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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Lisa Cox

ACT urges Tanya Plibersek to quash defence housing plan that would destroy critically endangered grasslands

A golden sun moth on blades of grass
The ACT government wants Tanya Plibersek to stop a defence housing development on crucial grassland habitat for the critically endangered golden sun moth. Photograph: Rohan Clarke/The Guardian

The ACT government has urged the federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, to reject a defence housing development that would destroy critically endangered grasslands in Canberra’s north-west.

Defence Housing Australia (DHA) has proposed building hundreds of houses on an old naval transmission site in the suburb of Lawson.

The development would consist of 443 dwellings, 150 of which would be for defence personnel and their families. The remainder would be sold on the private market.

Construction of the estate would involve clearing up to 15.8 hectares of the critically endangered natural temperate grassland of the south-eastern highlands, about 15% of the grasslands on site.

The grasslands are one of the most threatened ecosystems in Australia, with less than 10% of their original extent remaining. It is the same ecosystem that was at the centre of the Jam Land land-clearing case.

DHA has submitted an application to the federal government to determine whether the development is acceptable under national environmental laws and would require assessment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

In a letter to Plibersek, the ACT’s environment minister, Rebecca Vassarotti, a Greens MLA, said she had serious concerns about the “unacceptable scale of impact” on the grasslands and habitat for threatened species including the striped legless lizard and golden sun moth.

She wrote that the ACT government had identified the site as a priority conservation area for grasslands.

“I strongly urge you to take these concerns into account when making your decision on the EPBC referral as many of the impacts of this development will cause irreversible harm to endangered species,” she said.

The ACT government is not a decision maker for this development. Vassarotti said some of the issues the proposal raised “undermine” what the territory government was trying to do to protect grasslands and threatened species.

“This is the lived example of all of the problems we have around national environmental laws,” she said.

“This is an area that is considered one of the high value conservation areas.

“The fact this kind of development can even be contemplated on a site of such high ecological value just highlights the issues.”

The development is the second in recent months by Defence Housing Australia to attract community concern.

In Darwin, Plibersek has been asked to intervene in a project to the city’s north that will affect a population of endangered Gouldian finches and other important habitat.

The ACT development proposal prompted strong opposition during the federal election campaign and organisations including the Conservation Council ACT Region and Friends of Grasslands have argued an alternative site should be found.

The council’s executive director, Helen Oakey, said some of the clearing would occur over an area that the National Capital Authority had previously identified as best suited for conservation.

“We think the environment minister should find this proposal unacceptable,” she said.

She said if the federal government was “as concerned with biodiversity outcomes as they say they are” they should withdraw the proposal.

“The lucky thing here is they can do that because they are the proponent and they don’t have to wait for the EPBC Act to tell them what to do.”

A spokesperson for DHA said the proposal was a “balanced outcome” that would meet defence housing demand while “conserving significant heritage and environmental assets”.

They said most of the approximately 100 hectares of grasslands on site would be retained and core areas of striped legless lizard and golden sun moth habitat would be protected.

“Substantial effort has been made in the design phase to avoid impacts to the site’s environmental values,” they said.

“Of the 145 hectares of land, more than 100 hectares will be retained for ecological conservation and community purposes”

A spokesperson for Plibersek said: “The proposed project is being considered under national environmental law, so it’s not appropriate to comment further while this is happening.”

The government has said it will respond to the Graeme Samuel review of national environmental laws before the end of the year.

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