The package embodies altruistic aspirations, namely to
* Ensure land clearing is assessed under a single set of rules, simplifying the task of farmers in managing their land
* Conserve biodiversity at a bioregional level
* Give landholders incentives to conserve biodiversity on private land
* Reverse the historical decline of biodiversity in NSW
However, being a review of many past policies and programs and an amalgamation of four current sets of legislation, the new package has accompanying baggage, which unfortunately will limit realisation of the above aspiration and realisation of biodiversity improvement in NSW into the future, ie the proposed policies and legislative support package is not comprehensive.
In particular the policy focuses on:
Conservation of specific 'higher value conservation lands' whereas much of our wildlife inhabit a regional landscape in which rare, threatened, endangered, migratory and not so rare species move on a season or daily basis to feed, to breed, for protection, or as a drought refuge. Hence habitat connectivity within a landscape is as important to regional (and State) biodiversity as conservation of the higher value sites.
Current land clearing (of trees) issues, for urban development, agriculture or mining, and overlooks the need for habitat regeneration and restoration within the rest of the State, ie possibly as much as two-thirds of the State, which has been cleared, or changed significantly, under past land settlement policies and programs of Government, ie the Robertson Land Act of 1861, the Soldier Settlement programs post major wars, all of which requires settlers to 'clear their blocks' as a key condition of continued occupancy.
Iconic areas of high conservation value and rare and endangered or threatened species under the 'Save of Species' program and either overlooks or neglects the habitat and biodiversity needs of 'lesser' value areas and species, which in turn could therefore become rare and endangered in the future.
Prescribed controls by a new (reconstituted) government agency rather than engagement with the broader community, including regional landholders, to develop plans for maintenance of biodiversity within their area of interest, and especially for covenanted lands. The proposal for annual plans, as opposed to say five year plans and annual programs, will constitute a high workload for both landholders and the proposed Biodiversity Conservation Trust.
The land clearing 'offsets policy' still results in a significant net loss of biodiversity, ie up to 50 percent, and the options for offsets when 'like for like' lands run out or are not available, other than payments to the Trust fund, ie passing on the problem to the Trust, is not clear.
In general, while some 'wildlife species' are site specific, eg plants, fungi, bacteria and many smaller animals, most are more mobile and move between habitat 'sites', between properties with different ownership, across regions, and for our migratory species across the State and country. Effective biodiversity conservation therefore involves not just a specific site, a specific developer, or a specific landholder, but also adjacent landholders, whole landscapes and in many instances whole communities of landholders. Landscape connectivity id critical in this context, so that not only is the habitat site important but also the connectivity between habitat clusters. Movement of wildlife and their welfare, eg their breeding routines, can be disrupted by broadscale clearing for agriculture or a mine development, by construction of a new highway or by suburban development. To achieve real biodiversity conservation across the State, the Government, through the proposed Biodiversity conservation Trust, will need the engage, not only with specific developers or landholders on specific offsets, but also with the broader community and recognised conservation groups such as Landcare, Bushcare, etc.
In conclusion, the proposed policy and legislation is not a comprehensive plan for biodiversity conservation management in NSW. However, it does provide a once in a generation opportunity to get it right, to address the mistakes of the past and to capture community enthusiasm and capacity to make a difference. Sure, the current clearing pressures need to be addressed, but where it involves clearing of remnant vegetation in the name of 'development' the appropriate offsets and restitution needs to be realised.
Ecologically Sustainable Development
- What strengths or weaknesses do you see in the proposed offset rules?
The new biodiversity offsets scheme envisages 'that permanently protecting an area of similar (or higher biodiversity value) land will offset the loss of biodiversity caused by clearing', and over time, the biodiversity gain by managing the similar vegetation will go towards the biodiversity lost through clearing. Really!! The statement defies logic. There will still be a net loss of biodiversity!
Factors other than area or site, eg habitat connectivity, access to water, etc, are critical to maintenance of biodiversity.
The proposal envisages 'biodiversity conservation actions' at the 'bottom of the hierarchy of options to satisfy and offset obligation', however they may move up the options ladder over time and if a 'like for like offset' cannot be found. Habitat restoration and regeneration activity, including engagement with community groups needs to be built into the legislative package.
'Non major projects' - how are they determined?
Assessment of 'serious and irreversible impacts' should include large scale clearing, mining developments, road development, especially new highways, and urban subdivision.
Most rural (farmer) landholders are very cautious about formal covenants over their landholdings which could limit the ability of the proposed Trust to sell biodiversity credits.
Strategic biodiversity certification, which would enable proponents to use a 'broader range of conservation measures to offset the impacts of biodiversity' - what does this really mean?
Native Plants and Animals
- What other activities could be covered by a code of practice for wildlife management and why?
The term 'wildlife' used often in the discussion paper, is not defined in the draft Bill, though the terms 'animals' and 'plants' are defined.
The discussion paper suggests that protected plants and animals and threatened ecological communities, exempt, licenced or controlled activities will be defined in the regulations. Two activities which need close attention are:
* The cutting down and removal of trees with habitat hollows, alive or dead, for firewood, and
* The propagation of plants, including the collection of seed or cuttings, their propagation, sale and use in habitat, or landscape, restoration and regeneration.
Such activities might be encompassed within 'codes of practice' and / or operator / organisational accreditation.
Including the flagship 'Saving our Species' program in the legislation and allocation of an additional $100 million over five years to the program is laudable, but also important are the habitat restoration, rehabilitation and connectivity programs managed by the Environmental Trust and OEH eg the Great Eastern Ranges program. Both programs rely heavily on the good will and contributions of numerous community groups, such as Landcare, the National Parks Association and the Friends of
Private Land Conservation
- What needs to be taken into account in developing the Biodiversity Conservation Investment Strategy to deliver a strategic approach to investing in biodiversity conservation in NSW?
The proposal envisages that the new private land conservation framework 'will deliver a full range of initiatives and incentives to support landholders who want to establish a protected area on their land'. It does not. For example, it is limited to :
* To 'higher value conservation lands',
* Specific sites,
* Does not encompass habitat connectivity and multiple landholdings on a landscape scale, and
* Formal covenants on title will be an added cost and real psychological barrier to implementation for all levels of conservation agreements.
* But it is voluntary!!!
Fire is not mentioned but possibly the most significant threat to conserved sites.
Registration of conservation agreements on title will definitely limit the number of private landholders who are prepared to collaborate in this proposal. Cost will rise once the legal fraternity get involved!
The Trust is expected to 'have a close relationship with landholders', 'to work proactively with landholders' and 'increase conservation activities on private land across NSW', albeit with a limited budget and small staff. It is envisaged that the Trust will work with Landcare and Local Land Services to do this, but how? Both groups will need funding to do so.
The proposed role of the Trust in 'pooling offset obligations' and 'establishing larger and more viable offset sites' is laudable, but is it practical given the concomitant 'like for like' obligations?
The proposal is silent on the considerable connectivity conservation work on private holdings linking, through renovation and restoration works, existing areas of remnant vegetation of undefined 'high or lower conservation value' across a landscape. Such initiatives, often fostered by local Landcare Groups, encompass multiple land owners , both private and public, eg travelling stock reserves, but pose a challenge to the Trust as an offset under a formal land covenants proposal.
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