ANPSA Conservation report, April 2021, Dr Eddy Wajon

By Eddy Wajon, uploaded by Heather Miles

Planting underway and remnant paddock tree

Dr Eddy Wajon, National Conservation Officer for ANPSA, the Australian Native Plants Society (Australia), provides this conservation report.

  1. Jandakot Airport, Western Australia

Jandakot Airport Holdings (JAH) finally released its preliminary draft 2020 Master Plan for public comment on 17 March 2021.  It is now available for a 60 business day public comment period concluding 15 June 2021.  After an initial examination, it appears that JAH are no longer proposing to clear or change the ‘purpose’ of 76ha (65%) of the 119ha of the native vegetation in Conservation Precincts 1A, 1B, and 2 that JAH are required to conserve in perpetuity.  I am sure that this is due in large part a result of lobbying our local Liberal and Labor Commonwealth MHR representatives and of our ANPSA-funded meetings in Canberra in August 2018 following which JAH seem to have received the message when they have approached the Commonwealth Government and the bureaucracy that this proposal is not acceptable.

However, there has been a change to the proposal approved in the 2010 Master Plan, namely that the road proposed and approved to be constructed through Conservation Precincts 1A and 1B has been shifted so that it is now proposed to go through Conservation Precinct 2. 

Action

I suggest that we oppose this change, and propose that the road be deleted entirely or that its location be moved so that it does not result in any clearing.

2. Myrtle rust 

A National Myrtle Rust Symposium was convened in Ballina, NSW, 23-25 March 2021. There was both in-person and on-line attendance options.  The symposium brought key stakeholders together to build a community of interest, share the latest research, activities, thinking and knowledge, and build co-ordination to work through ways of implementing the National Action Plan.  Workshop sessions and discussion were designed to maximise the effectiveness of the Action Plan in reducing the risk of new strains entering Australia, reduce the risk of greater spread, understand the impacts on both species and ecologies, and options for conservation of threatened species. Bonnie Yee, from Native Plants Queensland, was present in-person for 2.5 days, while I was online on the last half day. 

Key points

Significant points raised were the following:

  • Myrtle Rust can be spread by wind, cut flowers, nursery plant trade and clothes. Spores can be airborne and also collected by bees!
  • While action to prevent the entry of Myrtle Rust into Australia has been lost, the fight to prevent its spread to unaffected parts of the country is not lost and can be successful
  • Thus, measures can and need to be taken to prevent the entry of Myrtle Rust, into Western Australia for example, to identify if and when it arrives in currently unaffected parts of the country, and actions need to be taken to remove it and/or prevent it having impact in those areas
  • There is a need for actions, and there are potentially successful strategies, in those parts of Australia that are infected with Myrtle Rust to prevent, minimise, treat or sequester plant species from significant adverse impacts, including extinction
  • Further, action needs to be taken to prevent the entry into Australia of other or more virulent strains of the rust
  • Necessary and successful actions and strategies include collecting plant germplasm (seed, cuttings, fruit, suckers, tissue) for indefinite safe and secure storage or propagation of at-risk plants for current use and future recovery, but each of these needs further work
  • Identifying and collecting Myrtle Rust-resistant genotypes of at-risk plant species for further propagation or cross-breeding
  • Protecting at-risk plant species, locations and communities (including nurseries) through fungicides, biocontrols and RNAi vaccines, each of which requires lots more work to be rolled out at large scale
  • How WA has addressed Phytophtora cinnamomi Dieback is a model of how Myrtle Rust can be tackled.

Apart from the scientific, biological issues associated with Myrtle Rust management, sociological, logistical, financial, ecological, ethical and legal issues need to be addressed.  These include issues such as the following:

  • raising public and political awareness of the importance and risk of Myrtle Rust, and building trust, interest and motivation to become involved
  • involving the public in recognising and reacting to incursions of Myrtle Rust
  • deploying biosecurity controls at both external (Australian) and internal (State and regional) borders, similar to that deployed for COVID-19
  • training and employing biosecurity measures
  • re-wilding and re-introducing/translocating different genotypes of native plants
  • involvement, ownership and protocols of Indigenous communities.

Actions

The overarching message from the Symposium is that something can and must be done to combat Myrtle Rust.  The Action Plan is a very good framework for action, but it needs widespread public and political support, cultural change and substantial funding.  ANPSA can and must be involved.  What ANPSA and individuals of Member Societies can and must do are the following:

  • educating the community through print, electronic and audio media by preparing and delivering content and talent
  • recognising, collecting, identifying and propagating Myrtle Rust-resistant strains of susceptible plants
  • recognising and reporting incursions of Myrtle Rust
  • alerting and lobbying Commonwealth and State politicians and bureaucrats to encourage them to invest money in the Myrtle Rust National Action Plan
  • reading and signing the Statement of Concern petition: We call upon all Australian governments to respond to the threat of Myrtle Rust through co-ordinated and collaborative action to implement the National Action Plan for Myrtle Rust in Australia. https://www.apbsf.org.au/statement-of-concern/

3. Bushfires

ANPSA made a submission to the National Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements on 17 April 2020.  The report of the Royal Commission, containing 80 recommendations, was tabled in the Commonwealth Parliament on 28 October 2020.  However, ANPSA had no formal feedback or even received advice that the final report of the Royal Commission had been completed and released.

Although born out of the 2019-2020 bushfires, the Royal Commission did not focus solely on that natural disaster.  It also looked at natural disasters more generally – that is, naturally occurring, rapid onset events that cause serious disruption to a community or region, such as floods, bushfires, earthquakes, storms, cyclones, storm surges, landslides and tsunami.  Its central task was to inquire into, and report on, national natural disaster arrangements, arrangements involving all levels of government,

The Royal Commission recognised and stated that extreme weather has become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable.  Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days.  Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity.  Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense.  Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.

The Royal Commission also recognised that Indigenous land management is an example of how local knowledge has successfully informed land management, and it has done so for tens of thousands of years.  Indigenous land management draws on a deep knowledge of Australia’s landscapes.  It is based on cultural understandings of Country, is tailored to specific places, and engages local people in development and implementation.  Partly for these reasons, Indigenous land management differs widely across Australia.  There is a growing recognition of the value of Indigenous land and fire management practices as a way to mitigate the effects of bushfires and improve disaster resilience.  Governments should therefore continue to engage with Traditional Owners to explore the relationship between Indigenous land management and disaster resilience.

The Royal Commission recommended that State and territory governments should clearly communicate their fuel load management strategies to the public, report on the outcomes of those strategies, and educate the public about fuel and fuel management.  Commonwealth, state and territory governments should also review their legislation and processes relating to vegetation management, bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction, to ensure that there is clarity about how and when land managers can undertake bushfire hazard reduction activities.

The Royal Commission did observe that bushfire hazard reduction can be carried out through fuel management activities such as prescribed burning, and mechanical thinning and slashing.  These activities, if carried out prior to the arrival of an unplanned fire, have the potential to reduce the intensity and rate of spread of a bushfire.  The Royal Commission believed that land managers consider a range of factors when determining the type and extent of bushfire fuel management activities to use, but that due to the varying circumstances and geography in which fuel management is applied, no single fuel management strategy or technique is nationally applicable.  The Royal Commission did also observe that there is strong public interest in, and there are polarising views on, fuel management activities, particularly prescribed burning.

The Report of the Royal Commission also indicated that considerable research has been undertaken on the effectiveness of fuel management, particularly prescribed burning.  This research suggests that:

  • fuel load management, including prescribed burning, can materially reduce the risk to settlements when undertaken in the wildland-urban interface
  • fuel load management in targeted areas in the broader landscape, away from the wildland-urban interface, can materially reduce the wildfire risk to settlements. The areas targeted for these purposes can include high ignition areas (eg high points in the landscape susceptible to lightning strikes), areas where the topography and forest types facilitate fire runs, ridges and other areas known to be associated with high intensity crown fires, and areas that are accessible for suppression and treatment activities
  • fuel management can reduce bushfire-related impacts on ecological assets and areas of high conservation value
  • the amount of prescribed burning in the landscape (independent of the placement or arrangement of treatments) can materially affect the extent of bushfires. However, the evidence also suggests that the effectiveness of prescribed burning varies in different ecosystems and climates
  • the effects of fuel load management in reducing bushfire impacts and enhancing the effectiveness of suppression and other mitigation measures is relatively short-lived. Generally, fuel loads re-accumulate relatively quickly in Australian forests, meaning fuel load management activities must be done reasonably regularly to be effective in mitigating risk.

Consistent with this, research suggests that prescribed burning is most effective in reducing the severity of bushfires in the first 1-4 years post-treatment. Depending on the severity of the weather and forest type, it can aid suppression for up to approximately 15 years.  Weather has the greatest influence on bushfire behaviour and that, as fire weather conditions deteriorate, the influence of fuels declines. This means that the benefits of fuel load management activities also decline as fire weather conditions deteriorate.  Research suggests that most bushfire-related impacts on lives and property in Australia have occurred in severe, extreme or catastrophic fire weather conditions.

The Report of the Royal Commission indicated the role of fuel load in the development of extreme bushfires is complex.  More research is required to better understand the role of fuel loads in extreme bushfire development, or to confirm that no such role exists.  There is a need for continuing research to address significant gaps in the science, including in relation to the role of fuels in extreme fires, and the effectiveness and efficiency of fuel management strategies and techniques.  Nevertheless, the weight of research into the effects of fuel reduction on the propagation of extreme bushfires indicates that as conditions deteriorate, fuel reduction is of diminishing effectiveness, and may have no appreciable effect under extreme conditions.

The Report of the Royal Commission, however, indicated that this does not mean that fuel management cannot be used to reduce risks.  Severe weather conditions do not persist continually.  Where conditions are moderate, even for short periods, there are opportunities for suppression that can be assisted by managing fuel loads.  Furthermore, even in severe weather conditions, substantially reducing fuel availability in the areas surrounding assets should reduce fire intensities and consequent risk.  Reducing available fuels in the landscape can also slow the initial rate of fire spread and fire intensity, which can provide opportunities for fire suppression and thereby reduce the risk of fires escalating into extreme fire event.

However, the Report of the Royal Commission indicated there is no single national fuel management strategy or technique that is applicable across the nation, and included a Table on.  State and territory approaches to managing fuel hazard risk.  The report also noted that all forms of fuel management come with costs and risks.

Therefore, other than recommending that Australian, state and territory governments should review the assessment and approval processes relating to vegetation management, bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction to ensure that there is clarity about the requirements and scope for landholders and land managers to undertake bushfire hazard reduction activities, and minimise the time taken to undertake assessments and obtain approvals, there was no specific recommendation on how to undertake controlled/prescribed burns.

It appeared that some of ANPSA’s comments were noted, particularly those on the effects of prescribed burning, but were not used in framing any specific recommendations.

4. Review of federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Protection Act

ANPSA, Australian Native Plants Society Canberra, Australian Plants Society Keilor Plains and Wildflower Society of WA made submissions into the 2019-2020 Independent Review of the EPBC Act by 17 April 2020.  Several individuals also made submissions.  Broadly, ANPSA’s and other submissions were highly critical of the failure of the EPBC Act, the government and the bureaucracy to protect and conserve Australia’s biodiversity. 

The Final Report of the Review was provided to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment on 30 October 2020, and was publicly released and tabled in Parliament on 28 January 2021.

The Final Report noted that Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat.  The environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand current, emerging or future threats, including climate change.  The environmental trajectory is currently unsustainable.  The Report noted that the EPBC Act does not clearly outline its intended outcomes, and the environment has suffered from 2 decades of failing to continuously improve the law and its implementation.  The Act is complex and cumbersome and it results in duplication with State and Territory development approval processes. This adds costs to business, often with little benefit to the environment.

The Final Report indicated the EPBC Act and its operation requires fundamental reform.  New, legally enforceable National Environmental Standards are the centrepiece of the recommended reforms.  The Report recommends that the Standards should focus on outcomes for matters of national environmental significance and on the fundamental processes for sound decision-making. Standards should prescribe that all activities contribute to national environmental outcomes.  The full suite of National Environmental Standards, including for compliance and enforcement, developed in detail and recommended in the Report should be accepted in full and implemented immediately.  Other necessary Standards should be developed and implemented without delay.  Decisions should be made in a way that is consistent with the Standards, with the only exception being where the Commonwealth overtly exercises discretion, demonstrably and transparently justified in the public interest.

An independent, statutory position of Environment Assurance Commissioner (EAC) is needed to provide strong oversight and reporting of the performance of the Commonwealth, States and Territories, and other accredited parties in implementation of the National Environmental Standards, to provide the community, and the Australian Parliament, with the confidence that decisions are being made in a way that is consistent with the law.

The Final Report recommends that Indigenous Australians need to be listened to and decision-makers need to harness the enormous value of Indigenous knowledge of managing Country.

The Final Report indicates that reversing the current unsustainable environmental trajectory will require good planning to manage the environment, as well as broadscale environmental restoration.  Ultimately, governments should shift their focus from individual project approvals to a focus on clear outcomes, integrated into national and regional plans for protecting and restoring the environment and plans for sustainable development.

On 25 February 2021, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 was introduced to the Commonwealth Parliament.  This Bill provides for legally enforceable national environmental standards, and strong assurance through the creation of an independent Environment Assurance Commissioner.  The Bill was immediately referred to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee with a report due 1 June 2021.  The closing date for submissions was 25 March 2021, but as of the date of writing it appears that submissions are still being accepted.

Weaknesses

This Bill has been criticised as being quickly and poorly drafted with too many loopholes to deliver environmental outcomes.  It appears this Bill was introduced to try to get the government’s stalled Streamlining Environmental Approvals Bill (which would enable it to hand over decision making powers to the states, territories and local governments without any Environmental Standards), through the Senate.  The main weaknesses of the proposed bill are said to be the following:

  • it cherry-picks the reforms proposed in the Final Report, and doesn’t include the full suite of 38 recommendations
  • it proposes “interim environmental standards”, which are weak and ineffective, not the strong Environmental Standards proposed in the Final Report
  • loopholes let ministers or industries get out of having to meet Environmental Standards
  • the proposed National Environmental Assurance Commissioner would not be truly independent and would not be well-resourced without any constraints.

5. RECLAIM KOSCI

ANPSA has not been involved in this campaign in the last 12 months.

6. OTHER ISSUES

I’m surprised and relieved that I haven’t heard from or had any requests from Conservation Officers of our Member Societies for assistance in support of any issue of more than local importance.  Relieved because that considerably reduces my workload, and relieved because it suggests that the conservation of Australian plants in those regions is in very good shape.

Please contact me

Please contact me if you wish to do something.

Dr Eddy Wajon, ANPSA National Conservation Officer

1 April 2021, wajonpub@bigpond.com, 08 9310 2936 / 0428 3345 231