The report highlights the decline in biodiversity, e.g. 59% of all native mammals in NSW are now listed as threatened with extinction, along with 34% of amphibians, 30% of birds and 14% of native plants. Further species losses are also expected because of an ‘extinction debt’, the time lag between habitat loss and species extinction and the threats from invasive species. At the same time the report points out:
Growing pressures from increased population and increasing levels of economic activity will continue to drive demand on our landscapes for food, fibre, minerals, energy, residential development, recreation; as well as for conservation of aesthetic, cultural and biodiversity values.
Currently biodiversity is protected under four specific pieces of legislation:
- Native Vegetation Act 2003
- Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995
- Nature Conservation Trust Act 2001
- parts of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 relating to private land conservation and native animal and plant management
To address these challenges, the report states that reform of the existing legislative system and associated implementation mechanisms is required to stabilise the loss of biodiversity, while at the same time facilitating sustainable development. In brief the report recommends:
- Repealing the three acts referred to above and parts of the National Parks Act and reconstituting them in a new Biodiversity Conservation Act.
- Focusing on conserving biodiversity at a bioregional or state scale.
- Creating landscape scale conservation and productivity through a connected network of public and private land.
- Management of native vegetation on existing agricultural land be assisted and supervised by local land services, while new agricultural developments which would impact on native vegetation would require consent from the appropriate authorities (often local government) as occurs for any other change in land use.
- Identifying areas of high-conservation value outside of the public reserve system and promoting private land conservation by providing funding for their long-term on-going management.
- Encouraging the broader and deeper application of offsetting, as approved in the NSW Biodiversity Offsetting Policy for Major Projects and through mechanisms such as biodiversity certification and BioBanking.
One of the major drivers of the review was frustration felt by agricultural land managers about the complexity and delays involved in the current land clearing laws and inequities where other land users such as mines could clear land with a lot less regulation. The review recommends that the basic standard of the Native Vegetation Act that the landowner ‘maintains or improves’ vegetation be abolished.
The panel proposes that some agricultural land management should be supervised regionally by the local land services as exempt or code-based activities. This could apply to areas that are currently protected.
Land clearing will require development consent under the planning act. This will apply to all areas, including coastal and urban areas and all types of development. This will increase the role of local councils in assessing and clearing applications.
The report acknowledges that the changes could lead to a loss of native vegetation but hopes that the government can make up for this by encouraging private biodiversity conservation with public investment support. This would:
- include, where feasible, restoration and rehabilitation activities in areas of the state that are extensively cleared or degraded
- facilitate off-site biodiversity offsetting
- support the development and management of a comprehensive network of biodiversity corridors
- ensure the Saving our Species program is adequately resourced
To quote from the report:
If this is done properly, including programs to harness community goodwill and effort, the government can achieve a goal of conserving biodiversity at a bioregional and state scale while at the same time facilitating sustainable development.
All this is a big ask.
Will future governments maintain the funding commitment required to achieve the conservation goals while being constantly under pressure to fund new infrastructure for our expanding population? The use of offsetting is questionable as explained in STEP Matters Issue 181 (p6).
Other issues are the resourcing of local land services personnel and availability of adequate data on a bioregional scale. What ability will local services have to assess cumulative impacts? There is mention of the use of third-party certification but will their qualifications be tested adequately?
The release of the draft legislation has been postponed. In the meantime several conservation organisations are monitoring progress.
The Nature Conservation Council has released a New Deal for Nature document to define the principles that should be in the legislation. This can be used as a guide for submissions (see www.nature.org.au/campaigns/nature-laws).