|The wetlands were first drained in the mid-1920s": pic provided by Audienne Blyth|
Here is the transcript of the fully story submitted to The Weekend Australian. An edited version of the story was published today.
An internationally significant wetland on Queensland's Sunshine Coast that was drained after government authorities dismissed it as unimportant because the area was created artificially was formerly a natural wetland.
Historical records show that the Yandina Creek wetland, which was drained two weeks ago leaving nesting protected waterbirds stranded, closely resembled the area before it was developed for sugar cane plantations almost a century ago.
The Weekend Australian reported last week (see here) that the wetlands were drained by farmers to replant cane that had not been grown on the properties concerned for more than a decade. In that time, tidal water inundated the low-lying area through broken floodgates on farm drains, creating a 200ha wetland that was home to large numbers of birds including federally protected species.
The federal and Queensland governments, along with the local council, made no attempt to block the drainage plans, with authorities dismissing the wetland as being of no significance because it had been “highly modified” by human activity.
The move sparked debate about a key principle at the centre of environmental decision-making in Australia: whether an environmentally significant area deserves protection if it has been shaped by human activity.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt is under pressure to act under Commonwealth law to order that the wetland be refilled before protected migratory shorebirds return to Australia from their Asian breeding grounds in the weeks ahead to spend the northern winter here.
Wildlife experts claim the Abbott Government could be in breach of six international agreements protecting shorebirds if it fails to act to protect the wetland, which harboured species listed as endangered and critically endangered.
Sunshine Coast historian Carolyn Slade that it was clear from historic records that the Yandina Creek wetland, before it was drained recently, resembled closely the area as it appeared before first being drained to make way for cane plantations in the mid-1920s.
“That entire area in the vicinity of Yandina Creek was naturally tidal mudflats, ti-tree swamps and other wetland,” Ms Slade said.
“Even as cane land the area was extremely wet and muddy, with heavy machinery being continually bogged. It is appalling that government used the excuse of it being artificial to destroy the wetland. It wasn't artificial; it had been returned to its natural state.”
Frances Wildolf, who documented the history of the region in a book, An Island Surrounded by Land, said the area was natural wetland until a contractor, Harry Dobe, was hired to dig drains
so cane could be planted on newly drained farmland. The drains, two metres deep and a metre wide, had to be dug by hand.
Australia has signed agreements to protect migratory birds with Japan, China and South Korea. Australia is also a signatory to the Ramsar Convention and two other treaties requiring Canberra to act to “restore and enhance” the habitat of migratory shorebirds. Twelve species of shorebird numbering hundreds of birds had sought refuge in the Yandina Creek wetland.
BirdLife Australia spokeswoman Judith Hoyle said Mr Hunt should intervene to order that the wetland be refilled, which can be done by the farmers opening recently installed floodgates. If the minister considered that his powers were insufficient, the Commonwealth should apply for a Federal Court injunction. The farmers who drained the wetland declined to comment.
Birgita Hansen, a migratory shorebird expert with Federation University Australia, said there was a sound case for refilling the wetland.
Migratory shorebirds would begin returning to Australia this month. “I understand that the predictions for the coming austral summer are a return to El Nino conditions,” Dr Hansen said. “Therefore, if action is left too late, the wetland may not refill.”
However, Mr Hunt ruled out any move while a departmental investigation he has ordered was under way.
“The department has advised that no permission was sought, no application has been received and no permission has been given in relation to the action that was undertaken,” Mr Hunt said.
“I have written to the Queensland Government seeking clarification on what steps and investigations they have carried out as this is primarily a local and state land planning matter. The advice from the department is absolutely clear in that we are upholding all international obligations.”
Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles, who had previously dismissed the wetland as unimportant because it was artificial, visited the site last week at the urging of local MP Peter Wellington, who holds the balance of power in state parliament.
Reversing his earlier position, Dr Miles said yesterday that several proposals to protect the area would be further explored.
The Sunshine Coast Council, which had also dismissed the wetland as unimportant, signalled that it too was open to proposals. “If the Commonwealth and state governments indicate they would consider partnering with other stakeholders for the purchase of the land, the council would be happy to be part of those negotiations,”said Councillor Steve Robinson.
|Mangroves in Yandina Creek Wetlands|
Mangroves on private land are protected under state law. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries had previously investigated whether the recent drainage of the wetlands breached the Fisheries Act as an extensive area of mangroves had developed in the eastern portion of the wetlands. The department refused to reveal the outcome of its initial investigation, Now, following intervention by the Minister for Agricultural and Fisheries, Bill Byrne, a new investigation has been launched. We await the outcome with interest.