The Australian, 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 inevitable.

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 expense."

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 intervention.

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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