Is This Really 'Environmental Protection'?

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On Monday the NSW State Government announced details of its first agreement with a private landholder under the controversial "BioBank" scheme. According to the Government, BioBanking will protect some environmentally sensitive land from development so that other environmentally sensitive land can be developed.

It’s an odd scheme, to say the least, and raises serious doubts for many communities and environmental advocates over just what kind of environmental benefits it will achieve. Those doubts are sharpened by the fact that it will be governed by Frank Sartor who was rather cheekily appointed Environment and Climate Change Minister by Premier Kristina Keneally.

When he was planning minister, Sartor amended the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act to give himself the power to approve big developments, regardless of their environmental impact or local government opposition. Under Part 3A, communities were cut out of the planning process if the development was deemed to be "of State or regional environmental planning significance". As it turned out, this vaguely worded amendment was made to apply to hundreds of developments, including, for example, dozens of coal-mining projects. More recently Sartor has floated plans to commercialise the state’s national parks.

The BioBanking scheme was developed in 2006 by the Department of Environment when Sartor was still planning minister. Then, as now, there was strong opposition to the plan from conservation and environment groups.

Under the scheme, the Government may enter into an agreement with landholders for the conservation of their land, and to buy land of high ecological value to establish reserves.

This 80 hectares of private land mentioned in the Minister’s announcement will be preserved "forever" under the scheme, according to the Minister’s office. The land includes 35 hectares of Cumberland Plain Woodland, an ecological community considered endangered and featuring distinct plant systems that grow in clay soils in the Sydney Basin. Less than 6400 hectares — or 6 per cent — of the original Cumberland Plain Woodland remains in the Sydney basin. By the Department of Environment’s own admission, Cumberland Plain Woodland’s biggest threat is "the spread of the Sydney suburban areas".

There is no specific site to be sacrificed to developers for the protection of this land — rather, these 80 hectares underpin ecosystem "credits" which developers can buy to offset the degradation of sites that they do develop (sites which might turn out to be other patches of disappearing Cumberland Plain Woodland).

According to a spokesperson from the Department of Environment, Climate Change & Water, the program takes a new approach to dealing with the irreparable decline of threatened species. As the Department sees it, a lot of land is threatened by a growing population and this program looks at what can be saved in the process of accommodating that growth.

The Government estimates that 180,000 new housing lots will be opened up in Western Sydney over the next 30 to 40 years as a result of bio offsetting — currently there are 37 expressions of interest from people nominating their land to become a BioBank site. The Government claims that much of the land that will be developed in the growth centres was already slated for future development, so offsetting it elsewhere with BioBanking makes sense.

This is an important issue, since "protecting" land that wasn’t going to be developed anyway can hardly be used to justify the destruction of ecological communities elsewhere. The idea of relying on a system that promises to shift responsibility for various kinds of environmental degradation through "offsets" is one that has been shown to have several fundamental flaws, perhaps most notably in the area of climate change.

The Nature Conservation Council pulled out of the Department of Environment’s BioBanking ministerial reference group due to concerns with the scheme, and the organisation has since come out strongly against the plan. Acting CEO of NCC Haydn Washington said the plan was clearly coming out of a development agenda, not a conservation agenda. "What they are basically saying is it is okay to wipe out endangered areas if you pay to conserve it elsewhere," he told newmatilda.com.

The NCC’s view is that threatened species should be protected wherever they are and any trade off should be a last resort, where development is unavoidable.

Rachel Walmsley, from the Environmental Defender’s Office sat on the ministerial reference group in an attempt to ensure there was scientific rigour in the offsetting program. "It is a fairly controversial idea, putting a value on biodiversity," she said. "It’s not like carbon — it’s far more difficult to quantify. The position of the EDO is the current threatened species laws aren’t working. We need to explore different measures to halt the decline of threatened species."

The NSW Greens are strongly opposed to the plan, saying that of the land the Government claims will be conserved much is already earmarked for protection or unlikely to be developed. If that’s true, it’s fair to be concerned that the scheme simply creates a loophole enabling the destruction of environmentally sensitive areas. Greens MLC Ian Cohen is in no doubt: "Biobanking is essentially greenwashing some development, while being a backward step for conservation," he said in a press release.

How can you be sure what would have been developed and what would not? The 80 hectares of private land that Sartor announced is now protected through the program has been owned by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart order for the past 100 years. Maybe they were on the brink of selling it, but it sure doesn’t look that way. "The religious order has used the property as a training centre for its members," the order’s leader Father Tim Brennan said in the Minister’s media release announcing the deal. "For many years the order has also used the property as a retreat centre and its environmental setting has given it a particular appeal that will be further enhanced by this agreement."

Sartor has dismissed the greenwashing charges, telling ABC News: "The reality is that development for urban expansion is continuing in this country due to the growth in population. The conservation outcomes we have been achieving on that have not always been terrific. What this does is says let’s greatly expand the amount of land that is permanently conserved."

It is likely the plan will result in the establishment of more reserves in the state. Funds from the Commonwealth Government and the NSW BioBanking scheme have already been used to purchase 181 acres of land previously earmarked for housing near Cranebrook, which contains Cumberland Plain Woodland. The plan also creates an incentive for private landholders to preserve land they may otherwise have subdivided or sold.

Landholders whose land will be protected under this scheme will no longer have to pay land tax and will be given funds each year for land maintenance. Someone who is sitting on 80 hectares of land with a high ecological value and is struggling to pay land taxes might understandably be tempted to participate.

However, Ian Cohen said that avenues already exist for private land of ecological value to be protected: "My opinion would be if they had those values they should be protected under existing legislation. This isn’t conserving land, it’s just rebadging it. What it comes down to is this is a convenience for developers."

There may be some environmental wins in this, and whether Sartor and the Government use the scheme to ensure that these benefits outweigh the losses is yet to be seen. But if you like to base your predictions on form, you wouldn’t bet on it.

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