Native Grasslands Protected October 2009

Listing of Tasmanian Lowland Native Grasslands on the EPBC Act

Peter McGlone

On 26 June 2009 Tasmanian Lowland Native Grasslands were listed by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett, on the schedules of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) as a critically endangered ecological community. This was a truly historic decision by Minister Garrett and we cannot overstate its importance for biodiversity conservation in Tasmania.

It is probably wishful thinking, but this event and date should be remembered as having critical significance in Tasmania’s environmental history, alongside the High Court decision that stopped the damming of the Franklin River. In terms of non-forest vegetation, this listing is akin to ending oldgrowth logging.

The decision is made more important because, in 2007, the Tasmanian Government deliberately excluded, for political reasons, lowland native grasslands from the list of threatened native vegetation communities established under the provisions of the state Nature Conservation Act, even though they it was one of the most threatened Tasmanian vegetation communities.

Until Minister Garrett’s decision, lowland native grasslands in Tasmania had no legal protection and landowners could legally clear them without obtaining approvals. Permits were also granted by the State Government for destruction of state-listed species that inhabited native grasslands.

As a co-author of the original nomination in 2005, along with the Humane Society International, the TCT is immensely proud to have contributed to such an important environmental outcome for Tasmania. Once more we see the vital need for national environmental laws to fill gaps existing in state legislation and for NGOs to exercise their legal rights to nominate threatened species and communities.

As well as assisting with this nomination, the TCT has a long history of managing research projects and coordinating production of reports on lowland grasslands dating back to the seminal City Parks and Cemeteries publication in 1988. We have also assisted with numerous on-ground projects to improve the management of important native grassland sites and have utilised numerous State and Australian Government fora over many years to advocate protection and improved management of grasslands.  To all the people who have worked for conservation of grasslands and to build our knowledge base, whether associated with the TCT or not, this is a victory for you and we thank you all. We also acknowledge that although most of our grasslands have been lost over the last 200 years and some have been cleared or poorly managed in recent times, there are many private landowners, including many graziers, who have protected their grasslands and managed them very sensitively.

But legal protection is not the end of the story. We must now ensure that the Australian Government implements this decision wisely and that it supports and informs landowners to ensure appropriate management.

The TCT has written to the Minister, to congratulate him on this decision but also to state that we expect there to be no further significant clearing of grasslands or destruction of state- or EPBC-listed species which inhabit them. We have urged the Minister to take all possible action to ensure this and to encourage and assist landowners to manage grasslands to retain or enhance their conservation values. Toward this goal, we expect the Minister to refuse all applications for permits to clear listed grasslands.

We also suggested that the Minister takes a series of immediate actions we believe are required by the Australian Government to ensure effective communication of his decision to list Tasmanian Lowland Native Grasslands to the affected landowners.

The most urgent action required is for the Minister to instruct officers of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) to identify the landowners known to be affected by the decision (i.e. they have EPBC-listed grasslands on their property) and to communicate with them to explain their legal obligations and what the listing will mean for management of their property.

A second action we recommended relates to the hundreds of other landowners who have small and/or degraded grassland remnants on their properties and it is unclear whether the EPBC listing affects them. Until resources are deployed to survey properties and verify which remnants fit the ecological community definition and/or conditional threshold, we have suggested a general communication strategy be deployed covering all landowners within the range of lowland grasslands in Tasmania.

Many landowners, particularly farmers and graziers, are very concerned about the listing of grasslands and do not know whether it will affect them and, if so, how. There has also been a considerable amount of mis-information circulated in the media that may have unnecessarily alarmed them. We do not have evidence of landowners reacting to the listing by clearing grasslands but this is a possibility and quick action by the DEWHA may prevent this.

Given the TCT’s demonstrated track record in grassland conservation, we have offered to assist with implementing the Australian Government’s communication strategy in relation to EPBC-listed grasslands. We can provide an independent conservation voice that would complement those with commercial interests.

We have also stated that we would welcome being informed of and involved in long-term management strategies being development by DEWHA for Tasmanian Lowland Native Grasslands.

One potential immediate benefit of this listing of grasslands relates to irrigation development. While the Australian Government Minister for Water, Senator Penny Wong has failed to address our concerns regarding the State Government’s 12 Drought-proofing Tasmania projects, the listing of grasslands on the EPBC Act means that Minister Garrett has the potential to block irrigation development in parts of the Tasmanian Midlands and other areas where listed grasslands are found.