A covey of conservationists
Last week I went to Melbourne to confer with policy makers, ecologists, Aboriginal Land Council representatives, academics, scientists, researchers, directors of NGOs, corporate managers, conservation landholders, a lawyer and a farmer. Delegates came from all corners of Australia, New Zealand, Massachusetts and California. I represented The Bimblebox Alliance, established two and a half years ago to prevent the destruction of a nature refuge in Central Queensland by a dirty great big coal mine, and to lobby for effective and lasting protection of high conservation value areas.
The 2016 National Private Land Conservation Conference was organised by the Australian Land Conservation Alliance (ALCA). For two days delegates listened and questioned and debated the increasingly pivotal role of private conservation for the survival of ecosystems, as huge numbers of humans and their demand for resources place ever more pressure on a finite planet. The significant growth in private conservation in recent times has been facilitated by environmentalists' creation of new conservation models. In addition, they have cultivated relationships with government policy makers, the farming community, philanthropists and volunteer organisations. We are all sustainably managing natural environments now.
The greater focus on private conservation stems from an increased need to protect Australia's biodiversity from the combined threats of climate disruption, habitat degradation, and resource exploitation. Decades-old legislation is often found wanting when it comes to enabling new policy and resolving land use conflict. There is less public funding available, in Queensland for example, to fulfil key environmental aims of the government: to increase the protected area estate, 'rescue' critically endangered species, and ringfence 'refugia' resilient to climate change.
Depending on where you live in the world, and your home state within Australia, private conservation agreements take many forms: trusts, easements, reserves, refuges, Indigenous conservation partnerships, landcare networks, conservancies, sanctuaries and, regrettably, as yet unproven offsets. At the conference there was huge emphasis on the economics of private conservation: corporate social responsibility (CSR); natural capital and ecosystem services; philanthropic grant making; market-based conservation schemes (for example, large water management schemes); revolving funds; and public-private collaboration. It makes more sense if you accept that gone are the days when government funding was up to the task, and that the size of the task grows in direct proportion to the delay in climate change mitigation and biodiversity preservation policies coming out of Canberra.
A couple of days ago, Queensland's Minister for the Environment and National Parks, Steven Miles, announced the addition of 366,000 hectares to Queensland's protected area estate in central and northern regions of the state. This takes the percentage of Queensland that is protected from 7.68 to 7.92 since 2015. Minister Miles's target is 17 per cent, so there is still a way to go. Ten former grazing properties have been purchased and dedicated as protected areas, leading to the creation of three new national parks and extensions to two existing. A new conservation park and five new 'resources reserves' have also been created. I am not sure what these are, I cannot find definitions on the Department's website, and will have to research further.
Minister Miles has long acknowledged the need for one or more 'top-shelf' categories of protected area, especially since existing high conservation value nature refuges are not safe from mining. The demands of forestry and pastoral leasing may also outclass a nature refuge agreement – which was always supposed to endure 'in perpetuity' – when it comes to prioritisation.
In addition, the Minister recently announced the creation of a Special Wildlife Reserve, along with plans for private sector partnering with government to 'add value to conservation'. An SWR would be as protected as a national park. National parks are not inviolable, however. And the legislation promised for next year will not be retrospective, so is of no help to threatened high conservation value areas already in existence. The qualification criteria are as yet unknown: will the presence of cute Australian icons outdo unattractive bugs or remnant woodland and rare plants?
I have other questions. How will wildlife corridors connecting Private Protected Areas (PPAs) be safeguarded? Will the bar be similarly raised for inadequately strategised biodiversity offsets? Will the proposed legislation be accompanied by a much-needed PR campaign to raise the profile of biodiversity conservation among the public? Are there plans to bring the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 into the 21st century so that it encompasses the ramifications of global climate change treaties?