PARK WATCH Article March 2024 |

Grassy Plains Coordinator, Adrian Marshall, assesses strategic assessments

There is lots of talk around the reform of Australia’s national nature laws, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). And rightly so. If the current EPBC Act is strengthened, with gaps in the Act repaired and weaknesses resolved, these reforms could turn Australia’s biodiversity and climate crisis around.

But let’s talk specifically about one element of the current legislation, strategic assessments. They are used as a means of balancing conflict between environmental protection and development. Strategic assessments affect large areas – like whole urban growth corridors, or all offshore petroleum in Commonwealth waters. The core idea? They identify the most important parts to protect and regulate development to minimise impacts.

They claim to streamline approvals, and to produce better environmental, social and economic outcomes than the cumulative outcomes of the case-by-case assessments they replace. Their use is growing worldwide. They are being pushed by developers and vested interests as a key plank in future reforms. This is big stuff.

But do they work, or do they just open the door for damage over larger areas? Surprisingly, little rigorous research exists to help answer that simple question.

Australia’s first attempt was the Melbourne Strategic Assessment (MSA) in 2010. This accompanied the expansion of the Urban Growth Boundary and the release of 60,000 hectares of land for development. As compensation for the destruction of nature across the new growth corridors, the MSA proposed protection of 15,000 ha of Western Grassland Reserve, the 1200 ha Grassy Eucalypt Woodland Reserve, and 36 Conservation Areas.

Readers of Park Watch are familiar with our opinion of the MSA: it was rushed, poorly thought through, appallingly implemented, and has so far failed to conserve the grasslands, woodlands, plants and beasties it is was designed to protect.

And now there’s research that supports our opinion.

Enter the rigorous academics

A recent article, ‘Challenges and lessons of implementing strategic environmental assessment in a critically endangered ecosystem‘, by RMIT University’s Marco Gutierrez, Ascelin Gordon and Sarah Bekessy, examines the question.

The authors evaluated the MSA’s implementation of biodiversity protection and analysed a mountain of documents. A range of stakeholders were interviewed, including conservation advocates, consultants, landowners, public officials and researchers.

The authors found ‘systematic and pervasive failures, including questionable funding and enforcement arrangements’.

Will they ever learn?

Slowly: An ecological and political train wreck of this magnitude can’t be fixed overnight, or even in a few years. The current MSA management is showing genuine improvement. There is increasing goodwill, but conservation targets simply aren’t being met. They can do much better.

Just a bit: The latest Strategic Assessment is the Geelong Strategic Assessment (GSA). It’s clear some lessons have been learnt since the 2010 MSA. The GSA is yet to be approved by the Commonwealth, but drafts we’ve commented on have included many poor conservation actions. In its current form, the GSA runs the risk of repeating past MSA mistakes.

It’s politics: The MSA was a disaster born of pressure, of the mantra of growth at any cost, and a big push to get housing built. The GSA is also rushed, with decisions out of sequence and improvements overlooked in favour of advancing development.

Opportunities for change

At present there’s no reason to have confidence in the ability of strategic assessments to deliver the conservation outcomes they promise.

A thorough overhaul of the EPBC Act, and strategic assessments, is central to protecting our natural web of life. We must urgently fix the way strategic assessments are undertaken. All the lessons of the MSA need to be learned. We need more rigorous research to help identify the mistakes, adapt our approach and guide the way forward.

A poor funding model. Under the MSA, funds to purchase the Western Grassland Reserve are received from developers incrementally over decades. A better approach would have been for the state to purchase the land up-front, then receive developer payments over time.

Our solution: Get on with it and buy all outstanding land now.

Delays in acquiring the land. It’s already taken 14 years to buy (an underwhelming) 18 per cent of the Western Grassland Reserve, almost none of the Grassy Eucalypt Woodland and a handful of the conservation areas. In the meantime, the other 82 per cent is mostly being abandoned to weeds and decline.

Our solution: Buy as much as possible as soon as possible, and force interim management.

Limited experience. No one in Australia had runs on the board managing and restoring so much grassland. Huge scales, complex land use history, many serious weed species, and multiple conservation goals for plants, animals and ecological communities, have seriously set back good management.

Our solution: Expert advisory panels, research, partnerships with multiple land management organisations, universities and community groups.

Ambiguous enforcement. The MSA is an agreement between the state and the Commonwealth, but if the state doesn’t deliver, the Commonwealth can’t do anything to legally enforce the state to abide by its obligations.

Our solution: Enact federal legislation of clear and strong enforcement, with federal authorities making sure commitments are delivered.