By Dr Bruce Pease
Given previous NSW Government actions to weaken public service structure and legislation that had been put in place to protect the valuable environmental assets of New South Wales, we at EcoNetwork-Port Stephens are extremely alarmed to learn that the Government is now reviewing the Threatened Species Conservation Act, Native Vegetation Act and fauna and flora provisions of the National Parks and Wildlife Act.
We urge the Government to use the review of this critical environmental protection legislation to strengthen, not weaken, our threatened species and native vegetation laws. We urge it to reinstate the full complement of functional Sanctuary Zones in our Marine Parks by removing the political amnesty on recreational fishing in these areas.
We also urge the Government to end the implementation of extremely threatening processes such as shooting, grazing and logging in our National Parks. Failure to protect native flora, fauna and their natural habitats will be disastrous for sustainable state wide environmental and economic outcomes and generate anger among environmentally aware voters.
Finally, we are most concerned that proposed changes to planning laws favour the promotion of economic growth and developer interests over conservation of our unique and irreplaceable natural capital assets.
Econetwork Port Stephens Inc. is the sustainability and conservation based peak body for a regional network of environmentally concerned individuals and 16 affiliated community, environmental and eco-tourism groups and businesses. While our primary focus is on community and environmental issues in the Port Stephens region, we try to think globally while acting locally. Therefore, we are addressing our global concern for recent State Government actions, which have potentially grave impacts on our local National Parks, the Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park and all natural habitats in this region.
We first responded to the environment-related activities of this government by participating in a workshop and providing a submission to the NSW Marine Parks Audit. We were impressed with the rigour of this Audit and pleased with the final recommendations. However, the first indication of the Government’s intention to weaken the conservation status of our Marine Parks was its initial Public Service restructure which resulted in the movement of the Marine Parks Authority from the conservation-oriented Office of Environment and Heritage to the profit-oriented mega Department of Trade and Investment, within DPI Fisheries. This was followed by the announcement of a politically motivated amnesty on recreational fishing in some Sanctuary Zones, which is undeniable proof of an intention to weaken the conservation status of our Marine Parks.
We say “politically motivated amnesty” because the amnesty was announced in conjunction with the announcement of the Government’s support of the Audit Recommendations, but is not actually a recommendation in the Audit Report. The justification given for allowing recreational fishers to kill large, trophically significant fish in certain Sanctuary Zones was that ecological information from these areas is relatively scarce. This justification is obviously politically based because conservation scientists and managers would use this justification (known to them as “the Precautionary Principle”) to prevent the killing or removal of any flora or fauna from these Sanctuary Zones unless there was sufficient information to indicate that this threatening process would not have a negative impact on the ecological integrity of these areas.
In the absence of ecological information and associated risk analysis, we must assume that recreationally fished areas no longer provide sanctuary for fish and cannot be classified as “Sanctuary Zones”. Therefore, the Government has significantly reduced the area of protected Sanctuary Zones in our Marine Parks, which is a key measure of conservation effectiveness and equates to weakening the protection of native flora, fauna and their natural habitats in the NSW Marine Estate.
We believe that the NSW Government is also weakening the protection and rehabilitation of the environment and ecology of our freshwater catchments. Again, this is being done through the extensive Public Service restructure with the movement of the Catchment Management Authorities from the conservation-oriented Office of Environment and Heritage to the profit-oriented Department of Trade and Investment, within a new division of the Agriculture Department called Local Land Services. The broad conservation role of the Catchment Management Authorities with respect to the NSW Freshwater Estate will be significantly weakened within the highly restricted focus of the primarily agriculture extension role of Local Land Services. An example of this is the recent change in legislation to allow land clearing without CMA approval.
Along with these assaults on the structure and legislation that protects sustainability and conservation of aquatic environments in New South Wales, the Government is proposing that a growing list of threatening processes, including shooting, grazing and logging, should be allowed in our National Parks. Shooting in National Parks and fishing in Marine Park Sanctuary Zones are obviously being implemented as part of an exchange of political favours with the Shooters and Fishers Party. Grazing and logging in National Parks is clearly being contemplated in response to industry lobbying.
Given the Government’s record of poor stewardship of the environmental assets of New South Wales, the recent announcement that the Threatened Species Conservation Act, Native Vegetation Act and fauna and flora provisions of the National Parks and Wildlife Act are now being reviewed has us worried. It seems that the Government is determined to weaken all of the hard-won environmental protection legislation that has been enacted over the last 20 years. The Government’s previous reviews have obviously been guided by the demands of property developers, industry lobbyists and the Shooters and Fishers party.
Furthermore, the proposed drastic changes to planning laws in NSW appear to be developer-driven, with the potential to reduce community wellbeing, residential amenity and environmental, and heritage protection.
We protest at the removal of the concept of ‘ecologically sustainable development’ (ESD) from the proposed legislation and its replacement with ‘economic growth’. Under threat are some of the most beautiful and bio diverse landscapes in the country in terms of riparian and inland forests, and heath land providing critical habitat for unique native plants and wildlife, as well significant wetlands, river systems and coastal ecosystems.
We are also concerned that community engagement is limited to the early strategic planning phase, and that residents and communities will lose their right to comment on the majority of developments in their neighbourhood.
Note that a large proportion of the voters in New South Wale are like us: environmentally aware and very concerned about actions to weaken the public service infrastructure and legislation that have been put in place to protect our environmental assets.