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Australasian Plant Conservation

Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 21(4) March - May 2013, p 13-16

Doing what’s best for the ecological community - protection under national environment law

Matt White
Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra
Email: matthew.white@environment.gov.au

Lowland Rainforest of Subtropical Australia – listed under the EPBC Act in November 2011. Photo: Matt White

Natural Temperate Grassland of the Southern Tablelands of NSW and the Australian Capital Territory. Photo: Matt White

Seasonal Herbaceous Wetlands (Freshwater) of the Temperate Lowland Plains – listed March 2012. Photo: Matt White

National listing and protection of threatened ecological communities (TECs) under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) is a potent protection and conservation tool that:

  • raises awareness of the most threatened ecological communities (ECs) in Australia as ‘matters of national environmental significance’
  • acts to protect them from significant impacts likely to cause further decline
  • aims to leverage research and conservation funding and promote recovery through government and community efforts.

The Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and national Threatened Species Scientific Committee work together on TEC listings. Summarised below is: the progress in building a comprehensive and representative national TEC list; some benefits and challenges; and efforts to identify potential gaps.

Progress in protecting TECs under national law

As a key part of the national approach to landscape-scale threat abatement and conservation, TEC listing has been accelerated. Sixty-one TECs now receive protection under national law, including 27 in the past 5 years; another 16 are under assessment.

Because a broad landscape approach is often taken to national definition and listing, the national TEC list represents more than 150 communities recognised as threatened by states and territories; and over 4.6 million hectares of ‘protected environment’ across various land tenures (including private land).

Information provided on TECs has also become more comprehensive to aid on-ground identification, environmental decision-making and promotion/education. As well as the conservation status analysis, listing information now includes: key diagnostic characteristics (biotic/abiotic); comprehensive descriptions of threats and known ecological processes; condition/quality thresholds; survey guidance; surrounding landscape considerations (e.g. buffer zones); priority research and conservation actions; and, how the national TEC relates to other classification systems and state listings. This is often supplemented by fact sheets/guidelines and recovery plans.

The full national TECs list and associated information is on the national Species Profile and Threats Database (SPRAT) at: www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publiclookupcommunities.pl

Benefits of national protection

Foremost, listing provides legislative protection and national recognition. This raises the TEC’s profile and improves awareness of component species, processes, threats and priority conservation actions. Importantly, actions likely to result in significant impacts are referred to the Commonwealth for approval. The approval process aims to determine whether a proposed action is acceptable and avoid significant impact, or mitigate/reduce threats, or offset adverse impacts when unavoidable. This is supported by strong compliance measures. TECs generally trigger EPBC Act referral for major developments by large companies and governments such as: urban development; mining/gas projects; new/expanding roads and infrastructure.

National TEC listing may also guide and stimulate opportunities for research and improved threat abatement and restoration – in particular, through Australian Government initiatives such as Caring for our Country (see www.nrm.gov.au). For example, since 2008 the Environmental Stewardships Program has fostered conservation of over 58 000 hectares of five national TECs at 580 sites.

TECs provide ‘whole-of-system’ protection that complements conservation mechanisms for individual species. For example, the ‘Littoral Rainforest and Coastal Vine Thickets of Eastern Australia’ provides habitat protection for over 60 threatened flora and fauna, plus many more species not individually protected. TEC listing also protects vegetation types not well represented in conservation reserves and private land remnants that foster connectivity and ecological processes in-between reserves or other protected areas (e.g. ‘Lowland Rainforest of Subtropical Australia’ TEC protects remnants outside of the reserves that form the ‘Gondwana Rainforests of Australia’ world heritage place).

Challenge of defining a TEC for national protection

The broad EPBC Act definition for an EC allows flexibility in describing TECs to maximise conservation benefits. Nevertheless, ECs are complex to describe and there are a range of scales at which they can be defined. Each TEC description is developed on a case-by-case basis to be scientifically rigorous, legally clear and understandable to land managers.

Key threats often operate at a broad scale. National listing in recent years has, where feasible, moved towards a landscape- scale or systems-based approach, including grouping smaller vegetation units or sub-communities. However, smaller TECs are still national assets and also remain strong candidates for national protection. Regardless of scale, national extent must be clearly defined and reflect national distribution (irrespective of jurisdictional boundaries). While a TEC may have a broad extent, key species, structure and function typically remain the same across the full range.

Examples of landscape-scale national TECs that cover vast areas and ecological systems across several jurisdictions include: ‘Grey Box Grassy Woodlands’ and ‘Coolibah-Black Box Woodlands’. Assessment of a major river system for the first time as a potential TEC, the ‘River Murray and associated wetlands, floodplains and groundwater, from Darling River to sea’, is a systems-based approach.

So where are the gaps in the national list? - Informing priorities for listing

National TECs include grasslands, shrublands, woodlands, forests and wetlands. Some habitat types and regions are well represented - for example, all broad-range temperate-lowland grasslands in south-eastern Australia, recognised among the world’s most threatened ecosystems, are now protected; similarly, temperate grassy woodlands through the wheat-sheep belt of south-eastern Australia. However, gaps in the national list are known for some types of communities and in some regions; others require identification and prioritisation.

Priority TECs for listing include those in areas where biodiversity has been depleted (e.g. heavily cleared areas) and/or facing substantial threats (e.g. rapid development). The density of EPBC referrals over the past decade indicates the major development areas are: close to major urban centres; east coast and inland of ranges from Cairns to Adelaide; the Swan Coastal Plain, Geraldton and Exmouth-Pilbara.

Other priority TECs are those that represent habitat types or regions under-represented within the National Reserve System or through other protection mechanisms; and/or, in areas where TEC protection and recovery will connect conservation areas or enhance ecological resilience through maintaining or restoring ecological function, critical habitat, wildlife corridors and/or refugia.

A heavy reliance on public nominations has resulted in a strong foundation for the national TEC list. However, it is timely to take stock. Australia has not been systematically divided into well-defined ecological communities that are assessed for threats at the national level. To complete a national TEC list requires efficient resource use, careful prioritisation and rigorous definition and analysis. In recent years gaps have been strategically identified by: analyses of national and state vegetation datasets; identifying TECs on state/territory lists that are highest priorities for national protection; and two major workshops.

A vegetation gap analysis by the Department revealed:

  • bioregions in south-west Western Australia (e.g. Avon Wheatbelt) and southern Victoria/South Australia (e.g. Victorian Volcanic Plain) show loss of >70% since European settlement in several major vegetation groups. Various TECs are listed or under assessment in these regions but others require future consideration
  • based on threatened Victorian Ecological Vegetation Classes potential national gaps include mallee and herb-rich woodlands
  • analysis of NSW databases (e.g. Benson, 2006) highlighted coastal swamps, floodplain/riparian forests and ironbark-woodland communities that are not adequately protected
  • rainforest/vine thicket gaps may include: Queensland deciduous vine thickets; Tasmanian cool temperate rainforests; dry rainforests in NSW/Victoria; and, North Kimberley lowland springs/floodplain rainforest.

The Department is working with state departments and scientific committees to facilitate consistency between jurisdictional lists and identify priorities for national protection. Two state-endemic TECs have been listed (‘Claypans of the Swan Coastal Plain’ and ‘Broad-leaf tea-tree woodlands in North Queensland’) and five more are under assessment.

A workshop in 2009 with 36 experts examined processes and priorities to kick-start national listing of marine TECs. Giant Kelp Forests (listed in 2012), were agreed as an excellent starting point and other priorities recommended included sea-grass meadows and saltmarshes (under assessment) (TSSC, 2009).

A National TECs Strategic Workshop in March 2012 brought together 50 experts and stakeholders, including from state/territory agencies and scientific committees (TSSC, 2012). The workshop highlighted various terrestrial vegetation and aquatic communities or systems that may benefit from national protection, providing guidance for future TEC nominations (www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/workshop-strategic.html). Some of the suggested priorities for national protection are very broad groupings or complexes. The next step is to define discrete ecological communities and confirm whether they meet threatened listing criteria. The workshop also endorsed guiding principles for TEC nominations - this ‘Prioritisation Framework’ was published on the Department’s website for the 2013 nomination round (http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/pubs/framework-for-prioritisation-ec.pdf).

Conclusion

National TEC listing is a robust and efficient environment protection and conservation tool. Listing TECs can protect species, natural landscapes and ecosystem services on all land/sea tenures. As ‘matters of national environment significance’, TECs trigger the protection provisions of the EPBC Act and complement and guide other conservation and recovery initiatives.

There is significant value in a strategic approach to future EPBC Act protection through identifying and assessing high priority TECs that are not well protected nationally. Initiatives are underway to identify priorities but work is ongoing.

References

Benson J.S (2006). New South Wales Vegetation Classification and Assessment: Introduction – the classification, database, assessment of protected areas and threat status of plant communities (www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au).

TSSC (2009). Threatened Marine Ecological Community Workshop Report, Canberra. http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/workshop-marine-communities.html

TSSC (2012). National Threatened Ecological Community Strategic Workshop Report, Canberra. http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/workshop-strategic.html

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