Rare plants and marsupials are among nature at risk from tracks, says Todd Dudley
THE story “Dirty bikes a threat to native bushland” was a welcome respite from the relentless promotion of mountain bike tourism in Tasmania because it highlighted the potentially significant ecological impacts associated with locating trails in environmentally sensitive protected areas (Mercury, January 14).
One of the significant risks to biodiversity in lower altitude areas is the introduction or spread (via soil) of the disease Phytophthora cinnamomi (root rot fungus). Native forests, woodlands and heathlands which contain some our most diverse and beautiful wildflowers host plants that are highly susceptible to infection and ultimately death as result of Phytophthora.
In 2003 in recognition that Phytophthora was listed under the Commonwealths Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act as a “key threatening process” to biodiversity, the state government commissioned a report “Conservation of Tasmanian Plant Species and Communities Threatened by Phytophthora cinnamomi … Strategic Plan for Tasmania”. The purpose was to establish priority Phytophthora Management Areas that “contain representative examples of those plant species and communities considered most at risk” and where management was considered feasible. One of the areas selected was the Mount Pearson State Reserve.
A few years ago the Break O’Day Council applied for multi million-dollar government grants to construct mountain bike tracks in the municipality. One of the tracks proposed was from Poimena (Blue Tier) to Swimcart Beach (Bay of Fires). On September 3 the council approved its development application for this track with the route going through the middle of the Mount Pearson State Reserve. How did this happen?
An underlying assumption that allowed the route to proceed through the assessment process was that establishment of bike washdown facilities would be sufficient mitigation to address the risk of permanent and irreversible introduction of Root Rot Fungus into the State Reserve.
Mitigation advice came from Mark Wapstra ECOtas environmental consultant who supported the construction of the tracks despite the ECOtas report saying “The Doctors Peak Regional Reserve and Mount Pearson State Reserve support some of the largest tracts of largely undisturbed dry sclerophyll forest interspersed with wet heathlands … there is a genuine risk that large swathes of spectacular patches of grass tree and heathy woodland (which would be amazing with spring wildflowers) being altered to expanses of dead and dying plants”.
This mitigation advice was reiterated in the certified Forest Practices Plan done by another consultant and the Reserve Activity Assessment by Parks and Wildlife.
In the case of the Parks and Wildlife assessment they could have recommended referring the track to the Commonwealth Government for assessment under the EPBC Act given likely impacts on listed threatened species such as Conospermum hookeri (Smokebush) and New Holland Mouse but they chose not to and in the process failed in their duty of care to protect biodiversity in protected areas.
Likewise the Tasmanian Government’s Policy and Conservation Advice Branch, which advises “regulators and stakeholders on development activities that have potential to impact on natural values”, stated that in the PWS assessment that “there were no real issues around vegetation”. Our organisation wrote to the Commonwealth Government asking for the proposal to be assessed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act but received a reply noting referral was at the discretion of the proponent/developer (in this case Break O’Day Council).
Let’s also look at the Listing Statements for the threatened species Smokebush and New Holland Mouse on the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment website. It says about conservation measures for Smokebush that: “Conospermum hookeri occurs within two designated Phytophthora cinnamomi Management Areas, one within the Bay of Fires Conservation Area and the other within Mt Pearson State Reserve” Well, now populations of Smokebush in both of these reserves are being put at increased risk. For New Holland Mouse the statement says: “An important cause of habitat modification is infection of P. novaehollandiae (New Holland Mouse) habitat with root rot fungus Phytophthora cinnamomi”.
In other words the loss of plant diversity negatively impacts on New Holland mouse. In protected areas, nature conservation should be prioritised over development, especially if the proposal represents a significant and irreversible risk to biodiversity including threatened species.
In cases such as the Mount Pearson Reserve the responsible response to the tracks was to refuse them because it is a Phytophthora Management Area. It’s clear that environmental laws and assessment processes in Tasmania (and elsewhere in Australia) need urgent review and strengthening including the Tasmanian Threatened Species Protection Act 1995 and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act. What is the point of having laws which allow for the continual net loss of threatened species when the aim is supposed to be improving their status?
If mountain bikers want to be considered responsible environmental citizens they should oppose and boycott tracks such as at Mount Pearson State Reserve (which are nothing short of environmental vandalism) and seek to put tracks in less environmentally sensitive areas.
Todd Dudley is the president of the North East Bioregional Network Inc.