28/05/2009 - 00:00

Goldfields conservation scheme turns heads

28/05/2009 - 00:00

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Environmentalists are pitching a new approach to conservation – across a region bigger than England.

TO most of us, the vast bushland that sits to the east of the Wheatbelt and astride the Goldfields represents the true outback - rugged, sparse and offering little chance of survival for any but the hardiest individuals of any species, including humans.

Equating this area to Africa's Serengeti or the near-impenetrable jungle of the Amazon basin - both teeming with wildlife - would seem like quite a stretch of the imagination to anyone who has driven past mile upon mile of this unending scrubland.

Even those who hasten the trip using air travel would wonder at such a huge space that is seemingly unable to cater for life as we know it, beyond that which thrives at the margins.

Yet this area is being touted as a major biological asset and moves are afoot to attempt to protect this environment in ways that could have enormous consequences for the state.

Last year, the Wilderness Society launched a major study called The Extraordinary Nature of The Great Western Woodlands.

The 80-page document proclaimed the environmental value of this 16 million hectare area, which stretches from north-west of Southern Cross to east of Balladonia, and called for a rethink of conservation practices to incorporate this whole region.

Rather than trying to preserve small parts of the region in reserves, the Wilderness Society report suggests the conventional approach to conservation is turned on its head.

"In effect, we propose to invert the conventional approach and consider the entire Great Western Woodlands as a single conservation entity where nodes of human activity are carefully managed for their impacts, analogous to the way the Great Barrier Reef is now managed," the report suggests.

This was well received by the (then) state Labor government and investment has continued under the Liberal-Nationals coalition.

Just after his election, Premier Colin Barnett put the start of work on a Biodiversity Conservation Strategy for the Great Western Woodlands in his commitments for the first 100 days of the Liberal-National government.

Despite the tough economic times, $3.8 million was allocated to the project over the next four years, delivering on an election promise to develop a biodiversity conservation strategy.

More recently, Environment Minister Donna Faragher announced that a stakeholder reference group would be formed.

The idea has certainly raised concerns in industry and the region itself though they are cautious about how they express this. The Chamber of Minerals and Energy, which has been invited to join the reference group, simply said it was committed to the conservation of WA biodiversity while promoting sustainable resource development through high standards of environmental performance.

"With a significant number of mining companies with interests in the Great Western Woodlands, CME considers future management of the region as critically important to the prosperity of the resources sector and the responsible management of its environmental values," the chamber said.

One mining industry figure was less diplomatic when asked about the Great Western Woodlands proposal.

"We need to make it easier to get approvals and we seem to make it harder," he said.

Former Labor cabinet minister and now independent member for Kalgoorlie, John Bowler, who helped deliver power to the Liberals, is one of the more outspoken voices on the subject, having previously expressed his reservations about the plan in state parliament.

"I worry about the latest move," Mr Bowler said.

"If it is going to happen I am going to try to make the most of it and make sure there are protections for miners and other land users in the area."

Mr Bowler said he had met private sector conservationists leading the project and believes they are well meaning, but his experience in government has led to some distrust of the environmental movement and government bureaucrats, especially those that are city based.

"Some are realistic and realise we have to have industry and find ways to have the best of both worlds but there are others who are not like that," he said.

"The current proponents appear not to be worried about mining but my experience is that things change."

One of the proponents Mr Bowler has met is Keith Bradby from Gondwana Link, which is playing a big role in the Great Western Woodlands proposal.

Mr Bradby said the area had significant biodiversity in what was the biggest remaining area of temperate woodland in the world - a region that has not been significantly altered by agriculture or industry.

He believes the nature of the region, with its intact environment and scattered nature of industry, offers unique circumstances.

"We are thinking this is how you can substantially rewrite the model about how conservationists and business work together," Mr Bradby said.

"Some sectors believe this will create problems for mining, but this could make life a bit easier.

"They have a lot of trouble getting approvals because every time they look at a specific site they find something. There is no pooling of information across the region. This would make it easier to get assessed and approved."

This kind of philosophy is already being embraced by government, which has committed to creating an environmental database to assist companies considering development. Similarly, miners in the Mid West have called for a holistic approach to environmental management to avoid the issues of isolated decision-making. Whether the creation of region-wide guidelines for conservation management would fit into that or goes further than industry would like has not yet been tested.

Mr Bradby believes a big issue is the way the current system inefficiently uses the funds allocated to environmental research - due to the need for would-be miners to conduct site-specific studies in isolation.

"There are real questions about getting best value from the money that companies currently spend on the environment," he said.

"We think both companies and environment would be better off; two and two makes about 17 out there."

The Albany-based conservationist understands that such a regional concept requires local acceptance to work and believes the process can be done in a way that ensures it works.

"The people who live out there know best," Mr Bradby said.

"You don't want to move faster than the local people, but then again some of these studies and consultations can take a decade or more."

He said that while the region's environment had benefited from being overlooked by agriculture, it was threatened by recent changes such as a surge in wildfires and rising numbers of feral animals. The latter included wild dog packs, which had emerged in the past decade since state-sanctioned culls had ended.

These are issues that may be dealt with by better management of the whole region.

"Most conservation stuff is about threats, negativity and crises," Mr Bradby said.

"The woodlands is the best opportunity there is."

"We have to be sensible enough to say there is going to be ongoing mining out there and there needs to be ongoing conservation management out there."

"They are not incompatible."

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