In terms of the conservation of the natural environment, the Shoalhaven has an ‘elephant in the room’ for company, perhaps even a small herd.
The contention of this article is that there are some key indicators that verify new thinking, attitude and perspective is needed at the local, council level for environmental conservation, which is not to exempt state and federal interests as they are intertwined but local government is the regular interface for the community.
'We' are constantly led to the mantra that the Shoalhaven is a 'natural wonder' but never with balancing thoughts that there are clear indicators of damage and risk that need be accounted for in management decisions. It is an exploitation mentality that suits tourism, growth and development and screens past mistakes and damage.
The notion that we are saved in the Shoalhaven by ‘all the national parks’ is a defence heard far too often. It also begs recognition of the political denigration of the Parks Service in recent years. This is data driven as if the jigsaw picture, 'the patchwork', saves the day, which of course it doesn’t.
The Private Estate
Some recent research arising from a CSIRO Report questions and puts a new perspective and significance on this picture, which is entirely relevant to the Shoalhaven. In academic research prepared by Josie Cawardine and Anthea Coggin the authors note that:
We found almost half (48%) of all of our threatened species’ distributions occur on private freehold land, even though only 29% of Australia is owned in this way. Our recent research shows this clearly. But relying on reserves is simply not enough. Australia is a patchwork quilt of farms, suburbs and fragmented forests. For many species, it has become difficult to find food sources and mates.
This is a shoe that fits the Shoalhaven.
There are numerous development examples in the Shoalhaven that extend this view but one in particular is a revealing exemplar.
An Exemplar DA
In early 2022 a local funeral business, Murphys Funerals, lodged a commercially based Development Application [DA] to build crematoria in high value bushland on The Wool Road bypass at St Georges Basin. That was very strongly opposed by adjacent residents, the Basin Villages Forum and Tomerong Forum CCBs and local conservationists. The proponent was advised by Council that the DA should be withdrawn. Behind this were very serious flaws in environmental assessments that included complete ignorance of an orchid on the national threatened species list among other concerns.
What this DA did reveal is that the development concept did not recognize the environmental significance of the site in its true context which meant it also failed to realize that surveyed tenure lines are not environmental lines or contexts, many of which carry legal provisions.
The site is Zoned Rural 2, a Local Environment Plan classification that embraces large swathes of Shoalhaven country. It is this very zoning that is proving in many other examples to be a danger to environmental protection and sustainability, an assessment shared in the inner sanctums. At this site, though the Shoalhaven Local Environment Plan 2014 does feature Overlays of ‘Biodiversity Corridor’ and ‘Significant Vegetation’ at the site, the question arises as to how effective that can be in the conservation of a valuable environment. The question will demand an answer if a revised DA is submitted.
Of course, to say the least, the residents are less than enthusiastic about living next to a crematorium!
Additionally, the DA Lot [DP1041096] is classified for environmental protection under a Code of Part 5A of the Local Land Services Act 2013. This land is classified as “Category 2 – Sensitive Regulated Land” and is thus designated as environmentally sensitive. Clearing under the Land Management [Native Vegetation] Code 2018 is not permitted in these areas . . .”
This site, in its proper environmental context, is highly valuable and requires conservation management. To labour the point, this is not a national park or nature reserve but is critical to the appropriate future management for such community estate. Examination of the habitat corridor associated with the site revealed an extended east-west corridor from the coast to the escarpment but it also revealed that these are lands fairly and squarely in the ‘private’ category revealed by the CSIRO research.
The corridor link of coast to escarpment National Parks is critical to their viability and integrity and that corridor relates to private and freehold lands that potentially harbour a major portion of the threatened species population.
The further point is that this DA simply highlights a challenge for the Shoalhaven that exists across the LGA and which, to start with at least, is in council hands especially with the Review of the Local Environment Plan that is in train.
The futile argument that ‘the responsibility lies beyond council’ is certainly not matched by the parallel argument that something must be done locally about climate change. We cannot have it both ways. The corridor and vegetation SLEP mapping included reveals that there has been environmental damage already done.
Birds Tell All
The intrinsic importance of this can be highlighted with another environmental example, that of Shoalhaven birds, our most beautiful, engaging and non-threatening companions, which are never-the-less a symptom of the jaundiced, inadequate view, that all is fine on the Shoalhaven environment front.
The list of Shoalhaven birds and the embodied list of threatened species indicate that close to one in every six species is “threatened”, that is, threatened by nothing less than extinction involving standards of time and degree.
Two of our most iconic species are now regarded as even more threatened following upgrades in their threat status. The glossy black cockatoo [Eastern] is now a vulnerable species and the gang gang cockatoo is an endangered species on the Federal EPBC Act list. The heightened threat is very closely linked to the loss of habitat.
The one resident critically endangered species, the hooded plover [Eastern] which occurs at its most northern point of distribution on the Shoalhaven coast in Booderee, exists now as merely two birds, which have already had one failed breeding attempt this season. It is an increasingly perilous existence on badly eroded, climate change affected shorelines for a beach nesting species.
The federal government has not long announced a “Threatened Species Action Plan” strategy identifying key species and sites for specific action. There are 22 bird species listed and five of these occur in the Shoalhaven. The select list includes the hooded plover. The Shoalhaven appears not to be represented to anything like that degree in other fauna lists on the Action Plan.
The ‘Provisional List of Animals Requiring Urgent Attention’ produced after the 2019-20 Bushfires included 13 bird species of which nine were birds on the Shoalhaven list and of these three were threatened species, the Eastern ground parrot, Eastern bristlebird and regent honeyeater. Quite simply, this speaks to the full spectrum of threats.
So, if the CSIRO research, a critical example of a flawed and environmentally dangerous DA on country zoned as rural and the profile of some of our engaging fauna are anything to go by, and they are exemplars, there must be some challenges of some moment to be dealt with and the Shoalhaven Council is on the front line.
The impending Review of the 2014 Local Environment Plan should reflect the monumental changes of the last decade. Council is also immersed in Coastal Planning at this time with the Shoalhaven communities, many of which feature their own ‘Community Led Strategic Plans’ that prioritise the natural environment.
One can but imagine that our candidates for the March 2023 state election will reassure us that they and their political cohort are across such environmental challenges and will delineate the policies they propose in their party contexts to effect the conservation changes needed.
Feature image: Aerial view of the Shoalhaven River delta. Photo credit: worldatlas.com