Friends of Grasslands
supporting native grassy ecosystems
PO Box 440
Macquarie ACT 2614
Defence Housing Australia (DHA) Lawson North Development Precinct proposal
Friends of Grasslands (FOG) is a community group dedicated to the conservation of natural temperate grassy ecosystems in south-eastern Australia. FOG advocates, educates and advises on matters to do with the conservation of native grassy ecosystems, and carries out surveys and on-ground work. FOG is based in Canberra and its members include professional scientists, landowners, land managers and interested members of the public.
Our organisation has played a major part in the preparation of both the ACT Grassland and Woodland Strategies. The ACT Native Grassland Conservation Strategy and Actions Plans (2017) recognises that the current Lawson North grassland is one of nine areas of NTG in the ACT that exceeds 100 ha. The Lawson North grassland is one of the largest remnants of Natural Temperate Grassland remaining nationally.
The Defence Housing Australia (DHA) Lawson North Development Precinct proposal (the development proposal) is clearly a controlled action, but, unlike many proposed control actions, it goes well beyond what is acceptable. The proposed estate would remove a large area of critically endangered ecological communities and habitat for related threatened species and likely significantly disturb and modify a much larger area. The proposal should not proceed at this site.
The impacts should be deemed significant as the development proposal will:
- reduce the extent of the community and threatened species habitat;
- seriously affect habitat critical to the survival of the NTG-SEH ecological community and associated threatened species;
- fragment the community; and
- have adverse off-site effects on the remaining community and threatened species populations.
1. The area 47.16 ha proposed for the development precinct is more than double what the National Capital Authority deemed to be appropriate for the site.
We note with considerable concern that the Defence Housing Australia (DHA) Lawson North Development Precinct has been significantly enlarged from the area identified in the 2013 Development Control Plan (DCP12/09) prepared by the National Capital Authority, that recognised the natural values at Lawson North and defined the areas that were suitable for development. The DHA proposed development does not respect the confines of that DCP. The area identified in the development proposal is more than double the size that the National Capital Authority deemed to be appropriate for the site. The additional area contains entirely threatened communities and species, resulting in the destruction of large areas of the NTG ecological community that were set aside in the DCP for conservation and heritage purposes (precincts D and E in the DCP). While the proposal identifies that significant areas of the CEEC and threatened species habitat (and populations) would be destroyed, this was not considered to be of importance against the proposal.
2. There will be irreversible impacts on a CEEC and threatened species within the development precinct that are not acceptable under the EPBC Act.
The proposed development by DHA at Lawson North will have irreversible impacts on the critically endangered ecological community (CEEC), Natural Temperate Grasslands of the South-Eastern Highlands (NTG-SEH) and EPBC-listed threatened fauna. Of the area to be destroyed, 15.8 ha contains NTG-SEH CEEC as well as 1.31 ha of Critically Endangered Yellow Box – White Box – Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy Woodland. Within the CEEC and in adjacent native grassland Golden Sun Moth population occurs over 11.6 ha and Striped Legless Lizard occupies 26.53 ha, which will be destroyed. Given the combined impacts on NTG-SEH, Box-Gum Woodland CEEC, threatened fauna and potentially flora, the cumulative impacts of this proposal are substantial.
Additionally, consideration has not been given to likely or potential impacts on other fauna and flora species, including the Gang-Gang Cockatoo (recently listed as Endangered and recorded at the site, but not considered by DHA in its assessment) and Latham’s Snipe (a migratory species recorded nearby and likely to have habitat adjacent to the proposed development site). The threatened plant, Austral Toadflax (Thesium australe), a species with likely habitat at the site, was not considered. Impacts on other species declared threatened under the ACT Nature Conservation Act 2014, including Little Eagle, White-winged Triller and Scarlet Robin, although recorded at the site, were not adequately assessed.
3. The proposal essentially ignores the impacts of the proposed development on the remainder of the site from fragmentation, edge effects and a lack of implementation of ecological management.
There is inadequate buffering of the CEEC NTG-SEH, as required by the Conservation Advice. We note that the Asset Protection Zone that is along the western boundary is entirely within NTG-SEH and Box-Gum Woodland CEEC remnants. The requirement of the western APZ is that a 40 m buffer is to be kept at a mowing height of less than or equal to 200 mm. Effectively this increases further the amount of NTG-SEH that will be destroyed and increases the boundary to area ratio which will undoubtedly result in loss of habitat and significant increase in weed establishment further within this area of NTG.
Fragmentation and isolation of areas of NTG-SEH and Box-Gum Woodland have not been adequately considered, nor have the effects of continuing disturbance, including inappropriate recreational uses within the site. We believe there will be significant pressure to manage the area of grassland and Striped Legless Lizard habitat in area D for recreational rather than ecological outcomes.
Indeed, this is identified in the DHA's Referral, which reiterates the statement from the Conservation Advice for NTG-SEH, as follows: "The areas considered critical to the survival of the ecological community cover all patches that meet the key diagnostic characteristics and condition thresholds for the ecological community plus buffer zones." That is, any loss will compromise the opportunities for this CEEC (and associated threatened species) to recover.
In addition, FOG believes DHA has failed in its duty of care to manage the site. DHA has a legal obligation to manage the grasslands and threatened species habitat in such a way that their ecological values are maintained. There has been significant weed invasion over the last few years, and inappropriate access has impacted on the grasslands and has allowed for dumping of rubbish onto the grassland.
4. There is no justification offered by DHA on why it should be allowed to build an estate at Lawson North.
FOG, in its analysis of the documents presented by DHA concludes that DHA have provided no justification for the development precinct taking precedence over the significant impact on the NTG-CEEC and other threatened species at the Lawson North site. No efforts have been made to avoid impacts on the NTG-SEH CEEC and associated threatened fauna (and indeed the current proposal has identified a greater footprint, impacting more of the CEEC). FOG does not support off-setting the impacts associated with the development into the remaining areas of grasslands at the site. This will not override the impact of the loss of the community or species in the development precinct. Additionally, there is no indication that the future management of the site’s ecological values is assured, or even possible, when it is surrounded by a development with few open spaces other than those in the adjacent grassland.
We understand DHA has identified the need for additional housing for the Defence Force in the ACT, however, we do not believe that any reasons for locating the development precinct in this area justifies the destruction of critically endangered grassland, woodland and threatened species in this nationally significant site.
We urge other areas (without ecological conservation issues) be considered by DHA for development of a precinct to provide the housing it requires.
5. There has been no consideration by DHA of scientific and community input into the significant impact of this development proposal in previous consultation processes.
With regard to consultation undertaken by DHA, previous submissions by FOG have not been considered. FOG's letter with 109 signatories, including scientists and others involved with grassy ecosystems conservation, was ignored in the documents presented by DHA. We are also disappointed that DHA has ignored our repeated requests to visit the site or to discuss these matters at the site with representatives of DHA over the last two years.
6. The proposal is unacceptable and must be identified as a controlled action.
FOG's assessment is that the proposal is clearly unacceptable due to its extensive impacts on protected matters. We ask the Minister to consider the project a controlled action that is unacceptable.
In the unfortunate event that this development is contemplated, one which will destroy the habitat of critically endangered ecosystems and species against all scientific advice, then we ask you to determine that it must be further assessed by an Environmental Impact Statement owing to the highly contentious issues outlined in this document.
Additional ecological information regarding this submission is in Attachment A. FOG will be pleased to follow this matter up further, with provide even more detailed information, should that be required.
Professor Jamie Pittock
7 September 2022
Attachment A. Supporting notes for Lawson North submission
Rainer Rehwinkel (Grassy Ecosystems Ecologist)
These notes focus on the expected biodiversity impacts of the proposal s expressed in the Supplementary Information Document, the NCE Development Control Plan and the Biodiversity Impact Assessment. The documents I reviewed are:
- Lawson North Residential Development Belconnen Naval Transmitting Station EPBC Act Supplementary Information Report (Appendix A - Supplementary Information Report.pdf (2898 KB))
- Development Control Plan Block 2 Section 6 & Block 1 Section 16 Lawson Belconnen Naval Transmitting Station February 2013 (Appendix C - Development Control Plan 12 9.pdf (3318 KB))
- Lawson North Residential Development Belconnen Naval Transmitting Station Biodiversity Impact Assessment (Appendix Q - Biodiversity Impact Assessment.pdf (12994 KB))
Appendix A and Appendix Q do not provide any justification as to why the development proposal at Lawson North is necessary so that the impacts to two critically endangered ecological communities (CEECs) present there and their associated threatened species can be cleared. No justification has been provided for such clearing. The two CEECs are Natural Temperate Grassland of the South Eastern Highlands (NTG SEH) and White Box Yellow Box Blakely's Red Gum Grassy Woodland and Derived Native Grassland (Box-Gum Woodland). The Referral has not fully considered the offsite effects of the proposal, particularly in provision of adequate buffers between the development and remnant vegetation on site.
The proposal is not compliant with the National Capital Authority's (NCA's) Development Control Plan (DCP) that was drafted for the site in 2013. Some 15.8 ha of NTG-SEH and 1.31 ha of Box-Gum Woodland CEEC which lie outside the boundaries that are allowed for development in the NCA DCP. The zones identified in the NCA DCP that contain the NTG, which was listed as an Endangered Ecological Community, were designated for nature conservation only. Since the DCP was prepared, NTG-SEH has been up-listed as a Critically Endangered Ecological Community
The Referral finds that the clearing of 15.8 ha of NTG-SEH under its proposal constitutes a significant impact. This submission agrees with the finding that such a loss would be significant. Any loss further loss of this CEEC is an unacceptable loss given the poor state of conservation of this CEEC. This is especially so given that the NTG-SEH at Lawson North contains Striped Legless Lizard habitat and populations of Golden Sun Moth. Furthermore, the amount of NTG-SEH at the Referral site is likely to be larger than that which is quoted due to mapping errors, as discussed elsewhere in this submission.
This submission does not support offsetting any development that destroys NTG-SEH or Box-Gum Woodland CEECs. The EPBC Act policy on offsetting is clear: "Avoidance and mitigation measures are the primary strategies for managing potential significant impact of a proposed action" and "The EPBC Act does not allow for any beneficial impacts, such as offsets, to be considered at the Referral stage". Any discussion of mitigation following on from this fundamental failure is meaningless, including discussion of any offsets proposed.
The Referral notes that the threatened Striped Legless Lizard (SLL) was found in previous survey for this species in the Dry Themeda grassland in the east of the site. However, no locations for these records are given. During surveys for this Referral, there are records from artificial shelter survey grids in the area proposed for development, and multiple specimens from the Dry Themeda Grassland to the east of the Referral area. The Referral maps extensive areas in the eastern Dry Themeda Grassland as SLL habitat, including areas that lie under Referral area and to its immediate south. The Referral states that there remains potential for the species to persist in other areas impacted by the development where suitable habitat exists. The Referral notes that a significant portion of the SLL habitat (estimated to be c. 33% of habitat on site) are within the area to be cleared. A total of 26.53 ha of known or potential SLL habitat will be lost. The Referral states that such loss will be significant. This submission finds that such a loss is untenable, especially as it also means the loss of NTG-SEH CEEC and Golden Sun Moth sub-populations.
The Referral notes that the threatened Golden Sun Moth (GSM) was found in areas that area proposed for development. The Referral notes that a significant portion of the known GSM habitat are within the area to be cleared, with some 11.6 ha proposed to be destroyed. The Referral notes that this loss constitutes a significant loss. This submission finds that such a loss is untenable, especially as it also means the loss of NTG-SEH CEEC and Striped Legless Lizard habitat.
While the Referral undertook searches in a number of databases, a serious omission was lack of awareness of the value of consulting the eBird database. This holds recent records including records of a number of threatened species that the Referral overlooked. This is most relevant for the presence of the Gang-gang Cockatoo which the Referral had a chance to add since its recent listing as endangered. The other threatened woodland or open country bird species that have been recorded at Lawson North are Little Eagle, Superb Parrot, Scarlet Robin and White-winged Triller.
The proposal will seriously impact on the connectivity of remaining habitats and lead to further fragmentation and isolation of fauna and flora species. The Referral states that states that the site contains one of the largest remaining areas of NTG-SEH in high ecological condition within the ACT, but then downplays the role that the development will have in cutting connectivity and promoting fragmentation and isolation. This submission does not support a development that cuts a very large area of NTG-SEH into two smaller portions. The long-term effects on genetics of component species and associated edge effects of the proposed development are down-played by the Referral.
Edge effects associated with the development are briefly discussed but are not adequately addressed by the Referral. Not all potential edge effects have been considered. The edge effects should have been assessed along with direct impacts to the CEECs, because over time, edge effects will have an additional spatial dimension beyond the areas that are slated for development (i.e., direct effects). The provision of a buffer of 30 m inside the development zone, and not in the NTG-SEH CEEC has not been addressed by the Referral.
There are serious issues with the Asset Protection Zones (APZ) for the site. The original APZ as identified in the NCA DCP has been reduced in area. The Referral includes recommendations from the ACT Government regarding APZs. A 40 m Inner APZ is required on the development's western boundary and a 10 m wide IAZP is required in the east. The APZs should be placed within the development envelope and not in the areas occupied by the CEECs, because the recommendation to maintain the groundlayer cover at equal or less than 200 mm within the AZP will be deleterious for long-term management of the groundlayer values.
Potentially serious omissions were to not properly consider two threatened flora species and the actual area of NTG-SEH that will be destroyed:
- The vulnerable Thesium australe, a cryptic species highly likely to occur on the site.
- The endangered Lepidium ginninderense was not surveyed for in the disturbed parts of the Referral area, sites that are habitat for other species in its genus.
- Areas on maps presented in the referral are misleading or incorrect, particularly Figure 3.1 which shows a broad band of Miscellaneous Ecosystems that separate two polygons containing Dry Themeda Grassland, part of the NTG-SEH CEEC. Recent over-the-fence observations by a FOG grassland specialist indicate that that band of miscellaneous ecosystems has likely recently recovered to a Dry Themeda dominance, so the area of NTG-SEH estimated to be cleared is highly likely now to be underestimated.
There are a number of other errors expressed in the documents and some methodological issues that were not fully explained, and a number of omissions, as follows:
- The Referral states that vegetation to be cleared contains areas of lower condition. This is untrue because areas that meet the condition threshold for the NTG-SEH CEEC are to be destroyed.
- The Referral makes an assumption that the Superb Parrot only feeds in Box-Gum Woodland (and not in adjacent grassland), thus underestimating the amount of potential habitat lost for this species.
- A question is raised as to whether the consultants used the correct methodology to assess the NTG-SEH, as required by the Conservation Advice for that CEEC. Similarly, the assessment of Box-Gum Woodland did not in every respect follow guidelines.
- The Referral continues to use an ACT classification system for the grassland associations, which is at odds with the Conservation Advice for NTG-SEH CEEC.
- The Referral asserts that there were limited cover opportunities for animal species. This assertion is contested because planted vegetation in the east of the site, regrowth in the remnant woodland, and as seen in over-the-fence observations and by reference to photos in the referral provide suitable habitat for fauna, especially for small woodland birds.
- The Referral fails to mention a suit of grassland and woodland birds that are likely to use the habitats there. Many species, including some that are listed, have been recorded at or near to the Referral area, and data are available in eBird. Failure to note such species or to fail to research the possibility of the use of the Lawson North grassy ecosystems by consulting eBird appears to demonstrate a lack of thoroughness in the Biodiversity Impact Statement.
- The Referral fails to understand the importance of that the grassland at Lawson Eastern Grey Kangaroos, which have a major functional role in grassland ecology.
- The EPBC-listed migratory Latham's Snipe is likely to occupy the lower sections of the eastern part of the site. The Referral's conclusion that it is unlikely that the proposal would significantly affect this migratory bird species is unfounded. This submission concludes that Latham's Snipe should have been given further consideration.
- The Referral states that: "Due to the disturbed and degraded
nature of the habitat available for Threatened species with the development area
and ongoing disturbance associated with the urban environment, it is not
considered to contain critical habitat for threatened species." This is
erroneous in a number of respects:
- The statement ignores the high quality of the Dry Themeda Grasslands and other grasslands that have sufficient diversity to consider them to be NTG-SEH CEEC that occur in the development area;
- The statement overlooks the fact that some threatened species, including Lepidium spp. Rutidosis leptorhynchoides and Leucochrysum albicans do indeed utilise disturbed habitats; and
- "Critical Habitat" is a listed entity, so the statement that "it is not considered" apparently demonstrates a lack of understanding of what the legislated term means.
- Public consultations referred to in the documents fail to mention the petition that was managed by the Conservation Council (CC), with over 600 signatories, or the letter that was signed by 100 scientists and concerned citizens.
- Multiple requests for a site inspection by FOG and CC were not mentioned, nor were the approaches made by the CC to highlight the increased weed invasion, illegal access by vehicles and dumping of rubbish.
The proposal has offered protection to the full extent of the historic windbreak, a replaceable feature of questionable value, being composed of the exotic Pinus radiata and non-local Eucalyptus bicostata, some of which are senescing and dying, but has failed to protect areas of irreplaceable NTG-SEG and Box-Gum Woodland.
The DCP points out that the population of Synemon plana at Lawson North is listed on the Commonwealth Heritage List and that the site has one of the largest remnants of grasslands of its type in the ACT. Because of its relatively large size (approximately 100 hectares) and good condition, is important for the long term conservation of the species." The Referral states that of the area listed under the Commonwealth Heritage List, some 14.06 ha of the Commonwealth Listed Place that encompasses Golden Sum Moth habitat occurs in the Referral area. This submission concludes that it is unacceptable for a Heritage Listed entity to be treated in such a fashion.
It is revealed that DHA acquired the site in 2017. DHA either acquired the site with full knowledge that there were special values associated with the site, according to the NCA's DCP for the site. Alternatively, DHA acquired the site, but then found out that the site had values, but decided to go ahead with the development proposal despite having that knowledge. In either case, it seems that DHA lacked a duty of care in its pursuit of its proposal.
The Referral does not consider the loss of Superb Parrot habitat significant. The area was estimated to be 20.37 ha, but as assessed by this submission, it is likely to be in excess of that figure, because the Referral restricts the foraging habitat to areas of woody vegetation only, whereas it is likely that this species will use grassland adjacent to woodland for foraging. This submission disagrees with the Referral's assessment, especially as the species has been recorded on-site.
The Referral fails to adequately consider Little Eagle, Scarlet Robin and White-winged Triller, so its assessment, given that all three species have been recorded on site.
The Referral discusses cumulative impacts with reference to only those within the ACT, but fails to mention continuing clearing of grassland, woodland and derived grasslands belonging to the same CEECs in neighbouring NSW, including the massive loss of woodland trees along the Barton Highway duplication that which is likely illegal (see Conservation Advice for NTG-SEH). Beyond listing the ACT developments affecting grasslands and woodlands, there are no conclusive statements relating to this proposal. It should be noted that of the 500,000 ha of NTG-SEH that were thought to exist at the time of European settlement, now less than 10,000 ha are formally conserved in nature reserves and national parks in NSW, Act and Victoria, a total of less than 0.02 % conserved (figures derived from the Conservation Advice for NTG-SEH.
The Referral reiterates the statement from the Conservation Advice for NTG-SEH: "However, the Conservation Advice for the community states that "The areas considered critical to the survival of the ecological community cover all patches that meet the key diagnostic characteristics and condition thresholds for the ecological community plus buffer zones" (recommended buffer of 30 m)." To this may be added a further quote from the Conservation Advice that the Referral failed to add, namely: "Additional areas, such as adjoining native vegetation and areas that meet the description of the ecological community but not the minimum condition thresholds may be critical to the survival of the ecological community depending on factors such as their size and shape, landscape linkages to other patches and landscape position. The surrounding environment and landscape context should also be considered".
It is clear that DHA has seriously failed in its duty of care to look after the values of the site as evidenced by the observed increased invasion of St John's Wort over the site over the last several years, as well as by allowing inappropriate access that has led to parts of the grassland having been driven over by unauthorised vehicles, as well as numerous instances of dumping of rubbish.