The Australian  [Printer-friendly version]
July 18, 2006


Wildlife protection laws are hampering development

[Rachel's introduction: In Australia, the precautionary principle is
being used to protect endangered species, but land developers
complain bitterly that they are being inconvenienced.]

By Greg Roberts

The Coxen's fig-parrot is so scarce it has never been photographed.
Yet purported sightings of the tiny green birds have been used to
frustrate developments, including the $200 million Paradise Dam near
Childers, southeast Queensland.

Now, opponents of a proposed dam at Traveston on the Mary River, near
Gympie, are claiming Coxen's fig-parrots live in the area to be
flooded. Protesters are quick to invoke the name of an endangered
species to pressure Canberra to intervene with the aim of stopping or
delaying a project they oppose.

A recent decision by federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell to
scrap a planned $220million wind farm at Bald Hills, Victoria, has
thrown the spotlight on the endangered species industry, so dubbed by
environmental consultants who are making a lucrative living out of
developers forced to comply with laws to protect rare wildlife.

Campbell acted because of his department's concerns that the wind farm
threatened another rare bird, the orange-bellied parrot. His
controversial decision -- the farm's proponents and the Bracks
Government claim the parrots do not occur at the site -- has sparked
debate among experts about laws to protect endangered species. Some
are questioning the quality of information in the federal database on
rare wildlife on which the laws are based.

Take the Coxen's fig-parrot. Almost $1 million of public money is
being spent on a recovery program to save it from extinction.
Thousands of fig trees are being planted to provide the fruit the
parrots fed on before their rainforest habitat was long ago bulldozed
for farmland in southeast Queensland and northeast NSW.

The problem with all the fuss and expense is the parrot is probably
extinct, notwithstanding a claim by Queensland Parks and Wildlife
Services officer Ian Gynther that he has documented more than 30 of
what he describes as "reliable" records.

"There are just too many sightings of the parrot by too many people
for them not to be seeing the right thing," Gynther says. "The
evidence is irrefutable."

Critics say there is no evidence to back any record; no photograph, no
specimen, no tape-recording of the bird's call. On no occasion since
the 1980s has a sighting been independently verified. Ornithological
consultant Glenn Holmes was commissioned to search for the parrots in
the '90s without success and believes they are extinct. "I think the
last of them died out in the '80s," Holmes says. "I think we've had a
lot of dodgy sightings, some of them politically motivated."

He believes that if a few parrots are hanging on, their extinction is

When a Coxen's fig-parrot was reported in the Paradise Dam catchment,
the dam's builder, Burnett Water, was forced to commission a study.
Federal endangered species laws are triggered if the Government's
wildlife database shows an animal living in an area proposed for
development. That usually happens when consultants hired by the
developer find such an animal, or when people protesting about a
development point to the presence of a listed animal.

The costs of federal involvement vary from $15,000 or $20,000 for a
study to tens of millions of dollars in delays and redrawn plans. In a
worst case scenario for developers, a project may be scuttled.

Zoologist Glen Ingram, head of Brisbane consultancy Biodiversity
Assessment and Management, is critical of the database. Ingram says it
is derived from computer modelling of climatic and other information
that can be inaccurate and irrelevant.

"It is mostly virtual, not real," Ingram says. "The data can be quite
wrong. Developers may have to go to a lot of unnecessary trouble and

A Brisbane property developer recently commissioned an expensive study
after the database showed the giant barred frog occurring in an area
planned for a housing estate. "The frogs do not live anywhere near the
area," Ingram says. "The nearest ones are in mountains far away. The
study was money down the drain."

Yet developers, who have no avenue of appeal against information in
the database, do not quibble.

"They've invested a good deal of money," Ingram says. "They're
petrified; a project delay could bankrupt them. They do whatever they
feel they have to."

Although he believes changes are needed, Ingram supports the general
thrust of the laws. "It would be much worse for the animals if they
weren't there," he says.

The federal Environment and Heritage Department says its database is
based on high quality scientific evidence. "This is a living
document," a departmental spokesman says. "We are constantly adding to
our body of information and have processes in place to actively review
our data, and to validate and update it when necessary to reflect the
best available information."

It is not difficult for developers to be caught in the endangered
species net. The known or potential occurrence of any one of 381
animals listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity
Conservation Act in a development area can trigger a "controlled
action" from Canberra, requiring measures to protect the animal. Many
more animals and plants are listed by state authorities, which have
their own regulations.

Two tiny frogs -- the wallum froglet and the wallum sedge frog -- have
collectively tripped up dozens of development plans in coastal
southern Queensland and northern NSW. Although listed as threatened,
both frogs are common in wallum wetlands in places including Fraser
Island and Cooloola in Queensland.

As the proponents of the $650 million Penola Pulp Mill in South
Australia have discovered, something does not even have to be a
species -- a taxonomic classification given to a plant or animal that
is sufficiently distinct from its relatives -- to trigger federal

Penola Pulp was forced to purchase a 200ha [500-acre] property as
habitat for the "endangered" red-tailed black cockatoo after potential
nesting trees were found on the mill site. Yet the cockatoo is
numerous as a species in northern and inland Australia. It is only the
local variety, or subspecies, that is endangered; it occurs in South
Australia and western NSW.

Penola Pulp Mill project manager John Roche is unimpressed. "If this
is only a subspecies or isolated population or whatever, you have to
wonder what is so special about them," Roche says. "I was told there
were 1000 red-tailed black cockatoos left in the world, not 1000 of
some subspecies."

Cockatoo researcher Martine Maron says the subspecies of cockatoo in
question has been isolated from other populations for so long it is
distinctive. "This genetic variation following isolation is how new
species arise," Maron says. "It is evolution in action."

However, wildlife taxonomy has always been highly divisive among
scientists. For instance, Canberra's database lists several "species"
of albatross that many experts to do not recognise as distinct
species, or even as subspecies. This may be the humdrum and esoteric
exchange of academic views -- is this bird or frog a species, a
subspecies or none of the above? -- but it has become central to the
decision-making process surrounding developments in Australia.

Rosie Booth, who runs a breeding program for endangered species at
David Fleay Wildlife Park on the Gold Coast, argues that development
barriers are a small price to pay to protect endangered wildlife.
"Saving other species is critical to our own survival," Booth says.
"If we don't protect biodiversity, we threaten the survival of the
planet. It's as simple as that."

Real Estate Institute of Queensland chairman Peter McGrath believes
the pendulum has swung too far towards the wildlife. "Genuinely
endangered species have to be protected but extra costs are imposed on
developers which aren't necessary," McGrath says. He points to plans
for the $540 million Tugun Bypass on the Gold Coast that have been
frustrated by the wallum froglet and wallum sedge frog.

"Tens of millions of dollars have been added to costs and there's
still the threat of legal action over frogs by the road's opponents,"
he says.

Other developers are more relaxed. Villa World recently found out that
the golden sun moth stood in the way of its $400 million Eynesbury
residential development near Melbourne. "We were able to resolve
potential difficulties," Villa World chief executive Brent Hailey
says. "I would hate to be sitting here as the CEO of a public company
and finding out we were responsible for an endangered species
disappearing from an area."

The biggest concern of some developers is the so-called precautionary
principle: that a development should be modified or prevented if it
poses a risk. "It is the view of governments that you don't take any
risks if you don't have all the facts," says David Finney, Cairns
manager of consultancy Natural Solutions. "It's unreasonable. They've
gone overboard."

For instance, it is difficult for the aquaculture industry to prove
that pollution from proposed fish farms will be within prescribed
limits. "The rules are so strict that in the case of aquaculture, they
are killing the industry," Finney says.

The Howard Government insists its environmental laws are fair. A
spokesman for Environment Minister Campbell says that of 2000 projects
referred to Canberra in relation to rare wildlife, just four were
rejected since the legislation was introduced in 1999.

"Despite potential impacts, the vast majority of projects are able to
be appropriately amended through the assessment process to ensure that
unacceptable impacts are avoided," he says.

Queensland's Paradise Dam was completed notwithstanding the Coxen's
fig-parrot and other endangered species in its catchment, but not
before overcoming a series of delays and cost blow-outs.

Greg Roberts is a senior writer with The Australian.

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