Response to Canberra Times article: ‘Over and above’: Trust aims to allay Ginninderry environmental fears

The article ‘Over and above’: Trust aims to allay Ginninderry environmental fears, relating to the Ginninderry Conservation Trust, by reporter Finbar O’Mallon, appeared in the Canberra Times on Thursday 14th of March 2019.

A number of the statements in the article are incorrect and misleading for readers.

Commentary on these is provided below:

1. The headline: “Over and above”: Trust aims to allay Ginninderry environmental fears” gives the impression that the establishment of the Ginninderry Conservation Trust (GCT) is in response to “environmental fears” of some kind. This is untrue.

Following extensive scientific research conducted over the last ten years the Ginninderry Conservation Corridor (596 ha.) was identified and set aside for the preservation of a number of listed species and ecological communities. It will also serve to preserve and protect several sites with important aboriginal cultural significance. Typically this land would have been placed under the custodianship of relevant Government agencies – in the ACT, the Environmental Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate and in NSW, the Yass Valley Council. Whilst such arrangements would have been adequate the Ginninderry project has always sought to achieve better than “business as usual” outcomes. Options for the future management of this land, which might enable superior environmental outcomes, were explored and have been under consideration since about 2012.

Because of the cross-border nature of the site, the species and ecological communities located on it and the cultural values of the area (which of their very nature are “cross-border”) it was decided that a single entity would be best placed to manage the reserve. This would have the advantage of allowing the reserve to be managed holistically, avoiding cross-border jurisdiction issues, it would permit “hands on” and genuine involvement from the local community and aboriginal stakeholder groups, and, importantly, would enable funding arrangements that were adequate for the job, perpetual and secure.

The establishment of the GCT, which effectively will own and manage the reserve, achieves all of these aims. The concept has been applauded as being most likely to achieve superior environmental outcomes when compared to any alternative arrangements. It is certainly not a response to any so-called “environmental fears” and will set a national benchmark in achieving community-based biodiversity conservation adjacent to an urban area.

2. The article says that “The ACT government allowed Ginninderry to be exempt from a full environmental impact statement”.

It is incorrect to imply, that Ginninderry has not been required to conduct all of the necessary detailed environmental research that would normally be expected of a project of this nature. The ‘exemption’ approval set aside the need to do certain work because Ginninderry had already completed the work as part of the comprehensive environmental strategic assessment in 2017 under national legislation.

Over the last 10 years, Ginninderry has completed a wide range of environmental investigations to determine the potential environmental impacts of the project. These have been undertaken to ensure that all necessary protection measures are in place, or are able to be easily put in place in the future planning for the project, prior to the start of development. Rather than taking a piecemeal assessment approach on a stage-by-stage basis, Ginninderry has completed a robust and comprehensive environmental assessment up-front. This has included an assessment of Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES) across the whole site. Approval under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) was obtained in August 2017. In addition to nationally listed species and communities, the assessment also included all species and ecological communities listed in either the ACT or NSW.

It is against this background & comprehensive assessment that the Ginninderry project applied for exemption from the requirement that the DA for stage two and future stages of the project be accompanied by multiple EIS’s prepared specifically to cover the individual DAs. After receiving an assessment report from the planning authority, the Minister for Planning determined that an exemption from requiring an EIS be granted.

A detailed fact sheet which summarises the background to this application, can be found here.

3. The article says that the “soon-to-be developed farmland across Ginninderry is littered with culturally significant Indigenous sites”.

The heritage background of the site is very rich and has been recorded in a series of technical studies by consultants with expertise in Aboriginal and European archaeology and anthropology.

Heritage legislation requires that Aboriginal heritage reports which identify sites and objects of heritage significance must remain confidential to ensure that the sites and objects are not interfered with or damaged, consequently these reports are not publicly available. In consultation with all relevant Aboriginal stakeholder groups, all sites that have been determined, to be of such significance as to warrant preservation, will be preserved. These sites are largely within the conservation corridor and those beyond this area, will be preserved in any case.

The Ginninderry Aboriginal Advisory Group has also been specifically established to advise the project on planning and management arrangements for these sites. Based on their advice, the conservation corridor was expanded (at the expense of development area) to incorporate additional significant sites at two different locations.

4. The article says: “The soon-to-be developed farmland across Ginninderry is ……., home to the protected Pink-tailed worm-lizard as well as other native flora and fauna”.

It is correct to say that all of the site is currently farmland, with no environmental protection measures in place. Virtually all of the Pink-tailed worm lizard habitat and all of the box-gum woodland habitat will be included within the reserve and, from now, will receive the highest levels of protection and restoration.

5. A quote attributed to Mr. Cummings is as follows: “Mr. Cummings couldn’t say how much they expected the trust to raise but eventually running costs will be at $2 million a year by 2023.”

To clarify, the reserve running costs are ultimately expected to be approximately $2m per annum (in todays dollars). The funding arrangements that have been agreed will ensure that this funding is available to the Trust in perpetuity.

6. The article says that “The ACT side will consist of two suburbs, Strathnairn and Macnamara”.

This is incorrect as there are plans for three ACT suburbs. Strathnairn and Macnamara, have so far been named with the third yet to be released by ACT Place Names Committee.

7. The article says that: “The Strathnairn development put up 200-metre buffer zone around a Little Eagle nesting place after conservationists raised concerns.

This statement is untrue on two counts.

Firstly, the 200 metre clearance zone was put in place by way of a variation to the Territory Plan, implemented by the Environment Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate, acting on the advice of their Wildlife Research Unit. The Plan Variation (#351) was approved by the Minister for Planning and subject to the endorsement (as a disallowable instrument) of the Legislative Assembly. The fact that the “Strathnairn development” (presumably Ginninderry) was involved in discussions with EPSDD and the Wildlife Research Unit should not be surprising as it is an affected landowner, but it had no say in the decision to impose the control in the Territory Plan.

Secondly, the buffer was not implemented “after conservationists raised concerns”. On becoming aware of the presence of the eagle, Ginninderry immediately referred the matter to the Wildlife Research Unit.

8. The article says that “In 2016, an ecologist warned Canberra’s urban sprawl was forcing the vulnerable bird from its native habitats in the capital..”.

The impact of “urban sprawl” on the eagle was not well understood up to 2016. Since that time the Little eagle research project which includes participation from the ACT Wildlife Research Unit, the University of Canberra, CSIRO, Ginninderry and several individual raptor experts, has amassed a body of data that demonstrates conclusively that eagle numbers are much higher in the ACT (including adjacent to urban areas) than was first thought, and that their behaviour does not seem to be greatly influenced by urban development.

9. The article quoted the “ecologist” as saying: “while Ginninderry had got an exemption for an environmental impact statement, it was only because of the amount of work done to prop up the environmental values of the area.”

The source of this statement is unclear. The Ginninderry project team would welcome the opportunity to meet with the ecologist quoted and clarify the situation and facts.