Proposed NSW logging laws value timber over environmental protection



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Increased logging in NSW could affect threatened species.
Nativesrule, Author provided

Oisín Sweeney, University of Sydney

New South Wales is revamping its logging laws for the first time in two decades, drafting regulations that will govern more than two million hectares of public native forest.

Among the changes are proposals to permit logging in exclusion zones – part of the reserve system – and dramatic increases to the scale and intensity of logging, putting several threatened species at direct risk.

NSW can implement these changes unilaterally. But if it does, NSW will effectively be asking the federal government to agree to changes that directly contradict the federal Threatened Species Strategy and several species recovery plans, and reduce the extent of the reserve system.




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Regional Forest Agreements

The federal government has arrangements with the states called Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). They provide certainty to logging operations by accrediting state logging rules under federal environment law. No other industry gets this treatment – but RFAs are now expiring after having been in place for 20 years.

But the proposed changes to NSW logging laws clearly prioritise timber extraction over environmental protection. In 2014 the NSW government extended wood supply agreements with timber companies, locking in a commitment to logging at a certain level. The changes are cited as necessary to meet these wood supply agreements.

This means abandoning commitments made under the National Forest Policy Statement in 1992, including the concept of ecologically sustainable forest management. This is a fundamental shift and, because of the impacts on the reserve system and threatened species, against the national interest.




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Overlogging is behind the changes

In its 2016 Forestry Industry Roadmap the NSW government made a dual commitment to maintain logging levels without eroding environmental protection. However, the NSW Natural Resources Commission tasked with finding a way to do this reported “it is not possible to meet the government’s commitments around both environmental values and wood supply”.

The commission therefore recommended the NSW government “remap and rezone” old-growth forest and rainforest to increase the area that can be logged and make up timber shortfalls.

There are three kinds of zones that make up protected forest reserves. The first zone requires an act of state parliament to revoke, but the second and third can be revoked by the state forestry minister.

To further increase timber supply, headwater stream buffers – areas around waterways that cannot be logged – will be reduced from 10 metres to five.

The new laws also permit the logging of giant trees up to 140cm in diameter, or 160cm in the case of blackbutt and alpine ash (preferred timber species).

Northeast NSW to see the biggest changes

In northeast NSW, a new “intensive harvesting zone” will cover 140,000 hectares of coastal forests between Taree and Grafton. These forests are in the Forests of East Australia global biodiversity hotspot and many are included in a proposed Great Koala National Park.




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This will see 45-hectare patches of forest cleared of all but a smattering of small trees. The intensity of logging everywhere else in the “selective” harvesting zone will, on average, double.

Implications for wildlife and forest ecosystems

The new proposals move towards a retention model where habitat features are to be retained in clumps over several logging cycles. This “retention approach” is good in theory, but is undermined by the landscape-wide intensification of logging – particularly in the intensive zone – and the need to maximise timber production, not the conservation of forest species.

Although hollow-bearing trees are to be retained, no younger trees – which will eventually replace their elders – are required to be protected. This means the inevitable loss of hollow-bearing trees, exacerbated by logging rezoned old-growth. There is no longer any requirement to protect eucalypt nectar trees, vital resources for the critically endangered regent honeyeater and swift parrot.

A report on the proposals from the Threatened Species Expert Panel reveals that almost no data was available to design the new environmental protections, and there was great uncertainty as to whether they will work. One panel member commented:

The intensive harvesting zones are being formally introduced to prop up an unsustainable wood supply arrangement at the expense of the environment.

It is frustrating trying to be part of the solution when the underlying driver of the wood supply agreements fundamentally restricts any chance of a balanced approach.

The federal government has a problem

The federal government has already committed to extending Regional Forest Agreements with the states. Yet besides potentially reducing the size of the reserve network, NSW’s proposals directly threaten federally-listed species.

Conservation advice for the marsupial greater glider clearly states the impact of habitat loss and fragmentation through intensive logging.

Greater gliders (Petauroides volans) are vulnerable to loss of tree hollows and habitat fragmentation, which will both be exacerbated under NSW’s proposals.
Dave Gallan

Koalas prefer large trees and mature forests, yet the intensive logging zone will cover almost half of identified high quality koala habitat. Legally, loggers will only have to keep 10 trees of 20cm diameter per hectare – far too few and too small for koalas.

The national recovery plan for the swift parrot proposes the retention of all trees over 60cm diameter – clearly incompatible with the proposed intensive harvesting zone – while the recovery plan for the regent honeyeater identifies all breeding and foraging habitat as critical to survival.

Recent research has predicted a 31% probability of swift parrot extinction in the next 20 years, and a 57% probability for the regent honeyeater. Both birds are priority species under the Australian government’s Threatened Species Strategy.

Public feedback on the proposed changes is invited until June 29. After that, the federal government must decide whether it deems the proposals to be consistent with national environment law in a new Regional Forest Agreement. Signing off on these changes will cast serious doubt on the federal government’s commitment to the national environmental interest.




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The ConversationThe author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dailan Pugh, OAM and co-founder of the North East Forest Alliance, to this article.

Oisín Sweeney, Senior Ecologist at the National Parks Association of NSW, Research Fellow, University of Sydney

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

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Queensland’s new land-clearing laws are all stick and no carrot (but it’s time to do better)


Philippa England, Griffith University

The Queensland government passed legislation last month to prevent the clearing of high-value regrowth vegetation on freehold and Indigenous land. The move has been deeply unpopular with many landholders. They have argued that they are footing the bill for the commmunity’s environmental aspirations – without compensation.

The government’s intention was to reinstate a “responsible vegetation management framework”, broadly in line with legislation first passed in 2004, but which the Newman government repealed in 2013.




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Queensland’s new land clearing bill will help turn the tide, despite its flaws


But time has moved on since 2004. Instead of relying on a heavy-handed regulatory approach, a mix of carrots and sticks might have generated economic value for landholders, and reduced land clearing into the bargain.

Why landholders are fuming

Broadly speaking, landholders are worried the government hasn’t listened to their concerns and won’t pay for the land that is now effectively under state regulatory control. The parliamentary committee set up to report on the bill received more than 13,000 submissions (including 777 non-pro-forma submissions) – the largest number received by any committee of the Queensland parliament.




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The government itself has admitted stakeholders were not consulted in the preparation of the bill, although the department report cites a “substantial history” of consultation on many of its measures. Nevertheless, the Queensland Law Society felt that further consultation would have been appropriate given “the sensitive nature of this legislation”.

Many submissions raised concerns about information shortfalls, regulatory duplication and excessive red tape. The department’s fallback position was simply to argue that “the proposed amendments are consistent with the government’s 2017 election commitment”.

Ironically, it is not only landholders who have lost out financially. The Queensland government is now effectively in control of an additional 1.76 million hectares of land, which it intends to leave undeveloped. But, in today’s world, the carbon stored in this land has a market price as well as an environmental value, if it’s properly managed.

Better alternatives

With a little more preparation and creative thinking, the government might have been able to spare our vegetation, create a huge pool of lucrative carbon offsets ready to market to the world, and provide compensation to affected landholders.

For instance, instead of an outright prohibition on land clearing, the government could have put in place a three-year moratorium on land clearing. Landholders could then be given a chance to opt out of the moratorium by transferring their land to a permanent conservation covenant or similar arrangement.

Although some careful drafting would be required to ensure the offsets integrity standards and other regulatory requirements are met, landholders who opted out of the temporary moratorium could become eligible to earn carbon offsets, or any other available financial incentives.




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On the other hand, landholders who do not respond to this financial “carrot” would run the risk of being hit with the (uncompensated) “stick” of a more prescriptive approach (temporary or not) at the end of the moratorium period.

The government could help this transition along by helping landholders sign up for one or more of the various existing schemes for conservation covenants, carbon offsets and biodiversity offsets. One of the main factors preventing greater participation in these schemes is prohibitively high transaction costs, especially in the early stages.

I realise there is a degree of wishful thinking about this proposal. Several hurdles, particularly political ones, would need to be overcome. But if we want serious, fair and enduring land use reform, I think these options merit a more meaningful investigation.

At the moment, a heavy-handed sweep of a pen by politicians in Brisbane has locked both landholders and government out of the market for ecosystem services. Given that the government now essentially owns a huge store of carbon assets, it’s a missed opportunity.




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The ConversationWith a little more creative thinking, Queensland might have provided compensation to landholders at no cost to itself. Instead, it has used a regulatory hammer to impose rules that – judging by past performance – have no guarantee of surviving past the next election.

Philippa England, Senior Lecturer, Griffith Law School, Griffith University

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

Queensland’s new land clearing bill will help turn the tide, despite its flaws


Anita J Cosgrove, The University of Queensland; April Reside, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland, and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

Queensland’s Labor government this month tabled a bill to tighten the regulation of land clearing. Queensland is by far the worst offender in this area, following a litany of reversals of vegetation protection.

After a period of tightened laws between 2004 and 2013, the Newman government set about unwinding key reforms during its 2012-15 term.

Following these changes, land-clearing rates quadrupled to almost 400,000 hectares per year, to the dismay of conservationists, with rising concern about the impacts on wild animal welfare and wider ecological impacts.




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The state’s Labor government, which retained power at the November 2017 election, made an election promise to tighten vegetation management laws. However, the bill is likely to be fiercely debated after the parliamentary committee tables its report next month.

Although the bill promises a steep reduction in land clearing, albeit without any firm target, there is likely to be a significant gap between what the government has promised and what its legislation may deliver in reality.

To explain why, let’s look in more detail at what the proposed legislation does, as well as what it doesn’t do.

High-value agriculture

The 2013 amendments legalised the clearing of mature forest for large-scale crop-growing developments. The bill will once again ban it, fulfilling Labor’s election promise, but it remains a major point of friction with agriculturalists.

This will not stop the roughly 114,000 hectares that have already been approved from being cleared. It would, however, stop any more approvals.

About 10% of clearing of mature forest is due to high value agriculture approvals.

Self-assessed clearing

Up to 67% of clearing of regulated vegetation is occurring under self-assessment provisions. No permit is required for this, provided that landowners follow the code and give notice of their plans.

Of this self-assessed clearing, about 60% is for “thinning”. The government has now recognised that “thinning is not a low-risk activity” and is removing the main provision that allows it, but is keeping some self-assessed thinning provisions, such as for advanced regrowth.

Other types of self-assessed clearing would continue, particularly the clearing of mulga forests for livestock fodder, albeit under a tighter code. This was a major concession to agricultural interests.

As the bill has not banned self-assessment outright, future land-clearing rates will ultimately depend on how stringent the new codes turn out to be in practice.

“Area Management Plans” are an older, parallel mechanism for allowing self-assessed clearing. Clearing under these plans accounts for up to 38% of clearing of regulated vegetation. The new legislation would phase out existing plans, but would retain a provision to make new area plans, including for thinning.

Google satellite image of remnant forest that was legally thinned under a self-assessable code in 2015. The top half shows intact forest, and the lower half thinned forest.
WWF-Australia

Regrowth

The government promised to protect “high conservation value regrowth”. This includes threatened ecosystems and species habitats that are needed for recovery. The new law would expand these definitions to regulate clearing of regrowing forests older than 15 years, and of regrowth alongside streams in all Great Barrier Reef catchments, not just the northern ones as at present.

This will bring more than a million hectares that are currently exempt under regulatory control, a major step forward. However, the bill excludes regrowth that has been “locked in” as exempt on property maps. Clearing of regulated regrowth may also still proceed under a new self-assessable code, which apparently lacks protections for endangered species habitats or ecosystems.

Exemptions

Exemptions pose a major stumbling block to the government’s promise to “protect remnant and high conservation value regrowth”. An area currently exempt on a regulatory map can be reclassified, and the government plans to do this for more than 1 million hectares of high conservation value regrowth. However, areas that have been “certified exempt” on a property map cannot be reversed – this represents 23 million hectares (13% of the state’s area). The government has reaffirmed its commitment not to reverse these exempt areas.

What’s more, the bill allows ongoing locking in of exemptions. This is a significant issue because more than 60% of all tree clearing is exempt. Most of this is in already locked-in areas, and a large fraction includes advanced regrowth of high conservation importance.

It remains to be seen how much the A$500 million Land Restoration Fund will protect these locked-in areas.




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In light of these loopholes and exemptions, the new law looks set to fall short of what the Queensland government has promised. This is primarily due to ongoing reliance on self-assessed clearing and exempt areas. However, the proposed legislation and funding together should go some way towards turning around Queensland’s soaring land-clearing rates.

Tree clearing will continue to be a hotly contested policy space, and not just in Queensland. New South Wales recently trod the same path, placing a heavily reliance on self-assessed codes. These were recently challenged successfully in court. A similar challenge is under way in the Northern Territory, citing the greenhouse emissions caused by a large-scale clearing approval.

The federal opposition has also pledged to tighten land-clearing controls in national legislation. The tide may well be turning, albeit only slowly so far.


The ConversationThe authors acknowledge the contribution of Dr Martin Taylor, Protected Areas and Conservation Science Manager at WWF-Australia and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at The University of Queensland.

Anita J Cosgrove, Senior Research Assistant in the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, 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.

Why aren’t Australia’s environment laws preventing widespread land clearing?


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

Australia has national environment laws – the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). Yet given the staggering rates of land clearing taking place, resulting in the extinction and endangerment of plants and animals in Australia, these laws are clearly not working.

About 395,000 hectares of regrowth and old growth vegetation were cleared during 2015-16 in Queensland. Australia is set to clear up to 3 million hectares of native forest by 2030, and more than 1,800 plant and animal species are currently listed as threatened nationally.




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When the EPBC Act was first implemented in 1999, the idea was for it to provide reinforced federal environmental protection to areas of national environmental significance. But in reality, many projects that come within the ambit of the Act are not rigorously evaluated for their environmental impact.

Why isn’t the EPBC Act working?

Land clearing was listed in the 2001 and 2006 State of the Environment Reports as one of the greatest threats to biodiversity.

Deforestation and excessive land clearing fundamentally impacts existing biodiversity, damages fragile ecosystems, destroys wildlife habitat, and increases greenhouse gas emissions. In Queensland, where much of the land clearing is taking place, the state law (Vegetation Management Act) is not strong enough to diminish incentives for land clearing. Yet the national environmental laws have not provided greater protection.

There are several reasons for this. While land clearing is indirectly regulated by the EPBC Act due to the significant impact it can have on the environment, land clearing is not directly addressed by the EPBC Act.

As it stands, land clearing will only attract EPBC Act application where it can be established that it impacts a directly protected entity such as a World Heritage area, Ramsar wetland, threatened species, ecological community, or migratory species. If this connection cannot be established, no environmental assessment under the EPBC Act will occur.

Even where projects do attract the application of the EPBC Act, its capacity to advance best practice environmental impact assessment is highly questionable. One of the biggest problems is that the process of assessment is insufficiently robust.




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This problem is evident in other environmental issues too. Where a bilateral state and federal assessment is approved, as was the case with the Adani coalmine, the federal department often relies on state counterparts to undertake a thorough environmental assessment. Many of the proposals evaluated by state departments are assessed with reference to the least onerous environmental impact assessment available.

This documentation is generally prepared by the project proponent. Unsurprisingly, as a consequence, many of the projects that are evaluated under the EPBC Act are approved, subject to the imposition of environmental conditions. This means the environmental conditions need to be carefully monitored if environmental protection is to be optimised.

This creates a new set of problems. Where a breach is alleged, it must be proved and appropriate sanctions enforced. In reality, this rarely happens, and the sanctions that are imposed can be woefully inadequate. For example, Adani was fined A$12,000 for breaching an environmental condition relating to the release of coalwater in Abbott Point coal terminal, which flowed into the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands.

The substantive problem with the EPBC Act is that its implementation is subject to departmental discretion and therefore the vagaries of government administration. This is particularly problematic given the political nature of many of these decision-making processes.

Lack of rigorous scrutiny

In circumstances where, for example, there is a need to challenge the approval of a resource title in light of its environmental consequences, the EPBC Act relies heavily on environmental groups or other third parties to scrutinise the federal decision-making process.

For example, the Australian Conservation Foundation took strong action in challenging the issuance of the mining licence for Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine. It argued the endangered species and climate change impacts were insufficiently taken into account by the then Environment Minister Greg Hunt in exercising discretion under the EPBC Act.




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The case was dismissed because the Federal Court found that this decision was authorised by the discretions included within the EPBC Act. The minister was therefore within his power to decide not to take account of the climate change impacts of such a vast new coalmine. This is concerning given the profound impact that climate change can have upon fragile ecologies in areas of national environmental significance.

These findings indicate a lack of preparedness by the federal minister to accept a causal connection between climate change and domestic coal production, and to focus on narrow jurisdictional boundaries and strict domestic obligations. It also strongly highlights the deficiencies of our national environment act because the existing triggers do not address some of the most important environmental concerns of the modern world.

New environment laws urgently needed

Climate change is almost universally accepted as one the most serious environmental threats. Yet the EPBC Act does not include a climate change trigger (or a land clearing trigger, as discussed above).

This means these key threats to Australia’s environment will not be protected by EPBC Act. They may attract the EPBC Act indirectly, but only if it can be established that they raise a different trigger that is listed under the Act. This calls into question the capacity of our national environment laws to truly protect areas of national environmental significance.

The ConversationIn order to reverse unacceptable rates of land clearing, preserve ecosystems and habitats and diminish greenhouse gas emissions, a new framework for our national environment act is urgently needed.

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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

Australia might water down illegal logging laws – here’s why it’s a bad idea


Beatriz Garcia, Western Sydney University

Illegal logging is an immensely profitable global activity, linked to corruption, human rights abuses, criminal networks, and environmental destruction. A 2017 study by the Global Financial Integrity ranked illegal logging as the third largest global crime in value, after counterfeiting and drug trafficking.

Australia imports roughly A$8.1 billion worth of timber products a year, and according to estimates from the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, up to A$800 million comes from sources with some risk of being illegally logged.


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Yet the federal government is currently considering significantly weakening regulation that prevent the import of illegal timber. Companies will be less likely to know where their wood comes from, and consumers will have less assurance that they are buying products from a legitimate source.

The proposed reform will require amendments to the 2012 Illegal Logging Prohibition Regulation. Once the changes are introduced, the parliament has 15 sitting days to disallow the changes.

Major change

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources has proposed significant changes to our timber import rules, with the aim of reducing the costs for businesses to comply with regulations. The proposal is to introduce a “deemed to comply” arrangement for certain private certification schemes.

Under current laws, businesses need to assess and manage the risk that imported timber or wood products may have been illegally logged. This is known as “due diligence”, and applies to timber imports worth A$1,000 or more.


Read more: Lessons from the US: stopping illegal logging benefits both sides of politics


The “deemed to comply” provisions assume that an importer has complied with the regulations, in some cases without actual checks and proofs of legality. This will exempt companies from undertaking their own due diligence.

But the Australian government recognizes that certification schemes still face challenges in dealing with deliberate fraudulent activity. Given the prevalence of bribery in illegal logging, it is not uncommon for illegally logged timber to have the “correct” government documents and achieve certification.

This problem is recognised in the European Union, which advises that regulations take into account the risk of corruption, saying that “even official documents issued by authorities cannot be considered reliable”.

Neither the EU or US regulations recognise third-party certification systems as a means of assuring timber legality (only as part of a system of due diligence or due care).

When it comes to illegal logging, due diligence works

Illegal logging degrades forests, harms wildlife, and emits greenhouse gases. The land sector, including logging, deforestation and other activities, accounts for 24% of total global emissions.

As well as causing environmental harm, illegal logging involves human rights abuses like violence against local communities, forced labour, and pollution of vital water supplies.


Read more: CSI trees: how forensic science is helping combat illegal logging


This is why developed countries around the world have created timber import standards, which play a key role in curbing illegal logging.

Experience in Europe shows that enforcing illegal logging laws and due diligence requirements has a significant positive impact. The more European authorities enforce these measures, the more aware and compliant the industry becomes. Companies change their supply chains as a result of due diligence processes, which in turn has an immediate impact in the countries that supply the timber.

In contrast, countries with inactive or inefficient enforcement see uncertainty within the industry and lower levels of awareness.

Watering down Australia’s due diligence requirements fly in the face of this evidence. While the proposed change is designed to make it cheaper and easier for companies to comply with the law, there’s a real chance it will increase the trade of illegal timber. Businesses will have fewer incentives to make sound decisions and consumers will not be able to tell if the timber they consume is indeed legally sourced.

The ConversationAny changes to our laws should strengthen them, not water down their requirements and limit their value and effectiveness. Our current legislation is the best defence for consumers and businesses. It should be enforced to ensure that the wood imported and sold in Australia does not cause harm both to people and nature.

Beatriz Garcia, Lecturer, Western Sydney University

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

Around the world, environmental laws are under attack in all sorts of ways



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In Montana and Idaho, endangered gray wolves are no longer safe outside national parks.
Ronnie Howard/Shutterstock.com

Bill Laurance, James Cook University

As President Donald Trump mulls over whether to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, it is hard to imagine that he’s listening to the experts. US climate researchers are being so stifled, ignored or blackballed that France has now offered sanctuary to these misunderstood souls.

One might prefer to think of Trump as an outlier in an otherwise environmentally sane world. But alarmingly, there’s just too much evidence to the contrary.

A recent analysis, led by Guillaume Chapron of Sweden’s Agricultural University, reveals a rising tide of assaults on environmental safeguards worldwide. If nothing else, it illustrates the sheer range and creativity of tactics used by those who seek to profit at the expense of nature.

The assaults on environmental protections are so diverse that Chapron and his colleagues had to devise a new “taxonomy” to categorise them all. They have even set up a public database to track these efforts, giving us a laundry list of environmental rollbacks from around the world.


Nick Kim / http://www.lab-initio.com

One might perhaps hope that species staring extinction in the face would be afforded special protection. Not in the western US states of Idaho and Montana, where endangered gray wolves have been taken off the endangered species list, meaning they can be shot if they stray outside designated wilderness or management areas.

In Western Australia, an endangered species can be legally driven to extinction if the state’s environment minister orders it and parliament approves.

Think diverse ecosystems are important? In Canada, not so much. There, native fish species with no economic, recreational or indigenous value don’t get any legal protection from harm.

And in France – a crucial flyway for Eurasian and African birds – killing migratory birds is technically illegal. But migrating birds could be shot out of the sky anyway because the environment minister ordered a delay in the law’s enforcement.

In South Africa, the environment minister formerly had authority to limit environmental damage and oversee ecological restoration at the nation’s many mining sites. But that power has now been handed over to the mining minister, raising fears of conflict between industry and environmental interests.

In Brazil, the famous Forest Code that has helped to reduce deforestation rates in the Amazon has been seriously watered down. Safeguards for forests along waterways and on hillsides have been weakened, and landowners who illegally fell forests no longer need to replant them.

In the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius, endangered species are protected by law, unless it is deemed to be in the “national interest” not to do so. Although an endangered species, the endemic Mauritius flying fox was annoying commercial fruit farmers, so the government has allowed more than 40,000 flying foxes to be culled.

And in Indonesia, it’s illegal to carry out destructive open-pit mining in protected forest areas. But aggressive mining firms are forcing the government to let them break the law anyway, or else face spending public money on legal battles.

Shoot the messengers

Campaigners should also beware. Under new legislation proposed in the UK, conservation groups that lose lawsuits will be hit with heavy financial penalties.

In many parts of the world, those who criticise environmentally destructive corporations are getting hit with so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation”, or SLAPP suits.

In Peru, for instance, a corporation that was mowing down native rainforest to grow “sustainable” cacao for chocolate routinely used lawsuits and legal threats to intimidate critics.

That’s before we’ve even discussed climate change, which you might not be allowed to do in the US anyway. Proposed legislation would prohibit the government from considering climate change as a threat to any species. No wonder researchers want to move overseas.


Nick Kim / http://www.lab-initio.com

As the above examples show, essential environmental safeguards are being conveniently downsized, diminished, ignored or swept under the carpet all over the world.

Viewed in isolation, each of these actions might be rationalised or defended – a small compromise made in the name of progress, jobs or the economy. But in a natural world threatened with “death by a thousand cuts”, no single wound can be judged in isolation.

Without our hard-won environmental protections, we would all already be breathing polluted air, drinking befouled water, and living in a world with much less wildlife.


The ConversationThis article is an edited version of a blog post that originally appeared here.

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

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

We can’t save all wildlife, so conservation laws need to change


Phillipa McCormack, University of Tasmania and Jan McDonald, University of Tasmania

Australia recently gained an unenviable title: perhaps the first country to lose a mammal species to climate change. The Bramble Cay Melomys, a native rodent found on one tiny sand island in the remote northern regions of the Great Barrier Reef, reportedly became extinct after rising seas destroyed its habitat.

The melomys’ likely extinction is a symptom of the massive changes taking place across the natural world. Faced with these changes, we cannot possibly save every species without increasing funding for conservation.

We should be trying to conserve everything we can, or at least minimising the number of plants, animals and ecosystems that are lost. The problem is that Australia’s conservation laws presume that we can preserve everything in its natural state. But in a changing world, we’ll have to be more flexible than that.

The new nature

Our conservation laws were drafted on the assumption that, if human intervention could be avoided or managed, plants and animals would survive in their natural, pristine environments.

We now know that that is not the case. Nature is dynamic. Humans have had a pervasive influence on the environment and recent research suggests that pristine environments no longer exist.

Climate change will rapidly accelerate environmental change. Shifting temperature and rainfall will shift the specific conditions that species depend on to survive. Everything will be on the move.

On top of these gradual climate shifts, more frequent and intense bushfires, storms and heatwaves will destroy some habitats and increase the threatened status of many species. In some cases, these extreme events may result in localised extinctions.

Climate change is creating new problems for biodiversity (such as new invasive species) and is making existing problems worse (such as by changing fire patterns).

What does conservation mean if we can’t save everything?

Far from making conservation law irrelevant, these challenges mean that conservation policy and laws are more important than ever.

Expanding land and marine reserves, restoring and connecting habitat with other areas, and reducing other threats such land clearing or feral animals are all important climate adaptation strategies.

But many Australian plants and animals will not be able to move fast enough to escape extreme events or to keep pace with their specific climate niches on their own. To conserve these species, we may need to engage in high‑intervention conservation strategies, such as assisted colonisation.

This involves moving an individual, population or species to a place where it has never been found before. This tactic is being investigated for the endangered Western Swamp Tortoise in Western Australia, as its wetland habitat begins to dry out.

Conservation laws in Australia were not designed to accommodate these kinds of dynamic and proactive approaches to conservation management.

Legal road blocks

Current conservation laws promote keeping or returning the environment to what it used to be, whether that is pristine or not.

In a recent paper, we looked at three ways laws may impede conservation in a changing world.

First, current laws emphasise maintaining the current status and location of ecosystems and their constituent parts, or returning them to an “undisturbed” state.

Second, they place high value on biodiversity that is rare, native and wild.

Finally, they emphasise reserves (especially on public land) as the sites for most conservation effort.

For example, national park laws typically require agencies to conserve national parks in their natural state. This is usually defined by the plants and animals that are already there or that have been found there in the past.

But some species might need to be moved into national parks, even if they have never been found there before, or out of national parks to somewhere more climatically suitable. Current laws do not let us do this.

Rather than an outdated idea of what is “natural”, we need new objectives that focus on diversity and ecosystem function and health. If introducing a plant or animal into a national park will increase its chance of surviving under climate change and will not undermine the health of the park’s ecosystems, the introduction should not be excluded just because the species is not “native” to that specific park. This approach would help species adapt through movement across boundaries.

Letting species go

Another example of a potential legal roadblock is the emphasis on individual threatened species in both legal protection and funding. For instance, the Coalition government has pledged AU$5 million for specific actions to protect some of the most endangered of Australia’s listed threatened species.

But this is an example of assuming that we can save everything. The contracting ranges and already precarious status of many listed species make it unlikely that we will be able to conserve them all, and impossible to do so in their historic locations.

Choices based on what species we fund are rarely transparent and the public is rarely consulted about what we value the most. We need to have a conversation about how we value species and ecosystems in a changing world. If more people realised that we cannot save everything, perhaps more people would demand that appropriate funding is allocated to saving as much as possible.

While funding remains limited, we need objectives that reflect the certainty of some loss of species in the wild and that clearly define the criteria we are using for targeting some species for protection while letting others go.

Our conservation laws direct how we will act to save species and ecosystems under climate change, and whether we will succeed. But climate change makes our current objectives unachievable.

We must not give up on conserving as much as we can as the climate changes. Laws can be used to help us achieve this goal. But we urgently need a national conversation about what reform is needed to ensure the best possible conservation results for Australia’s precious wildlife, plants and ecosystems.

The Conversation

Phillipa McCormack, PhD candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania and Jan McDonald, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Tasmania

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