Green light for Tasmanian wilderness tourism development defied expert advice



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At least 30 tourism developments have been proposed for Tasmania’s World Heritage-listed wilderness.

Brendan Gogarty, University of Tasmania; Nick Fitzgerald, University of Tasmania, and Phillipa C. McCormack, University of Tasmania

The Commonwealth government’s decision to wave through a controversial tourism development in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area was made in defiance of strident opposition from the expert statutory advisory body for the region’s management, it was revealed today.

In August, federal environment minister Melissa Price’s office decided the proposed luxury development on Halls Island did not need to be assessed under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

But according to documents tabled in Tasmania’s parliament by the Greens this morning, the state’s National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council had advised the opposite, as well as recommending that the proposal should not be approved at all in its current form. The council also argued “contentious projects” like this one should not be considered for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area without “an agreed framework to guide assessment”.

This situation is not unique, and reveals a deeper problem with our national environmental laws. They may look strong on paper, but their strength can be eroded by bureaucratic discretion.

From conservation to commercialisation

Tasmania’s wilderness has long been ground zero for the struggle between conservation and commercialisation of our natural estate. In the 1980s, the Commonwealth government nominated the area for World Heritage listing to stop the state government building a hydroelectric dam on one of Australia’s last truly wild rivers.

The “locking up” of large parts of wilderness from industrial development has prompted deep social divisions. Nevertheless, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) has since become part of Tasmania’s cultural and natural fabric. Yet this wilderness is now under renewed threat, as commercial interests seek to capitalise on its tourism potential.




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World Heritage Areas must have an up-to-date management plan to ensure compliance with Australia’s obligations under the World Heritage Convention. In 2016 the Commonwealth and Tasmanian governments revised the TWWHA management plan to reflect its “socio-economic” value, allowing a range of tourism uses that were banned under the previous 1999 plan.

The World Heritage Committee warned in 2015 that without “strict criteria for new tourism development”, there would be significant risks to the area’s “wilderness character and cultural attributes”. Australia accepted the recommendation but has still not meaningfully implemented strict criteria to assess and protect wilderness values, even as it accepts proposals for tourism developments.

Proposed commercial infrastructure projects involving built structures, transport, and modification of the natural environment in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, which have received preliminary or final approvals at October 2018. 30 proposals have been made and additional projects are likely to be announced as the EOI process continues.
(c) Nick Fitzgerald 2018.

Since both levels of government agreed to open up the TWHHA, a range of commercial interests have proposed tourism developments there. Expressions of interest for commercial developments are done behind closed doors, but it is clear that at least 30 commercial development proposals have been made for sites in the TWWHA, including projects involving permanent huts, lodges and camps, and some that would necessitate helicopter access.

Halls Island

The first of these proposals to be released for public comment and assessed under the 2016 management plan is a plan to build a “luxury standing camp and guided ecotourism experience” at Halls Island in Walls of Jerusalem National Park – a remote highland region of the TWWHA.

The plan includes reclassifying the lake surrounding Halls Island from “wilderness” to “self-reliant recreation”. On March 22, 2018, the proponent (Wild Drake Pty Ltd) referred the proposal to the Commonwealth Environment Minister to determine whether it should be formally assessed under the EPBC Act.

Upon referral the proposal met with widespread opposition from scientists, conservation specialists, civil society, and recreational users of the park, especially the fishing community. What became clear today is that it was also strongly opposed by the expert advisory council for the TWWHA.

Expert advice

The National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council (NPWAC) is a statutory body of independent experts, with responsibility to advise on the management of the TWHHA in line with Australia’s national and international World Heritage commitments. The documents released today show that on July 13 2018, the NPWAC argued strongly against the proposal being allowed to proceed, stating that it “does not support this project progressing at this time”.

It cited a range of objections, including the fact that the development would effectively grant “exclusive private commercial use” of an area in the TWWHA, and that the opening up of airspace to helicopters would set an unwelcome precedent. It also described the development’s planned “standing camp” as a “pretence” because it would involve the construction of permanent buildings for year-round use. And it pointed to the proposal’s failure to address adequately the risk to threatened species and the fire-sensitive nature of the property.

Like the World Heritage Committee, NPWAC argued that the range of projects currently proposed for the TWWHA “should not be considered until there is an agreed framework to guide assessment”. Yet despite this, the minister’s delegate allowed the proposal to proceed without further assessment under the EPBC Act.

Commonwealth government’s decision

On August 31, 2018, the delegate of the minister decided that the referred action “is not a controlled action”, which means that it will not be subject to any further assessment, or even attention, by the Commonwealth government. No other reasons were given to reject the NPWAC’s recommendations, or the submissions from 78 individuals (including expert scientists) and 808 campaign submissions opposing the development.

Government ministers are not bound to act on expert advice. But they do have a duty to take it into account in a meaningful way. That is especially the case when expert advice is so clear, and supported by a range of relevant, independent and compelling public submissions from scientists and specialist groups.

According to the IUCN, world heritage wilderness area areas allow us to understand nature on its own terms and maintain those terms while allowing (and even encouraging) humans to experience wild nature.
(c) Brendan Gogarty

In the case of Halls Island, these factors should have tipped the balance towards undertaking a proper, legal assessment of the proposal and its likely impacts.

In a response to The Conversation, Price said her department had considered a range of advice and concluded that the proposed development is “not likely to have significant impacts on any nationally protected environmental matters, including the value of the World Heritage Area”.

Examined against the government’s increasingly cavalier attitude to our national estate, world heritage, and role in global environmental governance it is tempting to conclude that Tasmania’s wilderness has become yet another place where economic values trump conservation ones.

The Commonwealth is supposed to provide a check and balance on states’ self-interest in exploiting areas of outstanding universal value. But with another 29 development proposals on the list, our fear is that Tasmania’s World Heritage “wilderness” will become a lot less wild in the future.The Conversation

Brendan Gogarty, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Tasmania; Nick Fitzgerald, PhD candidate, University of Tasmania, and Phillipa C. McCormack, Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Fighting frog fungus: Lee Berger wins PM’s Life Scientist 2018 award



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In 1998 Lee Berger identified a skin fungus as the cause of unexplained mass frog deaths.
Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear

Lee Berger, University of Melbourne and Lee Francis Skerratt, University of Melbourne

Lee Berger is the 2018 recipient of the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, one of the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science announced on October 17.

Lee’s research identified the cause of mysterious and devastating mass frog extinctions that spread across the world starting in the 1970s: it was a skin fungus.

With her colleague Lee Skerratt, here she describes the work that led to her prize, and what is still to be achieved for frog and wildlife conservation in Australia and across the world.


Combating fungi in frogs – why is this important?

Chytridiomycosis might be the worst disease in history. In a matter of decades, the illness cut a swathe through hundreds of species of frogs, causing mass extinctions as it spread out of Asia into Australia and the Americas.

Our research was the first to identify the cause – a novel chytrid fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis – but finding ways to combat the disease requires a lot more work.

Infected frogs are lethargic and experience excess skin shedding (this species is Mixophyes fasciolatus).
Lee Berger, Author provided

Here in Australia, six species have already been driven extinct, and another seven are on the brink. Fortunately, in Australia we also have the unique expertise and perspective to prevent further losses if we devote adequate resources to the problem.




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The keys to our research success have been a cross-disciplinary approach and a focus on delivering conservation outcomes.

Frog declines had been seen around the world from the late 1970s on, but it wasn’t until 1998 that we identified the chytrid fungus as the cause.

Parts of the fungus poke through an infected frog’s skin – as seen here under scanning electron microscope.
Lee Berger, Author provided

Why had nobody else figured this out before?

Discovering the fungus on the skin of frogs was not rocket science, but rather applying the methods from one discipline to a problem in another. An outbreak investigation approach – using the tools of medicine for frog conservation – allowed us to diagnose the cause of the frog deaths.

The main reason this approach was tried in Australia was the broad knowledge and interest of the late Rick Speare, an extraordinarily eclectic scientist, medical doctor and vet. (Like the prize’s namesake Frank Fenner, he was comfortable using his medical expertise for the environment.)

Rick’s help was sought by Keith McDonald, a chief ranger of Queensland and a herpetologist. Keith was concerned about the health of North Queensland frogs after witnessing major declines in the south.

After looking at the pattern of declines the pair thought they saw the trail of an unknown infectious, waterborne disease. They applied for funds to search for a disease.

Green-eyed treefrogs (Litoria serrata) in the Queensland rainforest have declined due to chytridiomycosis.
Lee Skerratt, Author provided

The idea that an infectious disease might be responsible for frog declines met resistance because of the belief that a pathogen can never cause extinction, because hosts will evolve resistance. So while Rick and Keith did obtain funding to tackle this urgent global mystery, it was only enough to support a single PhD student.

That PhD student was me, Lee Berger. To cut a long story short, my work in pathology and disease transmission experiments in frogs led to our conclusion that a novel and unusual fungus in the frogs’ skin caused a fatal disease and the mass amphibian deaths seen in North Queensland. As this was the first fungus from the phylum Chytridiomycota found to cause disease in a vertebrate, I had to develop many new methods to be able to further study the disease.

So in summary, it was about 20 years after global amphibian declines began that we discovered chytridiomycosis as the cause of the population crashes. It took about another ten years for the disease to be accepted as the prime cause of declines.

After the discovery, what came next?

In subsequent years our research has continued towards the more challenging goal of finding solutions to manage this issue.

Our small multidisciplinary One Health Research Group has tackled diverse questions to reduce the spread and the impact. Questions such as:

Now we are focused on understanding immunity to improve survival rates of the most threatened species of frogs in the wild.

This work has only been possible due to the extraordinary dedication of our students and staff and the collaboration with specialist scientists such as herpetologists, molecular biologists, immunologists, physiologists and others who have lent their expertise.

Common mistfrogs (Litoria rheocola) in the Queensland rainforest have also declined due to chytridiomycosis.
Lee Skerratt, Author provided

What does this mean for Australia’s wildlife?

Our research has clearly shown that introduced diseases can have catastrophic impacts for conservation, much like the arrival of feral predators. In fact, disease can cause extinction much more quickly than predators, within months rather than years. The catastrophe of invasive species is a cost of globalisation that will be ongoing unless we respond.

The responsibility for wildlife lies with environment departments, but because health expertise is in other institutes, wildlife health can fall between the cracks.

We argue that continued support for bodies such as Wildlife Health Australia (WHA) is important. We also need a centre of expertise for outbreak investigation and strategic research to develop new tools for wildlife health management.

Biodiversity will miss out unless we support research that promises no direct and fast commercial return but benefits our nation in the longer term. In particular, and most urgently, Australia must save its frogs before it is too late.


Other winners in the 2018 Prime Ministers Science Prizes are: The Conversation

  • Prime Minister’s Prize for Science: Kurt Lambeck
  • Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation: The Finisar team
  • Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year: The Finisar team
  • Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year: Jack Clegg
  • Prime Minister’s Prize for New Innovators: Geoff Rogers
  • Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools: Brett Crawford
  • Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools: Scott Sleap

Lee Berger, , University of Melbourne and Lee Francis Skerratt, , University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why a wetland might not be wet


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Wetlands can have decades-long dry periods.
Felicity Burke/The Conversation, CC BY-SA

Deborah Bower, University of New England; Ben Vincent, University of New England; Darren Ryder, University of New England; John Thomas Hunter, University of New England; Lindsey Frost, University of New England; Manu Saunders, University of New England, and Sarah Mika, University of New England

Lake Eyre is one of Australia’s most iconic wetlands, home to thousands of waterbirds that migrate from all over Australia and the world. But it is often dry for decades between floods.

Many people think wetlands are swamps or ponds that die when dry. But unlike many places worldwide, most Australian wetlands have natural wet-dry cycles, with dry spells that can last for decades. Dry phases are necessary for the life cycle of the wetland itself, as well as for many of the plants and animals that live there.




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So, if wetlands are still wetlands when they’re dry, how do you spot one? And what do we need to know about these unique places to protect their wonderful and unique biodiversity?

Fogg Dam wetlands in the Northern Territory are a riot of colour during monsoon season.
Geoff Whalan/Flickr, CC BY-NC

When the rains come

Floods are vital for a wetland. As one fills, water depth can increase rapidly, the temperature falls, and dissolved oxygen is high as turbulent raindrops or floodwaters fill the basin. Within a few hours of wetting, animals and plants that can tolerate the dry periods will hatch, sprout or resume life, and a new aquatic food web begins.

Algae begin blooming, the soil releases nutrients, and tiny aquatic animals like rotifers hatch from dried eggs. Within a week, copepods and other small crustaceans hatch and adult insects like dragonflies arrive to lay their eggs. Huge numbers of waterbirds may flock to the wetland to enjoy the abundant algae and crustaceans. Other critters emerge from hideouts in crayfish burrows, beneath leaf litter or buried in shallow sediment.

When wetlands flood they fill rapidly with life.
Felicity Burke/The Conversation, CC BY

After filling, new plants emerge in distinct zones depending on water depth and how often and long they are wet. Wetland plants produce oxygen and store carbon, two services essential for life on earth. They have evolved many ways to survive through dry times and thrive during the wet.

Some plants, like pondweed, are so adapted to aquatic life that a single stem can grow thin branching leaves underwater and thicker broader leaves above water. This helps the plant to access oxygen underwater while simultaneously maximising the sunlight it receives above water. Both are necessary for growth and survival.




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As the wetland dries, water temperatures increase, dissolved oxygen drops and aquatic animals either leave or prepare to survive the dry times.

Some, like mosquito larvae, have adapted to stagnant water. They breath through siphons on their tail to survive this final drying stage. Once the wetland is completely dry, microbes take over to start breaking down any remaining organic matter and the cycle starts again.

Macquarie Marshes in NSW moves between wet and dry.
Margaret Donald/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Many plants and animals in the wetland die and decompose, enriching the earth. These very fertile soils are the reason why wetlands are so often drained for cropping and grazing. If undisturbed, these nutrients are stored in the soil until the next flood. When completely dry, the wetland may only be evident as a depression of fine soil with a perimeter of sedges or reeds.

Wetlands may stay dry for many decades, while eggs and seeds wait and rest until the next flood. Some eggs (such as shield shrimp) are small enough to be dispersed by the wind, or hitch a ride on waterbirds leaving the area.

The plants, animals and microbes occupying wetlands improve the surrounding landscape, providing pollination, pest control, carbon and nutrient storage, and waste removal. Wetlands store 35% of carbon in only 9% of the earth’s surface, reducing floods and recharging groundwater. Understanding how plants and animals will adapt to the extended dry periods predicted with climate change is increasingly important.

Under dry earth, many plants and creatures wait for the rains to come again.
Felicity Burke/The Conversation, CC BY

A drying climate is particularly concerning for high altitude wetlands that are very restricted in the Australian landscape. They occur on the New England Tablelands and Monaro Plateau and can be rapidly degraded by grazing, cropping, diverting or storing water, or fires that can each destroy thousands of years of peat growth in a few days. Losing these wetlands brings us a step closer to losing threatened species such as the Giant dragonfly and Latham’s snipe that rely on these unique upland wetlands.




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Wetlands are largely threatened by lack of understanding that the quiet dry periods fuel the booming wet periods. It is critical that we know where wetlands are in the landscape, so we can protect them during wet and dry phases. Protecting wetlands even when they’re not wet sustains vital seed and egg banks that kickstart complex food webs linking land and water across Australia’s iconic wetland ecosystems.The Conversation

Deborah Bower, Lecturer in Ecosystem Rehabilitation, University of New England; Ben Vincent, Research officer, University of New England; Darren Ryder, Professor of Aquatic Ecology and Restoration, University of New England; John Thomas Hunter, Adjunct Associate Professor in Landscape Ecology, University of New England; Lindsey Frost, Technical Officer, University of New England; Manu Saunders, Research fellow, University of New England, and Sarah Mika, Research fellow, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.