Coastal communities, including 24 federal seats at risk, demand action on climate threats


Barbara Norman, University of Canberra

Representatives of Australian coastal communities have gathered this week to discuss the major challenges they face. Delegates at the conference in Rockingham, Western Australia, represent 40 councils around Australia, some falling within the 24 federal electorates held by a margin of 5% or less. In contrast to the federal budget, climate change is at the top of their agenda.

At the coming federal election, 24 coastal electorates are held by a margin of 5% or less.
Compiled with NATSEM, University of Canberra and the Australian Coastal Councils, Author provided

Sea-level rise, floods, storms and bushfire were common concerns. The Australian Coastal Councils Conference’s May 6 communique demands national action:

Coastal councils and their communities call on the Australian Government to play a leadership role in developing a co-ordinated national approach to coastal management by adopting a set of policy initiatives based on the recommendations of the bipartisan Australian Parliamentary Coastal Inquiry.

Challenges of growth and change

Australia’s population is set to grow from 24 million to 40 million people by 2050. On present trends, this growth is likely to be concentrated in coastal regions, mostly along the eastern seaboard.

Australian Coastal Councils Association chair Barry Sammels, the mayor of Rockingham, observed:

Coastal seats are among the most vulnerable at the forthcoming election. Some of them are growing very rapidly, and others are changing demographically as ‘sea-changers’ migrate to coastal areas and people with young families are relocating from the cities in search of a better quality of life. This invariably means these regional coastal electorates, which have traditionally elected conservative political candidates, are becoming politically more volatile.

These communities are “at the forefront of climate vulnerability”, Sammels said. They are already dealing with coastal erosion and the prospect of rising sea levels and more frequent and extreme weather events.

Coastal communities, in particular those which are changing in character, are demanding these risks be taken seriously. … They currently feel there is a lack of commitment from both major parties to deal with these threats.

Lack of urgency at the top

Population growth is concentrated in coastal centres vulnerable to climate change.
p.16 State of Australian Cities 2014-15, Australian Government

While bipartisan interest in cities policies is growing, this needs to be extended to coastal regions experiencing big changes on several fronts – demographic, economic and environmental.

The lack of long-term strategic coastal planning puts both communities and environments at risk. The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef illustrates the impacts of environmental change on tourism, jobs and long-term economic security.

We need a national plan to support local councils to better manage coastal urban development, climate change and the consequences for their communities. We have had over 25 national reports leading to largely no action.

In the communique, coastal councils reasonably call for action on key recommendations of the comprehensive 2009 parliamentary inquiry:

We propose that the following recommendations of the coastal inquiry be adopted:
That the Australian Government, in co-operation with state, territory and local governments, and in consultation with coastal stakeholders, develop an Intergovernmental Agreement on the Coastal Zone to be endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments.

And that:

The Australian Government ensure that [the agreement] forms the basis for a National Coastal Zone Policy and Strategy, which should set out the principles, objectives and actions that must be taken to address the challenges of integrated coastal zone management for Australia.

Despite much-reduced federal funding, the National Climate Change Adaptation Facility continues to help inform action by local government. Clearly, however, better long-term planning is required. This requires deeper institutional support, including a national perspective on urban growth in the context of climate change.

Mandurah, WA, epitomises both the pace of growth of coastal communities and their vulnerability to climate change.
Rexness/flickr, CC BY-SA

Action has begun locally

Finally, not all coastal planning and management is achieved through law and policy. A great deal of activity occurs locally through goodwill and collaboration. To highlight three examples:

Such collaboration and innovation deserves long-term funding from higher levels of government.

We may have got this far without an integrated approach to coastal planning and management, but without it there is no way we will be able to manage coastal growth with the projected demographic, economic and climate changes.

That’s why local councils are demanding immediate action on a national coastal policy to meet the needs of our coastal communities and environment. To ignore their call is a very significant political risk indeed.

The Conversation

Barbara Norman, Chair of Urban & Regional Planning & Director of Canberra Urban & Regional Futures, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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EcoCheck: can the Brigalow Belt bounce back?


Leonie Seabrook, The University of Queensland; Clive McAlpine, The University of Queensland, and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

Our EcoCheck series takes the pulse of some of Australia’s most important ecosystems to find out if they’re in good health or on the wane.

Queensland’s Brigalow Belt is among Australia’s most significant biodiversity hotspots. Extending over an area of 36.4 million hectares from Townsville down into New South Wales, it was famously where the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt travelled, prickly pear was vanquished, and the now-extinct paradise parrot once lived.

The Brigalow Belt bioregions.
Hesperian/IBRA/Wikimedia Commons

Although the region contains diverse ecosystems, from dry vine scrub to grasslands, it is named after the species of tree that once dominated: the brigalow (Acacia harpophylla). This unusual, long-lived acacia with its dark, fissured bark and distinctive silver leaves forms dense woodlands, home to unique and threatened plants and animals.

Before clearing, brigalow-dominated ecological communities covered an estimated 7.5 million ha within the Brigalow bioregion. But those vast brigalow woodlands are no longer here.

Remnant brigalow woodland, Queensland.

Sought-after soil

Since the arrival of Europeans in the 1850s, 90% of brigalow forest has been cleared. Brigalow grows on fertile, cracking clay soils – the same soils needed for agriculture. Only 790,000 ha of brigalow ecosystems remain – just over 10% of the original extent. Sixteen out of 22 ecosystems where brigalow is the dominant or co-dominant species have less than 10% left – and even those are under threat.

Clearing of brigalow for crops and pasture began soon after European settlement. Initially, the task of turning the Brigalow into a breadbasket turned out to be more challenging than the settlers expected. Brigalow trees have a well-developed lateral root system. If the tree or roots are damaged, dense “suckers” spring up. This growth stage can last for 20-30 years and is followed by a “whipstick” stage lasting another 20-30 years before mature forest is formed.

This habit made permanent removal very difficult, as suckers can occur at a density of 20,000 stems per hectare.

Very young brigalow regrowth.

Agricultural development was also delayed by the invasion by prickly pear. Between 1901 and 1925, these spiky American cacti spread across 24 million ha of Queensland and NSW. Communities and governments despaired of being able to control this weed, but by 1932 a biological control agent, the Cactoblastis moth, had almost completely destroyed prickly pear.

It was not until the 1960s – and a “perfect storm” of mechanised land clearing, favourable government policies, scientific research into brigalow control, and a push for agricultural development – that clearing could occur on a grand scale. Once the problem was cracked, clearing rates soared. At times, rates equalled those in tropical forest regions such as the Amazon and Southeast Asia.

Legacy of loss

Today, the Brigalow Belt is a precious, but threatened, reservoir of endemic diversity. Brigalow woodland is nationally endangered, with severe consequences for the animals of the Brigalow Belt. Four species, including the paradise parrot, are extinct. Another 17 are on the threatened species list in either NSW or Queensland.

The Brigalow Belt is home to the threatened golden-tailed gecko.
Dave Fleming/Atlas of Living Australia

Remaining patches of brigalow are often modified by the removal of understorey shrubs and fallen timber. This affects habitat structure for reptiles and woodland birds in particular, reducing population sizes and encouraging aggressive competitors such as the noisy miner.

Many exotic species have been introduced, including pasture grasses. The most widespread of these is buffel grass, which has been a boon for pastoralists. Unfortunately, its invasion of remnant brigalow and contribution to fuelling bushfires has had dramatic effects on plant and animal biodiversity.

The Brigalow Belt is also home to 13 reptile species that are found only in this region, and another 14 for which the region is their main home. Eleven of the 148 reptile species found in the Brigalow Belt are threatened.

But the very suckering habit that made brigalow trees so difficult to clear in the early days may now be its salvation. Although brigalow regrowth is initially very different from old-growth woodland, if it is allowed to persist, the vegetation structure becomes more and more complex and diverse. After 30-50 years, mature regrowth can support as many bird species as old-growth woodland.

The future of the brigalow

Only 1% of the remaining brigalow woodland is in protected areas. The rest is highly fragmented, existing mainly as tiny patches, linear strips along roads and fence lines, and areas of regrowth.

Land-use change for agriculture, coal mining and coal seam gas extraction continues to nibble away at remaining brigalow ecosystems, despite protection by state and federal laws. In 2013-14, 44% of all woody vegetation clearing in Queensland occurred in the Brigalow Belt.

Legislation controlling most broadscale clearing of remnant native vegetation was introduced through the Queensland Vegetation Management Act 1999. This phased out clearing of remnant vegetation by December 2006. In 2008, recognising that the only way to recover threatened ecosystems like brigalow forest was to increase their extent, mature “high-value” regrowth of threatened ecosystems was also protected.

But in 2013 came a setback, with the introduction of the Vegetation Management Framework Amendment Act 2013, which allowed for much more vegetation clearing and removed the protections for high-value regrowth. Laws to reinstate those protections are before the Queensland Parliament.

The opportunity to recover the brigalow will not last forever. With repeated clearing, burning and cultivation, these forests could eventually disappear for good. But in those areas where some resilient regrowth remains, there is potential for recovery.

In 2009, there was an estimated 7,226 square km of regrowth, comprising a range of structures from juvenile bushes (aged 5-10 years) to almost mature stands (aged 30-50 years). This regrowth provides a promising and cost-effective way to increase habitat area for both fauna and flora, and reduce their risk of extinction.

To do this, however, we need to find ways to make retention of brigalow regrowth attractive and valuable to landholders, through stewardship schemes or carbon offsets. Only then might the Brigalow Belt bounce back.

Are you a researcher who studies an iconic Australian ecosystem and would like to give it an EcoCheck? Get in touch.

The Conversation

Leonie Seabrook, Landscape Ecologist, The University of Queensland; Clive McAlpine, Senior Research Fellow in Ecology, The University of Queensland, and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.