity plays an ‘insurance’ role in ecosystems — making species and ecosystems more resilient to shocks and pressures. A diversity of species, ecosystems and ecological processes can help ecosystems to maintain their core functions in the face of environmental change. The loss of species or changes in the species mix may reduce the capacity of ecosystems to support current biodiversity and ecosystem services.” (Introduction).
Our concern is that biodiversity in the ACT is suffering and that this is indicated in a range of ways. The report says: “For vulnerable species, notable trends during the reporting period (2011—2015) include a decline in Brown Treecreeper, Glossy Black Cockatoo and Scarlet Robin recordings … For endangered species, notable trends during the recording period include a decline in Regent Honeyeater, Grassland Earless Dragon and Northern Corroboree Frog recordings.” (Main findings)
State of the Environment Report: Grasslands
The Report pays attention to grasslands, often overlooked in their importance to local ecology and vulnerable to development pressures: “Natural Temperate Grassland is one of the most threatened natural plant communities in Australia. Before European settlement, such grasslands occupied 11% of the ACT. Today, they occupy less than 1% of the ACT, and what remains is degraded and continually threatened by human activity and invasion by exotic plant species.” (Reference 66)
The Government must continue to fund appropriate invasive weed management programs and to reduce developmental pressures so we can protect our natural temperate grasslands – which at some times of the year in good seasons are “wildflower meadows” appreciated for their natural beauty by many Canberrans.
State of the Environment Report: Cats and Connectivity
The State of the Environment Report makes an additional case for introducing cat containment across the whole of the ACT: “To identify areas where stray and domestic cats may have the greatest impact on wildlife, the known ACT habitat of all threatened species and some declining woodland bird species that fall within the categories of ‘fauna of concern’ was mapped (Figure 7.29). The map shows that the existing policy of applying cat containment only to new suburbs adjoining nature reserves has created an isolated mosaic of declarations that does not reflect the potential predation threat that domestic cats pose to vulnerable native wildlife across the ACT. Most cat containment suburbs adjoin older suburbs that have no containment rules, even though they may border the same nature reserves.” (Indicators). The ACT Government should use its existing powers under the Domestic Animals Act 2000 to make a forward declaration for all of Canberra to be cat containment by 2025.
The report points out that there are sites where restoration of connectivity, perhaps even in the form of paddock trees, can assist to maintain habitats. “The Barrett and Love analysis reveals the parts of the landscape that are key to existing wildlife movement and the areas where functioning connections can be restored with the least effort. It also highlights areas of key habitat or linkage value that need special consideration. Examples of how the data can be applied — including restoration and development in the Majura Valley, and conservation assessment within the Gungahlin Strategic Assessment, along with key woodland habitat and linkages across the ACT — are shown in Figures 7.23—7.25.”
State of the Environment Report: Offsets
One of the more worrying trends is that the ACT is increasingly using offsets to address urban development’s removal of habitat: Direct offsets are land added to environmental reserves to address potential development pressures. In the ACT, offsets provide ‘environmental compensation’ for ‘a development that is likely to have adverse environmental impact on a protected matter. Direct offsets are an indicator of land area added to the reserve system, and also of the areas of nationally significant ecological communities and/or protected matters given over to development.
Though the government is already using offsets, the report shows that the systems have not yet been in place log enough to provide transparency and accountability and certainly not to show that there has been an environmental gain.
Until early 2015, there was no systematic approach to the recording of offsets required under Parts 8 or 9 of the EPBC Act. This was problematic because it meant that the potential cumulative or combined impacts of development and the potential improvements to EPBC-listed ecological communities and species were not being recognised or addressed.
The ACT Government is in the process of redressing this issue. The ACT Environmental Offsets Policy Delivery Framework released in April 2015, provides for the development and maintenance of a publicly available register of offset sites. The register will record details such as the location of the offset, the relevant protected matters and ongoing management actions. There is also now an environmental offsets layer included on the ACT Government’s interactive mapping service, ACTMAPi. Although the records are incomplete the Report shows that at least 80 hectares of nationally important habitat has been lost over the reporting period.