On the 18 February 2013 the Australian Government decided that the Van Diemen's Land Company (VDL) dairy farm expansion proposal at its Woolnorth property is a controlled action under the EPBC Act and will be assessed by an environment impact statement.
In our submission on VDL’s referral to the Australian Government, we recommended that this proposal be rejected outright but, if not, that it should be assessed through the most stringent assessment process. Having this proposal assessed through an EIS is a good outcome and is certainly justified.
Most of the impacts of this proposal will result from the permanent clearance and conversion of 1818 hectares of native forest for use as dairy pasture and therefore the direct impacts will be severe and permanent. All of this 1818 ha of forests is habitat for the endangered Tasmanian devil and vulnerable spotted-tailed quoll. There will be little possibility to undo the damage done if the proposed mitigation and offset measures prove, down the track, to be ineffective or less effective than expected.
There is great uncertainty surrounding the mitigation and off-setting measures and some are unsubstantiated or untested. If the project is to go ahead it is vital to take the opportunity now to assess and possibly improve the mitigation and offset measures. There are also numerous indirect, down-stream and landscape level, impacts which are very complex and require detailed assessment.
We also argued that VDL failed to adequately assess whether there are feasible alternative way of expending their dairy.
Under the EIS process the minister must prepare assessment guidelines and may provide for public comment on a draft of the guidelines. This is an important additional step which should ensure that all aspects of the proposal and the possible impacts are identified and properly assessed. The EIS process could take 6-12 months to be concluded.
TCT’s concerns regarding the VDL proposal
Direct impact on Tasmanian devil and spotted-tailed quoll
VDL’s consultants found that the proposal would result in the clearance of 1818ha of native habitat of the Tasmanian devil and Spotted-tailed quoll.
The impact on the Tasmanian devil is even more concerning given the Woolnorth population is disease free and is being considered by the Tasmanian Government for inclusion into the insurance population for the species through the construction of a fence to prevent them from contacting diseased devils.
Feasible alternatives not considered
We assert that VDL may be able to proceed with its dairy expansion without clearing any native forest but the proponent has failed to consider this option. We believe that VDL has inappropriately dismissed the need to consider alternatives which have less environmental impact based on irrelevant and unsubstantiated financial concerns. No financial assessment was provided with the documentation.
VDL should be required to properly consider feasible alternatives, including:
- proceed with the dairy expansion without any land clearance: therefore scaling back their expansion; or
- proceed with the dairy expansion without any land clearance but instead look to purchase already cleared land.
The clearing and converting 1818 ha of native forest to dairy pasture would have indirect downstream impact on wetland/riparian habitats from sediments, fertilizers, chemicals use and grazing from the dairy expansion. The EPBC Act listed species which could be impacted are: Tasmanian azure kingfisher, Dwarf galaxias and possibly the stripped-marsh frog.
Many of these indirect impacts are very complex issues and the TCT not been able to attempt a full assessment of the likely impacts and management responses. In the EIS process the Australian Government should insist on a very thorough assessment of the overall proposal and in particular look very closely at indirect impacts.
Value of the offset reserves questionable
The VDL proposal involves setting aside 4297 ha (3421 ha formally protected and 876 ha informally protected) of habitat of both Tasmanian devils and spotted-tailed quoll, however much this land has numerous environmental and legal constraints and arguably has little development potential. We argue that, while the proposal to formally protect much of this land is commendable, most of these areas may not be under threat and therefore their protection should not counted as an off-set which is contributing to the conservation of the two species.
Construction of supplementary dens
The potential loss of dens is proposed to be offset with the construction of supplementary dens but we understand that this has never been tested and therefore it may not succeed. It appears that the approach proposed is not referenced to any expert opinion or published papers. Until and unless such evidence is provided we recommend against supplementary dens. Instead, if clearing is approved, all dens should be located and an area of forest retained around them.
Habitat fragmentation and corridors
VDL propose to mitigate the potential impact from increased fragmentation through the retention of corridors in areas proposed for clearing and improvements to existing corridors. However, the approach proposed appears to not be referenced to any expert scientific opinion and only asserts a potential benefit.
VDL claims that the effectiveness of corridors in maintaining devil populations is dependent on retention of prey abundance and seasonable availability and we have concerns regarding this issue (see below).
The commitments made in the roadkill avoidance strategy are commendable. But it must be acknowledged that roadkill cannot be avoided 100 per cent and therefore some loss of devils and quolls can be expected even if the best possible strategy is prepared and implemented.
Devil prey management
We note that a devil prey management plan is proposed, however this plan is yet to be prepared and should be provided to the Australian Government as part of the recommended assessment.
As with a number of other long-term management issues e.g. roadkill mitigation, corridor management, we are concerned as to whether VDL will continue to be committed to and resource appropriate devil prey management. When assessing this and other long-term management issues, the Australian Government must consider legal mechanisms which ensure appropriate management is maintained and resourced for the life of the operation and that this is subject to strict legal penalties.
While the VDL documents acknowledge that a heads of agreement has been signed between VDL and the state government for construction of a devil fence to protect the diseased devils on Woolnorth, this does not guarantee that the fence will be built let alone that it will be effective. While VDL alone cannot control whether the fence is built and is effective, it is disappointing that the proposal fails to include a firm commitment to construction of the fence and this should be required of VDL is possible.