|Scott, Anna and Sam at the wetlands. Pic by Glenn Hunt|
Wildlife left high and dry
Hundreds of ducks, herons and other waterbirds jostled for space in the calm waters of the Yandina Creek Wetlands in the heart of Queensland's bustling Sunshine Coast, as stately black-necked storks and brolgas patrolled the shoreline. That was the scene until the entire 200 hectares of wetland, regarded as a site of international importance, were drained in just 48 hours last weekend.
Swans and other protected waterbirds were attending nests at the time; an unknown number of stranded chicks are likely to have starved or fallen prey to dogs and foxes. The area provided refuge to federally listed endangered and critically endangered wildlife, along with numerous migratory shorebirds protected under three treaties to which Australia is a signatory.
The wetlands had great potential, according to expert analysis, to mitigate the consequences of flooding in low-lying parts of the Sunshine Coast - one of Australia's fastest growing cities – that are highly flood-prone. Ecologists and wildlife experts who viewed the site regarded it as having outstanding biodiversity value. Community groups say that in a region which trumpets its appeal as an ecotourism destination, the wetlands could have been a big drawcard.
In the end, none of these arguments counted. In a move that highlights fundamental pitfalls in environmental decision-making in Australia, the federal and Queensland governments, along with local authorities, made no effort to prevent the wetlands from being drained. Why? Environmental regulators concluded that the Yandina Creek Wetlands were unworthy of protection because they were unnatural.
Until this week, the wetlands were a mosaic of mangroves, reed-beds, grasslands and deep-water pools. Today, what remains is a two kilometre-stretch of mud and sludge wedged between the imposing peaks of Mt Ninderry and Mt Coolum. Close by are the Sunshine Coast's sparkling beaches and the Palmer Coolum Resort, owned by local federal MP Clive Palmer, who has added his voice to a growing chorus of criticism being directed at federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt and state and local authorities for failing to protect the wetlands.
Controversy over the fate of the wetlands raises wider issues about political correctness and public service mindset. The wetlands could be drained, according to government correspondence, because they had been “highly modified” by human intervention; they were therefore not regarded as being a “high priority” for conservation. Endangered wildlife and other attributes were irrelevant because the wetlands did not fit the regulatory definition of “nature”.
It is the same mindset that says the rangelands of inland Australia, or the savannah woodlands of the tropical north, can be protected not by good management practices on grazing properties, but only by locking up extensive “natural” areas in national parks. The parks are then left largely to manage themselves, notwithstanding a host of human-related problems ranging from plagues of feral animals and exotic weed invasions to out-of-control wildfires.
It is not just governments that resonate with this mindset. The country's peak conservation body, the Australian Conservation Foundation, ignored repeated pleas from residents and wildlife experts to support efforts to protect the Sunshine Coast wetlands.
The wetlands occurred on two properties that grew sugar cane before the nearby Nambour sugar mill closed in 2003. Much of the 10,000ha of Sunshine Coast cane land was acquired at the time by property developers as long-term investments. The owners await the seemingly inevitable time when authorities, under pressure from the housing needs of South-East Queensland's booming population, rezone the land from rural so that real estate projects can proceed.
The Yandina Creek landholders had over the past decade left their property to fend for itself. The cane lands are criss-crossed by drainage canals connected to the tidal Maroochy River, with water flow being formerly controlled by floodgates. The floodgates fell into disrepair, allowing low-lying land to be inundated by millions of litres of water twice daily at high tide.
The result was the fortuitous creation of a wetland which had the bonus of being self-managing; the regular flow of saline water ensured that weeds and vegetation regrowth were kept under control. The resilience of Australian wildlife was reflected in the way in which the artificially created wetlands were embraced quickly and comprehensively by large numbers of waterbirds, native rodents, frogs and other wildlife.
Importantly, old aerial photographs suggest that the new wetlands closely resembled natural habitat that occurred widely in the Maroochy River lowlands before the development of the cane industry last Century.
Commonwealth guidelines indicate that the wetlands are internationally and nationally significant - a point not disputed by government. Under the Ramsar Convention on wetlands protection, the numbers of Latham's Snipe and other migratory shorebirds that find refuge in the area were sufficiently large to warrant that status.
Greg Hunt was alerted last December to plans by landholders to drain the wetlands so the area could be converted to cattle pasture. The plans faced hurdles under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The wetlands harboured two federally listed bird species: the critically endangered Curlew-Sandpiper and the endangered Australian Painted-Snipe. They were the refuge of internationally protected shorebirds. Either issue is regarded as a matter of national significance under the EPBCA and could trigger Canberra's intervention, in much the same way that the Rudd Government blocked the Traveston Dam in the Sunshine Coast hinterland in 2009.
Hunt ordered the department's Compliance and Enforcement Branch to investigate. At the time, Hunt insisted it did not matter if the wetlands were created artificially. “The EPBCA applies on the basis of consequences,” Hunt said. “If an action is likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national importance, then the Act will apply.”
Following Hunt's move, the landholders changed plans. They leased the land back to the cane farmers who had sold it to them a decade earlier. The farmers signalled their intention to proceed with drainage plans by repairing the damaged floodgates, but that instead of cattle pasture, the properties would again be planted with sugar cane. The new plan was evidently intended to circumvent Commonwealth law by continuing a legally existing land use.
As evidence mounted in recent weeks that drainage was imminent as the floodgates were repaired, hundreds of residents and several community groups wrote to Hunt, asking for federal intervention. Hunt ignored them.
Late last week, the wetlands were drained after newly installed floodgates were opened at low tide. More than 1000 people have since signed online petitions and letters calling on Hunt to order that the floodgates be opened again tp allow water to return to the wetlands. Yesterday, in response to questions from Inquirer, Hunt said through a spokesman that his department was seeking further information to determine if the drainage may have breached the EPBCA.
Governments around the world spend large sums creating artificial wetlands because so little of the habitat survives naturally. BirdLife Southern Queensland convenor Judith Hoyle describes the
drainage of the wetlands as “tragic”. Says Hoyle: “Any notion that wetlands are of less value because they are deemed to be highly modified or whatever is nonsense. Wildlife doesn't care one iota about that.”
Environmental consultant Brett Lane says the fate of the wetlands reflects the narrow view of environmental values held by Australian regulators: “To claim that "unnatural wetlands" are irrelevant ignores that nature can adapt to human changes to the landscape. Given the loss of natural habitats, unnatural ones are increasingly important in preventing extinction and offer a way forward to sustainable development.”
Canberra's indifference was echoed by the Queensland Government. State Environment Minister Steven Miles referred in correspondence to the wetlands as a “highly modified system that had previously been used for sugar cane production”. His department publicly dismissed the wetlands as being only of “local” significance, although wildlife there included species listed as vulnerable and near-threatened under the state laws. A departmental spokesperson conceded the assessment was made on the basis of a single site inspection; no surveys were conducted or commissioned.
The wetlands include an extensive stand of mangroves, which are protected under the state Fisheries Act. Heavy penalties apply to “unauthorised disturbances” that impact on mangroves on private land. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries investigated the drainage plans but took no action to block them.
The CSIRO conducted a scientific investigation of land use options for the Maroochy River cane lands following the closure of the Nambour mill. The CSIRO warned that the area was flood-prone and poorly drained, and its future rested in part with the conversion of former cane land to wetlands. “Maintaining or restoring wetlands is an important opportunity associated with any future land use change,” the CSIRO report says.
While Canberra and Brisbane were sidestepping the issue, the Sunshine Coast Council was under pressure to acquire the properties under its environmental levy program so they could be protected as a reserve. However, the council determined that the wetlands were not a high priority. The council insists that acquisition proposals are subject to technical assessment, but no assessments were made of the Yandina Creek proposal. Council sources say wildlife surveys and other assessments are made after, not before, property acquisitions. Sunshine Coast mayor Mark Jamieson declined to meet with community groups to discuss the proposal.
Jamieson did not respond to an offer from the Protect the Bushland Alliance for a team of scientific experts to examine the wetlands, at no cost to the council, to determine their full environmental value. The council also ignored an offer from a community group to fund a $4,500 bird-watching hide on the site.
While three levels of government signalled disinterest, the landholders had gone to the council with a scheme that would have addressed competing interests. The proposal would have protected some wetlands. Farming would proceed on part of the area and a site would be developed as an ecotourism destination; levy banks in the wetlands provided excellent conditions for viewing wildlife for cashed up wildlife enthusiasts from interstate and overseas. Nothing came of the plan; the council declines to comment on its merits.
A similar site in north Queensland, Tyto Wetlands, attracts 21,000 visitors annually and employs more than 20 staff. Federal, state and local governments have collectively poured $15 million into the development of Tyto as a reserve and ecotourism destination. The contrast between government perspectives of the two areas could not be more stark.
|Steve Miles, Peter Wellington, Narelle McCarthy, Judith Hoyle, Greg Roberts|
The publication coincided with a visit to the site by state Environment Minister Steve Miles and local MP and parliamentary Speaker Peter Wellington. More on that later. Dr Miles and Mr Wellington are mentioned in the news story, the transcript of which follows.
‘Artificial’ wetland drained
A wetland on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, regarded as internationally significant and home to endangered wildlife, has been drained because authorities deemed it as artificially created and not natural.
Federal and state authorities, along with the Sunshine Coast Council, rejected pleas from residents, wildlife experts and community groups to protect the 200ha wetland after regulatory officers determined that it was unnatural.
The controversy has sparked debate about a fundamental principle at the heart of environmental decision-making in Australia: whether or not an area that may have outstanding conservation value should be protected if it has been shaped or enhanced by human activity.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt yesterday ordered his department to establish whether the draining of the wetland late last week breached Commonwealth law.
Farmers who drained the wetland insisted that federal officers had indicated the move could proceed without fear of Commonwealth intervention.
The draining has left a stark, bleak landscape where once there were hundreds of migratory and resident waterbirds nesting and wading through the shallow waters that flowed into the area through compromised tidal floodgates.
Local resident Anna Dwan said she was distressed many protected waterbird chicks had been left stranded by the draining. “I am mortified that governments stand back and do nothing to prevent a wonderful area such as this from being destroyed because they think it is artificial.”
“It is a desolate wasteland out there now,” Ms Dwan said.
Mr Hunt’s Queensland counterpart, state Environment Minister Steve Miles, has also intervened in the wetland controversy after being urged to do so by the parliamentary Speaker, Peter Wellington, whose support is needed by the minority Labor government of Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.
Dr Miles had previously dismissed the wetland as unimportant on the advice of his department but yesterday he visited the site behind Coolum Beach with Mr Wellington.
It had been decided that the wetland should not be protected because it had been “highly modified” by human intervention.
The wetland provided refuge to wildlife listed as endangered and critically endangered under commonwealth law.
The wetland is on land formerly used to grow sugarcane. Farming ceased when the land was sold following the closure of the Nambour sugar mill in 2003. Floodgates that controlled flows from the Maroochy River to drainage canals on the land fell into disrepair, allowing tidal water to inundate the area and create the wetlands.
The floodgates were repaired recently by cane farmers who had leased the land. The area was drained over 48 hours last week.
Acting federal Greens leader Larissa Waters said it was “deeply alarming” that state and federal governments failed to intervene.
Mr Hunt said yesterday that he had not given approval for the wetland to be drained. “In order to determine if the action is compliant (with commonwealth law), the department is seeking further information,” his spokesman said.
The Queensland Environment Department admitted its conclusion that the wetlands were not worth protecting was based on a single site visit, and that no scientific studies had been conducted.
Mr Wellington, who is the local MP, said he asked Dr Miles to intervene because he was convinced of the case to protect the wetlands.
“Since the demise of the sugar industry, these areas now have a significant role as reserves for wildlife,” Mr Wellington said.