Adani’s finch plan is approved, just weeks after being sent back to the drawing board


Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; Don Franklin, Charles Darwin University, and John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University

The Queensland government has ticked off a crucial environmental approval for Adani’s Carmichael coalmine, bringing the contentious project a step closer to becoming reality.

It has approved Adani’s proposed management plan for the endangered black-throated finch, less than a month after the state’s environment department announced a delay in approval because the plan was judged to be inadequate.




Read more:
Why Adani’s finch plan was rejected, and what comes next


Four days after the May 18 federal election, in which the mine’s future was a prominent issue, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk called for an end to the delays and uncertainty.

In a statement issued today, the government said it has now approved a “strengthened” version of the plan, submitted by Adani earlier this week.

Under the revised plan, Adani has now committed to:

  • “establish enhanced understanding” of the finch, with the help of “appropriate population studies”

  • implement “appropriate monitoring protocols” to track the finch’s population over time

  • restrict grazing in nearby areas.

The only remaining state environmental approval for the project now is Adani’s groundwater management plan, on which a decision is due by June 13.

Bad plan caused the delays

As members of the scientific panel that reviewed the finch management plan, we can understand the Premier’s frustration. There is no excuse for such a poor plan to have been put forward for approval when the company has been aware for almost a decade that the land it wants to mine is home to the largest known remaining population of the black-throated finch.

There has already been ample time to undertake the studies Adani has pledged to carry out in the future. Had it done so before now, it could have put its claims to be able to manage the finch’s extinction risk on a much more solid footing.

As it is, the plan we reviewed made biologically improbable assumptions about the finch, while ignoring what is known about the finch’s precipitous decline so far. Under the plan, people with the curious title of “fauna spotter-catchers” were to find finches and move them “to suitable habitat adjacent to the disturbance, if practical” before the habitat is destroyed.

It sounds impractical, and will in all likelihood prove to be so. If the adjacent habitat already has finches, it is likely to be “full” and so won’t be able to support mining refugees. If it lacks finches, there is probably a very good reason.

The finch has been observed only a handful of times in just a tiny proportion of the area purchased for conservation purposes near the mine site. The finch has had more than 10,000 years to occupy and breed in the proposed conservation area that is supposed to offset the impact of the mine. It hasn’t, and it probably won’t.

As far as can be determined by overlaying the available maps, the proposed conservation area has a different geology and soil type. Adani has categorically failed to provide robust scientific evidence to demonstrate that the conservation reserve will adequately offset the loss of the finches and the habitat in the mined area. It has had more than 10 years to conduct the science to provide the evidence.



Meanwhile, before the existing habitat is mined, the plan had talked about grazing being used to control bushfire fuel loads and reduce the abundance of a weed called buffel grass. Yet grazing is thought to be the main reason the finches have disappeared from most of their once vast range – they once occurred from the Atherton tablelands to northern New South Wales.

The new plan is said to “restrict grazing” but no details are yet available. Under the original plan, the cattle would have got fat on the buffel grass pastures just as they did in all the places where the finch once lived.

Rigorous research

What must really frustrate the Queensland Premier is the contrast between Adani’s efforts with the black-throated finch and the much more rigorous work done by mining companies who find themselves in similar situations. Rio Tinto, for example, is currently funding high-quality research on two other birds, the palm cockatoo and red goshawk, ahead of its planned expansion of bauxite operations on Cape York Peninsula.

Vista Gold, meanwhile, funded research on stress levels in Gouldian finches long before mining was planned to begin at its Mt Todd goldmine in the Northern Territory.

In criticising Adani’s plan, we are not criticising mining. Like all Australians, we use the products of mining every day. We enjoy a high standard of living that is delivered partly by royalties from mining. We also understand that miners (and politicians) in Queensland want to see jobs created.

Most mining companies, however, provide jobs while willingly abiding by national and state legislation. They compromise where necessary to minimise environmental harm. And crucially, they commission research to demonstrate how they can mitigate damage well before that damage occurs, rather than when their operations are already underway.




Read more:
Does ‘offsetting’ work to make up for habitat lost to mining?


In contrast, the so-called research and monitoring that went into Adani’s finch plan seems only to conclude that more research is needed. After nine years, Adani did not even know the population size of the finch, how it moves around the landscape, or even what it eats.

Given the time available, this bird could (and should) have been among the best-studied in Australia. The management plan could then have been based on robust evidence that would show how best to safeguard the finch population.

Now the research and monitoring is a hurried add-on with no proof that the threat posed to the finch can actually be solved and an extinction averted. Given the high stakes involved, Australians might reasonably have expected something altogether more rigorous.The Conversation

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Don Franklin, Adjunct Research Fellow, Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University

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

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The uranium mine in the heart of Kakadu needs a better clean up plan


Rebecca Lawrence, Macquarie University

Can a uranium mine be rehabilitated to the environmental standards of a national park and World Heritage site?

That’s the challenge faced by the controversial Ranger uranium mine inside Kakadu National Park.

But our new research report found the document guiding its rehabilitation is deficient, and urgent changes are needed for the heavily impacted mine site to be cleaned up well.

Kakadu has been a national park since the 1970s, but the Ranger mine, while surrounded by Kakadu, has never formally been part of the park. This classification is in the interests of resource extraction, and has failed to recognise or protect the area’s cultural and environmental values.

Kakadu National Park encompasses a precious natural heritage. It protects valuable ecosystems of outstanding value, diversity and beauty, and contains the world’s richest breeding grounds for migratory tropical water birds.




Read more:
Australia’s problem with Aboriginal World Heritage


Recent diggings and studies have documented at least 65,000 years of continuous human habitation at a site on the land of the Mirarr people – this is currently the oldest occupation site in Australia.

How was the mine developed?

The boundaries of Kakadu National Park were conveniently drawn around the Ranger mine site through a series of political and administrative negotiations following the Fox Inquiry, which gave a cautious green light for the Ranger operation.

Likewise, Ranger was excluded from the requirements of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act that would have otherwise given the Mirarr people the right to say no to the mine.

Now, as the mining stops and the repair begins, mining companies and government regulators are being tested on their environmental commitment, and capacity to make meaningful change.




Read more:
Treasure from trash: how mining waste can be mined a second time


But rehabilitating what is essentially a toxic waste dump is no easy task.

And the inadequacy of the Energy Resources of Australia’s Mine Closure Plan – the key document guiding the rehabilitation – shows they are failing this test so far.

Problems with the Mine Closure Plan

Our new research report – jointly conducted by Sydney Environment Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation – examines the Mine Closure Plan and finds it is seriously wanting in key areas.

These include significant data deficiencies regarding management of mine tailings (mine residue), land stability, and modelling of toxic contaminants likely to flow off site into Kakadu National Park.

The Mine Closure Plan is almost completely silent on crucial governance questions, such as the Ranger mine’s opaque regulatory processes and rehabilitation, and current and future financing – especially in relation to future site monitoring and mitigation works.




Read more:
Ranger’s toxic spill highlights the perils of self-regulation


After the price collapse following the Fukushima nuclear crisis, times in the uranium trade have been tough. Coupled with a mandated end to commercial operations by early 2021, Rio Tinto has accepted the era of mining has now been replaced by the need for rehabilitation.

But the challenge for Energy Resources of Australia and Rio Tinto, who own and operate the mine, is not simply to scrape rocks into holes and plant trees. It is to ensure radioactive and contaminated mine tailings are:

physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years [and that] any contaminants arising from the tailings will not result in any detrimental environmental impacts for at least 10,000 years.

These are time-scales of epic proportions, yet the Mine Closure Plan says little to assure the public this can be achieved.

In fact, Energy Resources of Australia concedes it won’t actually be possible to monitor and measure this over the next 10,000 years, so a model will be required instead. But this model has not been publicly released.

Kakadu is home to more than 280 different types of birds, such as the white bellied sea eagle.
Shutterstock

Rehabilitation success is determined by the mining company

And this speaks to a broader problem with the whole process: the success of the rehabilitation will be judged by criteria created by the mining company.

It is naive to assume a mining company is best placed to propose their own rehabilitation criteria, given their corporate imperative to reduce rehabilitation costs and future liabilities.

And the stakes here are very high. The rehabilitation of Ranger will be a closely-watched and long-judged test of the credibility, competence and commitment of the regulators and the mining companies.




Read more:
Traditional owners still stand in Adani’s way


The Supervising Scientist Branch – a federal agency charged with tracking and advising, but not regulating, the Ranger operation – also made an assessment that should be ringing alarm bells:

[The company’s current plan] does not yet provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the current plan for rehabilitation of the Ranger mine site will achieve the required ERs [Environmental Requirements].

The Supervising Scientist Branch’s disturbing initial analysis is a red flag demanding an effective response.

The Conversation reached out to Energy Resources of Australia for a response to this story. A spokesperson told The Conversation the company is committed to the “full rehabilitation” of the Ranger Project Area:

Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) has committed to update the Closure Plan and submit for approval on an annual basis. Updates to the Closure Plan will be made publicly available.

As noted by ERA at the time of release of the Ranger Mine Closure Plan, there are some aspects of closure planning that will be further developed and refined as a result of ongoing studies and consultation. These will be reflected in future updates to the Closure Plan.

ERA is committed to rehabilitate the Ranger Project Area in accordance with the Environmental Requirements as set out in relevant regulations. The final close out of rehabilitation can only occur when the Commonwealth Minister, on advice of the Supervising Scientist and Traditional Owner representatives, is satisfied that the Environmental Requirements have been met.

Australia has a long history of substandard mine closure and rehabilitation in both the uranium and wider mining sector.

There is a real need to see a better approach at Ranger, and the first step in that journey is by increasing the scrutiny, accountability and transparency surrounding this essential clean up work.


This article was updated at 12.25pm, May 7, to include a response from Energy Resources of Australia.The Conversation

Rebecca Lawrence, Affiliate, Sydney Environment Institute; Honorary Associate, Macquarie University, Macquarie University

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

Australia needs a national plan to face the growing threat of climate disasters


Robert Glasser, Australian National University

We are entering a new era in the security of Australia, not because of terrorism, the rise of China, or even the cybersecurity threat, but because of climate change. If the world warms beyond 2℃, as seems increasingly likely, an era of disasters will be upon us, with profound implications for how we organise ourselves to protect Australian lives, property and economic interests, and our way of life.

The early warning of this era is arriving almost daily, in news reports from across the globe of record-breaking heatwaves, prolonged droughts, massive bushfires, torrential flooding, and record-setting storms.

In a new special report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, I argue that Australia is not facing up to the pace of these worsening threats. We need a national strategy to deal specifically with climate disaster preparedness.




Read more:
Explainer: are natural disasters on the rise?


Even without climate change, the impact of these natural hazards is enormous. More than 500 Australians – roughly the same number who died in the Vietnam War – die each year from heat stress alone. The annual economic costs of natural disasters are projected to increase to A$39 billion by 2050. This is roughly equivalent to what the federal government spends each year on the Australian Defence Force.

Climate change will dramatically increase the frequency and severity of many of these hazards. The number of record hot days in Australia has doubled in the past 50 years, and heatwaves have become longer and hotter. Extreme fire weather days have increased in recent decades in many regions of Australia. Shorter and more intense rainstorms that trigger flash floods and urban flooding are also becoming more frequent, and sea level has been rising at an accelerated rate since 1993.

Australians are already exposed to a wide range of the hazards that climate change is amplifying. Almost 4 million of our people, and about 20% of our national economic output, are in areas with high or extreme risk of tropical cyclones. Meanwhile, 2.2 million people and 11% of economic activity are in places with high or extreme risk of bushfire.

Chronic crisis

As the frequency of extreme events increases, we are likely to see an increase in events happening at the same time in different parts of the country, or events following hard on the heels of previous ones. Communities may weather the first few setbacks but, in their weakened state, be ultimately overwhelmed.

Large parts of the country that are currently marginally viable for agriculture are increasingly likely to be in chronic crisis, from the compounding impacts of the steady rise of temperature, drought and bushfires.

The scale of those impacts will be unprecedented, and the patterns that the hazards take will change in ways that are difficult to predict. Australia’s fire season, for example, is already getting longer. Other research suggests that tropical cyclones are forming further from the Equator as the planet warms, putting new areas of eastern Australia in harm’s way.

This emerging era of disasters will increasingly stretch emergency services, undermine community resilience, and escalate economic costs and losses of life. Federal, state and local governments all need to start preparing now for the unprecedented scale of these emerging challenges.

Queensland as a case study

Queensland’s recent experience illustrates what could lie ahead for all of Australia. Late last year, a major drought severely affected the state. At that time, a senior manager involved in coordinating the state’s rebuilding efforts following Cyclone Debbie commented that his team was in the ironic situation of rebuilding from floods during a drought. The drought was making it difficult to find water to mix with gravel and to suppress the dust associated with rebuilding roads.

The drought intensified, contributing to an outbreak of more than 140 bushfires. This was followed and exacerbated by an extreme heatwave, with temperatures in the 40s that smashed records for the month of November. Bushfire conditions in parts of Queensland were classified as “catastrophic” for the first time since the rating scale was developed in 2009. More than a million hectares of bush and farmland were destroyed – the largest expanse of Queensland affected by fire since records began.

Just days later, Tropical Cyclone Owen approached the Queensland coast, threatening significant flooding and raising the risk of severe mudslides from the charred hillsides. Owen set an Australian record in dumping 681 millimetres of rain in just 24 hours – more than Melbourne usually receives in a year. It did not, however, diminish the drought gripping much of the state.

A few weeks later, record rains flooded more than 13.25 million hectares of Northern Queensland, killing hundreds of thousands of drought-stressed cattle. As two Queensland graziers wrote at the time: “Almost overnight we have transitioned from relative drought years to a flood disaster zone.”

Time to prepare

We need to begin preparing now for this changing climate, by developing a national strategy that outlines exactly how we move on from business as usual and adopt a more responsible approach to climate disaster preparedness.

It makes no sense for the federal government to have two separate strategies (as it currently does) for disaster resilience and climate change adaptation. Given that 90% of major disasters worldwide are from climate-related hazards such as storms, droughts and floods, these two strategies should clearly be merged.

One of the prime objectives of the new strategy should be to scale up Australia’s efforts to prevent hazards from turning into disasters. Currently, the federal government spends 30 times more on rebuilding after disasters than it does on reducing the risks in the first place.




Read more:
Properties under fire: why so many Australians are inadequately insured against disaster


Australia should be leading global calls for urgent climate action, not just because we’re so vulnerable to climate hazards, but also for traditional national security reasons. We are the wealthiest nation in a region full of less-developed countries that are hugely vulnerable to climate change. Shocks to their food security, economic interests and political stability will undermine our own national security.

No military alliance, deployment of troops or new weapon system will adequately protect Australia from this rapidly escalating threat. The only effective “forward defence” is to reduce greenhouse gases globally, including in Australia, as quickly as possible. Without far greater ambition on this front, the scale of the disasters that lie ahead will overwhelm even the most concerted efforts to strengthen the resilience of Australian communities.


This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Strategist.The Conversation

Robert Glasser, Honorary Associate Professor, Australian National University

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

AEMO’s new electricity plan is neither a death knell nor a shot in the arm for coal



File 20180717 44088 1f95sl5.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Wil Stewart/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Lucy Percival, Grattan Institute and Tony Wood, Grattan Institute

Beholders of the Australian Energy Market Operator’s (AEMO) Integrated System Plan (ISP) see different futures for coal-fired generation: it’s either on the way out; or it’s going to be needed for decades; or perhaps even new coal plants should be built.

The report does have important implications for the future of all electricity technologies, including coal. But none of these simplistic perspectives captures the full flavour of the plan.




Read more:
A high price for policy failure: the ten-year story of spiralling electricity bills


What is the plan?

The Integrated System Plan is a comprehensive, systems-engineering assessment. Its goal is to identify the lowest-cost combination of investments and decisions over the next 20 years, to support Australia’s energy transition to a low-emissions future.

The assessment uses an economic model of the system that includes maintaining reliability, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, closing existing plants when they reach the end of their technical life, and adopting lowest-cost replacement technologies.

AEMO considers two emissions reduction scenarios: the first is based on Australia’s current target under the Paris Agreement (a 26-28% reduction below 2005 level by 2030). The second adopts a target closer to that recommended by the Climate Change Authority and assessed by CSIRO as a fast change scenario (a 52% reduction by 2030).




Read more:
Australia’s slow march towards a National Energy Guarantee is gathering pace


In both scenarios existing coal-fired power stations close, either on their planned closure date (for those where such a date has been announced), or once they are 50 years old. Around 14 gigawatts (GW) of a total 23GW of coal-fired generation capacity will retire by 2040. As these plants close, a mixture of gas-fired generation, renewable energy, and storage (particularly pumped hydro) is projected to be the lowest-cost way to replace them.

The ISP is not technology-prescriptive, but it doesn’t include new coal-fired generators.

It is hardly surprising that the ISP supports maintaining the existing coal-fired generation facilities up to the end of their technical lives, to minimise costs. Coal-fired power stations represent big up-front capital investments that then produce relatively cheap electricity. But, like all such plants, they become increasingly expensive to operate and unreliable as they age. Keeping them operating beyond their technical life will become more expensive than replacing them with new generation. The ISP is closely aligned with the reliability requirements of the Finkel Blueprint and the National Guarantee to ensure closure is carefully planned.




Read more:
The true cost of keeping the Liddell power plant open


Improving transmission

Unfortunately for new coal investment, what will be more valuable in the future is much greater flexibility to deal with changes in supply and demand. Coal-fired power stations, existing or new, make their best contribution when they operate at very high levels – that is, 80-90% of the time. Upgrading transmission lines between states, can raise the occupancy level and lower the cost of existing power stations.

The NEM needs to transform to support widely distributed renewable generation. Historically, electricity has been generated by centralised, large power stations. New generation is likely to involve a mix of small and large renewable assets over much larger areas. This mix of generation technologies will require investment in the transmission network.

The central recommendation of the ISP is a three-stage development of the transmission network to support the new world of distributed energy and storage. The immediate stage is focused on transmission upgrades to address bottlenecks and connect regional renewable energy plants.

The second phase (2020-30) continues this approach and extends to connecting strategic storage initiatives – Snowy Hydro 2.0 and the Tasmanian Battery of the Nation.




Read more:
FactCheck Q&A: are South Australia’s high electricity prices ‘the consequence’ of renewable energy policy?


The third stage (2030-40) further augments interstate transmission and included intrastate connections for renewable energy zones (REZ) located in regional Australia.

The ConversationThe ISP provides a hard-nosed engineering and cost assessment of what our energy system needs. It applies neither an accelerator nor a brake to the closure of existing coal-fired power stations. We need more of this approach and less ideology if we really want to see a lowest-cost, reliable and low-emissions future for Australia.

Lucy Percival, Associate, Grattan Institute and Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute

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

Without culling, Victoria’s feral horse plan looks set to fail


File 20180109 83585 icq287.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Feral horses in the eastern Alps.
Griff en/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Don Driscoll, Deakin University

Victoria’s new draft feral horse management plan, released on the last working day before Christmas, will be open for comment until February 2. But will it protect the Alpine National Park? The answers are yes on the Bogong High Plains, and no in the eastern Alps.

The government deserves congratulations for planning to remove all horses from the most sensitive alpine areas around Falls Creek by 2020. These areas of the Bogong High Plains have fewer than 100 horses, but also rare snow-patch and bog communities that are extremely vulnerable.

But elsewhere, the goal of removing 400 horses a year from the eastern Alps doesn’t seem to go far enough. And by refusing to countenance the idea of culling, the state government is passing up the only realistic chance of getting feral horse numbers under control.


Read more: The grim story of the Snowy Mountains’ cannibal horses


The bulk of the plan provides grounds for cautious optimism. It acknowledges that feral horses threaten a range of native mammals, frogs and lizards, as well as displacing kangaroos and wallabies. Horses have enormous impacts on vegetation in alpine bogs and streams, and in many other ecosystems too.

The plan also makes clear that reducing horse numbers is a legal requirement. Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 lists “degradation and loss of habitats caused by feral horses” as a threatening process. The Victorian National Parks Act 1975 calls for “exotic species” such as horses to be exterminated or controlled within national parks.

The plan also sets a realistic time frame for review (annual reviews and major review after three years), and suggests that management plans will be altered if adequate environmental protection is not achieved. All of this is extremely promising, suggesting the state government is genuinely interested in delivering tangible environmental benefits.

Numbers game

But while the aspirations are good, the details present some problems. The draft plan promises to “explore all possible control options” to deliver a low horse population in the eastern Alps.

But the proposed reliance on trapping and removal, rather than culling, suggests the government is reluctant to enter what would be a tough debate against the often vocal pro-brumby lobby groups. This reluctance is to the detriment of our native species and apparently at odds with legislation.

The problem is that the New South Wales government has already tried trapping and removing horses in Kosciuszko National Park, and it hasn’t worked. Horses have continued to spread northward onto the main range, where environmentally sensitive alpine tarn and snow-patch communities occur.

It is unclear whether Victoria’s “aspirational goal” of removing 400 horses each year over three years will actually be enough to reduce horse numbers, or even to stabilise them. The report mentions modelling showing that the population can be stabilised by taking 200 horses per year, and that it would start to decline if 400 were taken per year.

But none of this modelling is published, so it can’t be evaluated in detail. And simple calculations suggest that these figures are incredibly optimistic.

The report says there were 2,350 horses in the eastern Victorian Alps in 2014. Horse populations can increase at up to 20% per year, so by now there could be more than 4,000 feral horses.

This means that even if the government does manage to remove the full quota of 400 horses each year, it would only take a 10% population growth rate for the numbers to keep rising. At a rate of 20%, there could be well over 5,000 horses by 2020, even with trapping and removal.

Culling option

Based on this rough calculation, the plan needs to eradicate many more horses. The draft plan claims that feral horses in the eastern Alps are “well established and are considered beyond eradication using currently available control tools”. Yet this claim ignores aerial culling, which is the cheapest, most effective, and most ethical way to reduce feral horse numbers.

Highly trained sharp-shooters and helicopter pilot teams can destroy more than 50 horses per day (based on previous culls in NSW, in which three teams of three people destroyed 606 horses over three days). Three teams could solve the feral horse problem in the Victorian alpine country in a month, and at lower cost.

It cost taxpayers more than A$1,000 for each horse trapped and removed from Kosciuszko National Park. Using the NSW cull as a guide to the resources required, and assuming A$300 per day per person, and A$10,000 per day per helicopter, it might have cost around A$150 per horse using aerial culling. That’s roughly 15% of the cost of trapping and removal.

Despite the risks to wildlife canvassed in the draft plan, and similar reports from NSW, there is no peer-reviewed research that defines the threats to native animals. A revised plan must include research to understand both the impacts of feral horses on native animal populations and their welfare.

The debate over culling horses typically ignores the unseen suffering that horses cause to native animals. Quantifying that suffering will be crucial for making informed decisions around feral horse management.


Read more: The ethical and cultural case for culling Australia’s mountain horses


It is great that we have a plan for managing horses in the Victorian Alpine National Park – albeit one that seems unlikely to work in the eastern Alps. But the Victorian government needs to show courage and leadership on the issue of culling feral horses. Our alpine natural heritage will continue to decline until horses are taken out of our national parks, and that will only happen when managers can include culling among their suite of management tools.

The ConversationIn NSW, the feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park are growing in number, and doing real damage to Australia’s highest mountains. Hopefully both states can take back the reins of feral horse management from single-issue lobby groups and exercise some real control over their feral horses.

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

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

Trump’s plan to dismantle national monuments comes with steep cultural and ecological costs



File 20170502 17271 10mw5hz.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Trump administration will review the status of The Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, one of the country’s most significant cultural sites.
Bureau of Land Management, CC BY

Michelle Bryan, The University of Montana; Monte Mills, The University of Montana, and Sandra B. Zellmer, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

In the few days since President Trump issued his Executive Order on National Monuments, many legal scholars have questioned the legality of his actions under the Antiquities Act. Indeed, if the president attempts to revoke or downsize a monument designation, such actions would be on shaky, if any, legal ground.

But beyond President Trump’s dubious reading of the Antiquities Act, his threats also implicate a suite of other cultural and ecological laws implemented within our national monuments.

By opening a Department of Interior review of all large-scale monuments designated since 1996, Trump places at risk two decades’ worth of financial and human investment in areas such as endangered species protection, ecosystem health, recognition of tribal interests and historical protection.

Why size matters

Trump’s order suggests that larger-scale monuments such as Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, or the Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana, run afoul of the Antiquities Act because of their size. Nothing is farther from the truth. The act gives presidents discretion to protect landmarks and “objects of historic or scientific interest” located within federal lands. Designations are not limited to a particular acreage, but rather to “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

Thus, the size and geographic range of the protected resources dictate the scale of the designation. We would not be properly managing the Grand Canyon by preserving a foot-wide cross-section of its topography in a museum.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the validity of larger-scale monuments when it affirmed President Teddy Roosevelt’s 1908 designation of the Grand Canyon as “the greatest eroded canyon in the United States” in Cameron v. U.S. in 1920. Cameron, an Arizona prospector-politician, had filed thousands of baseless mining claims within the canyon and on its rim, including the scenic Bright Angel Trail, where he erected a gate and exacted an entrance fee. He challenged Roosevelt’s sweeping designation and lost, spectacularly, because the Grand Canyon’s grandeur was precisely what made it worthy of protection.

By downsizing or dismantling a monument, Trump would be intentionally unprotecting the larger-scale resources our nation has been managing as national treasures. The loss in value would be considerable, and compounded doubly by the lost cultural and ecological progress we have made under related laws.

Cultural costs of downsizing

The Antiquities Act has long been used to protect important archaeological resources. Some of the earliest designations, like El Morro and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, protected prehistoric rock art and ruins as part of the nation’s scientific record. This protection has been particularly critical in the Southwest, where looting and pot hunting remain a significant threat. Similar interests drove the creation of several monuments subject to Trump’s order, including Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Canyon of the Ancients National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument. Thus, any changes to those monuments mean less protection for – and less opportunity to learn from – these archaeological wonders.

But we have learned that our past and our natural world are not merely matters for scientific inquiry to be explained by professors through lectures and field studies. Instead, scientists, archaeologists and federal land managers recognize the need to understand and foster continuing cultural connection between indigenous people and the areas where they and their ancestors have lived, worshipped, hunted and gathered since time immemorial. Many of these places are on federal lands.

While other recent designations recognized the present-day use of monument areas by tribes and their members, Bears Ears National Monument was the first to specifically protect both historic and prehistoric cultural resources and the ongoing cultural value of the area to present-day tribes. Unlike prior monuments, Bears Ears came at the initiative of tribal people, led by a unique inter-tribal coalition that brought together many area residents and garnered support from over 30 tribes nationwide. This coalition also sought collaborative tribal-federal management as a way to meaningfully invigorate cultural protection. As a result, President Obama also established the Bears Ears Commission, an advisory group of elected tribal members with whom federal managers must meaningfully engage in managing the monument.

This national investment in cultural collaboration brings great value – a value utterly ignored by Trump’s order. In fact, under that order, Bears Ears faces an expedited (45-day) review because, as Secretary Ryan Zinke noted in a recent press conference, it is “the most current one.” Though the order includes opportunity for tribal input, the Bears Ears inter-tribal coalition has yet to hear from Secretary Zinke, notwithstanding numerous requests to meet.

Ecological costs of downsizing

Because they preclude development, national monuments are also critically important for ecological protection. In fact, they often serve the objectives of other federal requirements, such as the Endangered Species Act.

For example, Devils Hole National Monument provides the only known habitat for the endangered Devils Hole Pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis). This has meant that groundwater exploitation from nearby development is restricted to protect Pupfish habitat. Similarly, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is home to an array of imperiled wildlife, including the endangered desert tortoise and the endangered California condor, along with many other native species like desert bighorn sheep and peregrine falcons.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is among the national monuments vital to enforcing the Endangered Species Act.
Bureau of Land Management

Within the protective reach of a national monument, we are also likely to find important stretches of land officially designated by federal agencies as protected land, such as scenic wilderness, wilderness study areas, the Bureau of Land Management’s areas of critical environmental concern (ACEC) or the Forest Service’s research natural areas (RNAs). Each monument’s care is thus interwoven with the management of these other ecologically designated areas, something plainly apparent to the communities and agency officials long working with these lands.

Zinke’s backyard

These costs may hit close to home for Zinke since the Missouri River Breaks National Monument, located in his home state of Montana, is on the chopping block. President Clinton designated this 375,000-acre monument in 2001 to protect its biological, geological and historical wealth from the pressures of grazing and oil and gas extraction. Clinton noted that “[t]he area has remained largely unchanged in the nearly 200 years since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled through it on their epic journey.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will need to assess the cultural and ecological value of a national monument in his home state of Montana.
CC BY-SA

The monument contains a National Wild and Scenic River corridor and segments of the Lewis and Clark and Nez Perce National Historic Trails, as well as the Cow Creek Island ACEC. It is the “fertile crescent” for hundreds of iconic game species and provides essential winter range for sage grouse (carefully managed to avoid listing under the ESA) and spawning habitat for the endangered pallid sturgeon. Archaeological and historical sites also abound, including teepee rings, historic trails and lookout sites of Meriwether Lewis.

The size of the Missouri River Breaks monument is thus scaled to protect an area in which lie valuable objects and geographic features, and a historic – even monumental – journey took place. And every investment we make in the monument yields a twofold return as it supports our nation’s cultural and ecological obligations under related federal laws.

The ConversationAt the end of the day, while Trump’s order trumpets the possibility that monument downsizing will usher in economic growth, it makes no mention of the extraordinary economic, scientific and cultural investments we have made in those monuments over the years. Unless these losses are considered in the calculus, our nation has not truly engaged in a meaningful assessment of the costs of second-guessing our past presidents.

Michelle Bryan, Professor of Law, The University of Montana; Monte Mills, Assistant Professor of Law & Co-Director, Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic, The University of Montana, and Sandra B. Zellmer, Professor of Law, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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

More than 1,200 scientists urge rethink on Australia’s marine park plans


Jessica Meeuwig, University of Western Australia

The following is a statement from the Ocean Science Council of Australia, an internationally recognised independent group of university-based Australian marine researchers, and signed by 1,286 researchers from 45 countries and jurisdictions, in response to the federal government’s draft marine parks plans.


We, the undersigned scientists, are deeply concerned about the future of the Australian Marine Parks Network and the apparent abandoning of science-based policy by the Australian government.

On July 21, 2017, the Australian government released draft management plans that recommend how the Marine Parks Network should be managed. These plans are deeply flawed from a science perspective.

Of particular concern to scientists is the government’s proposal to significantly reduce high-level or “no-take” protection (Marine National Park Zone IUCN II), replacing it with partial protection (Habitat Protection Zone IUCN IV), the benefits of which are at best modest but more generally have been shown to be inadequate.


Read more: Australia’s new marine parks plan is a case of the emperor’s new clothes.


The 2012 expansion of Australia’s Marine Parks Network was a major step forward in the conservation of marine biodiversity, providing protection to habitats and ecological processes critical to marine life. However, there were flaws in the location of the parks and their planned protection levels, with barely 3% of the continental shelf, the area subject to greatest human use, afforded high-level protection status, and most of that of residual importance to biodiversity.

The government’s 2013 Review of the Australian Marine Parks Network had the potential to address these flaws and strengthen protection. However, the draft management plans have proposed severe reductions in high-level protection of almost 400,000 square kilometres – that is, 46% of the high-level protection in the marine parks established in 2012.

Commercial fishing would be allowed in 80% of the waters within the marine parks, including activities assessed by the government’s own risk assessments as incompatible with conservation. Recreational fishing would occur in 97% of Commonwealth waters up to 100km from the coast, ignoring the evidence documenting the negative impacts of recreational fishing on biodiversity outcomes.

Under the draft plans:

  • The Coral Sea Marine Park, which links the iconic Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to the waters of New Caledonia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (also under consideration for protection), has had its Marine National Park Zones (IUCN II) reduced in area by approximately 53% (see map below)

  • Six of the largest marine parks have had the area of their Marine National Park Zones IUCN II reduced by between 42% and 73%

  • Two marine parks have been entirely stripped of any high-level protection, leaving 16 of the 44 marine parks created in 2012 without any form of Marine National Park IUCN II protection.

Proposed Coral Sea Marine Park zoning, as recommended by independent review (left) and in the new draft plan (right), showing the proposed expansion of partial protection (yellow) vs full protection (green).
From http://www.environment.gov.au/marinereservesreview/reports and https://parksaustralia.gov.au/marine/management/draft-plans/

The replacement of high-level protection with partial protection is not supported by science. The government’s own economic analyses also indicate that such a reduction in protection offers little more than marginal economic benefits to a very small number of commercial fishery licence-holders.

Retrograde step

This retrograde step by Australia’s government is a matter of both national and international significance. Australia has been a world leader in marine conservation for decades, beginning with the establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in the 1970s and its expanded protection in 2004.

At a time when oceans are under increasing pressure from overexploitation, climate change, industrialisation, and plastics and other forms of pollution, building resilience through highly protected Marine National Park IUCN II Zones is well supported by decades of science. This research documents how high-level protection conserves biodiversity, enhances fisheries and assists ecosystem recovery, serving as essential reference areas against which areas that are subject to human activity can be compared to assess impact.

The establishment of a strong backbone of high-level protection within Marine National Park Zones throughout Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone would be a scientifically based contribution to the protection of intact marine ecosystems globally. Such protection is consistent with the move by many countries, including Chile, France, Kiribati, New Zealand, Russia, the UK and US to establish very large no-take marine reserves. In stark contrast, the implementation of the government’s draft management plans would see Australia become the first nation to retreat on ocean protection.

Australia’s oceans are a global asset, spanning tropical, temperate and Antarctic waters. They support six of the seven known species of marine turtles and more than half of the world’s whale and dolphin species. Australia’s oceans are home to more than 20% of the world’s fish species and are a hotspot of marine endemism. By properly protecting them, Australia will be supporting the maintenance of our global ocean heritage.

The finalisation of the Marine Parks Network remains a remarkable opportunity for the Australian government to strengthen the levels of Marine National Park Zone IUCN II protection and to do so on the back of strong evidence. In contrast, implementation of the government’s retrograde draft management plans undermines ocean resilience and would allow damaging activities to proceed in the absence of proof of impact, ignoring the fact that a lack of evidence does not mean a lack of impact. These draft plans deny the science-based evidence.

We encourage the Australian government to increase the number and area of Marine National Park IUCN II Zones, building on the large body of science that supports such decision-making. This means achieving a target of at least 30% of each marine habitat in these zones, which is supported by Australian and international marine scientists and affirmed by the 2014 World Parks Congress in Sydney and the IUCN Members Assembly at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.


The ConversationYou can read a fully referenced version of the science statement here, and see the list of signatories here.

Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia

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