Fire is a normal part of the Australian landscape, playing a major role in the dynamics of many ecosystems and habitats. From a conservation perspective, the most significant impact of fire is often the way that the impacts of, and fears about fire, shape community concerns about the living near bushland.
The fires of 2019/20 were far from normal, and indeed had a transformative impact across NSW. Around 2.7 million hectares of national parks and reserves were impacted by this fire season, representing nearly 40% of the state’s terrestrial protected area network. The fires inflicted severe impacts on vegetation communities and fauna habitats that are normally resistant to fire, including old growth rainforest, wetlands and alpine forests. The extreme scale and intensity of the fires meant they left far fewer refugia of unburnt vegetation within the burnt landscapes. Conservative estimates suggest over two billion native animals perished in the fires, while the Threatened Species Recovery Hub has indicated that more than a hundred previously secure species have become threatened or may even have slipped into extinction.
Government’s response to the fires included a NSW Inquiry and a Commonwealth Royal Commission. The NPA submissions to the NSW Fire inquiry and the Royal Commission into Natural Disasters are available on the NPA website (https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1i9qHDKImQsL-bAoFxUq6qswYN_dxAWVe – Connect to preview ).
Our submissions argue against large scale clearing, intensified hazard reduction programs or ‘novel’ approaches to fuel management. The submissions make the case for recognising the high value of unburnt habitats as biodiversity arks and the need to treat areas of high biodiversity value as assets requiring protection in future fire planning, as well as proposing reforms to emergency and planning laws to improve resilience to fire events through land use planning and design. NPA met with the Minister for Environment to promote the integration of fire risk into the land use planning system.
Other interests responded to the fires with arguments for increased access to conservation zones for logging, fuel management through grazing in national parks and amendments to planning and laws to make it easier to clear land for asset protection. Forestry industry organisations have been especially forthright in their arguments to log in areas impacted by the fires, a practice with proven extreme environmental impacts, and gain access to areas previously set aside as conservation zones.
The NSW government recently announced changes to the Rural Fires Act that enable large scale vegetation clearance along property boundaries. NPA is working closely with Nature Conservation Council (NCC) and other e-NGOs on a coordinated defence of the protected area network against attempts to degrade the values of national parks and other areas of high conservation value based on spurious claims of fire risk mitigation.
(Eds note: See separate article by George Punt for more on the bushfire Inquiries).
Water – Drinking Water Catchments
The approval of underground mining beneath the Woronora reservoir heightened public awareness of the continuing damage to NSW’s drinking water catchments. NPA’s policy is that the ‘Special Areas’ should all be gazetted under the National Parks and Wildlife Act and mining prohibited. NPA’s mining project officer, Dr Peter Turner has provided expert analysis and commentary on development proposals in the water catchments, including coordinating an Open Letter to the Premier, see
Water – Inland Rivers
NPA continues to provide administrative support and assistance to the Inland Rivers Network. The NSW Government has announced a series of dam expansions in NSW, including Dungowan, Mole River, Wyangala and the Western Weirs program. Submissions were made on the referrals to the Commonwealth under the EPBC Act and more detailed analysis will be undertaken as the Environmental Impact Statements are exhibited.
The NSW government’s flagship threatened species program, Saving our Species, is funded until mid 2021. NPA contributed to the review of options for the continuation of the program, suggesting that an integrated response to the landscape scale impacts of the fires needed to be prioritised.
Threatened species- Koalas
Coffs Coast Branch are leading the campaign to establish the Great Koala National Park. A Visitor centre has opened in Bellingen to promote the concept. Members working with NEFA on post fire surveys and modelling of koala losses, remaining populations and habitat refugia.
An Upper House Inquiry into the future of koalas in NSW was completed, concluding that, in the absence of major interventions, including the cessation of any further clearance of koala habitat, the species will be extinct in NSW by 2050. Other recommendations include the creation of the Great Koala National Park and an Upper Georges River National Park, both of which proposals were formulated by NPA.
The major response by the NSW Government has been a statement by the Minister for the Environment committing to doubling the population of koalas by 2050. This ambitious target, which included acknowledgment that the essential step is to protect koala habitat, stands in stark contrast to a bill introduced by the Nationals that effectively removes all constraints on the clearance of koala habitats on private rural lands. Given that roughly two thirds of koala records in NSW come from such lands, the Local Land Services (Amendment) Bill will, if carried, virtually guarantee the extinction of the species in NSW. NPA is working closely with NCC and other environmental organisations to lobby against the passage of the bill.
The recently exhibited Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan commits to the establishment of the Georges River Koala National Park, however the mechanism for land acquisition and management funding depends upon purchasing lands and redeeming biodiversity offsets. NPA has advocated for the immediate gazettal of existing public lands under the NPW Act with incremental additions as lands become available.
Several NPA branches are involved in advocating for koala conservation, including: Coffs Coast which is campaigning against the logging of koala habitat in the Kalang Valley; Macarthur has been vigorously opposing multiple developments impacting koala habitat and the Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan; and Southern Sydney, which met with the Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment in relation to mortality on local roads.
Landscape connectivity – NPA projects
For the last 5 years NPA has been implementing two habitat corridor enhancement projects in the Illawarra-Shoalhaven region, the Thin Green Line and Berry Bush Links. The projects involve assisting local landholders to establish, remediate and manage corridors between areas of high conservation significance, including gazetted reserves. The project is nearing the end of the funded period and we are considering options to continue this important initiative.
Landscape connectivity – Travelling Stock Reserves
The Local Land Services (LSS) manage Travelling Stock Reserves in NSW. They recently issued tenders for five year permits for a range of Travelling Stock Reserves, including many of high to exceptional conservation significance. NPA met with LLS to review the background to the tender process. Their argument is that, as they are not funded to manage the TSRs for environmental outcomes, they have no option but to have them managed by permit holders. NPA and NCC are seeking meetings with Ministers Kean and Marshall to discuss alternative management models for Travelling Stock Reserves.
Off park development – Pilliga
The Santos proposal to establish a gas field with the Pilliga State Forest and adjacent private lands has significant potential to adversely impact on the Pilliga Reserves. Moreover, the impacts on the State Forest act against NPA’s long standing view that all of the Pilliga Forests warrant reservation as national park, nature reserve and/or Aboriginal Area.
NPA provided multiple submissions on the Environmental Impact Statement and to the Independent Planning Commission’s inquiry and we appeared at the inquiry hearings. Unfortunately, the Independent Planning Commission approved the Narrabri gas Project subject to conditions of approval. The economic viability of the project is highly questionable and NPA will continue to collaborate with other environmental groups to oppose its implementation.