WA Shuts its Eyes as Precious Ecosystems Head towards ‘Profound Crash’

Western Australia’s wildlife and ecosystems are heading for a profound crash, and there’s no comprehensive government blueprint in place to steer conservation and prevent major losses.

Like Mr Magoo — who refuses to admit he has an extreme near-sightedness problem and blunders through life dependent on miraculous streaks of luck — the state is apparently oblivious to the big picture, demonstrating a haphazard and piecemeal approach to conservation.

WA's animal enblem, the numbat, is subject to a raft of pressures.

A World Wildlife Fund report published on March 14 considered the potential effects of climate change on biodiversity in 35 global “priority places”, including Australia’s south-west.

“Even if the global mean temperature rise is constrained to 2C, south-west Australia is projected to become unsuitable for 30-60 per cent of species across all groups [by the 2080s],” it said.

“A business-as-usual scenario could be devastating for all species groups.”

Over the last few decades, many scientific reports have chronicled global and national declines in biodiversity — that is, the loss of native species and the degradation of ecosystems — and if the WWF’s projection becomes reality, far-reaching economic, social and ecological consequences will result.

Human-induced climate change is only one of several major pressures acting on biodiversity. Others include habitat destruction – “death by a thousand cuts” — invasive species, inappropriate fire and dryland salinity.

These threats don’t operate in isolation but often reinforce one another, contributing to cumulative impacts that intensity and speed up biodiversity loss.

WA is the only Australian state that doesn’t have a statewide plan to conserve biodiversity. There is also no natural resource management plan to ensure resources are maintained or recovered, no overarching  threatened species strategy, and no master plan to expand the conservation reserve systems and set aside lands and waters in perpetuity; the foundation strategy for wildlife conservation.

Bodies that could contribute to the state’s overall conservation effort, such as the ministerial Wetlands Coordinating Committee, have been obstructed and sidelined in recent years.

Public release of a much-needed replacement for the 1997 wetland conservation policy have been suppressed, and planning tools to actively protect wetlands ahead of development shelved.

Major deficiencies in WA’s environmental legislative framework enable unwillingness and avoidance. The Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 lacks accountability, and does not create the powers for a statewide strategic plan or periodic assessments to determine changes and trends in biodiversity.

A paradigm shift in government thinking and management culture is critical, or the state is doomed to interminable myopia…

Keith Claymore

In 2004, the WA government published a discussion paper about the problem of continuing decline in biodiversity facing the state and proposing a 100-year strategy for conserving biodiversity. The current Premier, Mark McGowan, commenced its development as environment minister in 2006.

Following an extensive two-year public consultation period, an almost-completed strategy fell foul of a change to a Liberal-National government that decapitated momentum in 2008.

This was the last time a WA government tried to put in place a statewide and multifaceted approach to deal with this major problem.

This also marked the beginning of a decade-long trend of ignoring information about the overall decline in biodiversity, and obfuscating any comprehensive release of big-picture biodiversity information to the public. State of Environment reporting ceased, and findings from the 2015 audit of WA’s biodiversity were concealed.

Political cycles of three or four years rarely, if ever, coincide with ecological cycles that sustain life or the time required to fix natural resource problems that can last decades, if not centuries.

Coming to grips with such time scales for most is like setting course for some planetary system light years away.

It’s difficult to compute yet necessary to come to terms with, and requires detailed planning, commitment and level-headed continuity in management that spans generations.

Take for example secondary dryland salinity, an insidious problem caused by the widespread clearing of deep-rooted native vegetation that results in the rising of salty groundwater to the surface on a massive scale. In 2000, the state Liberal-National coalition proclaimed in a 30-year strategy that “salinity is the greatest environmental threat facing Western Australia”.

A 2010 report by the former Department of Environment and Conservation predicted that 750 native species in the South West would become extinct within 50 years because of salinity.

In 2013, the former Department of Agriculture and Food published the Report Card on Sustainable Natural Use in Agriculture that concluded: “Dryland salinity remains a potential threat to 2.8–4.5 million hectares of productive agricultural land … the long-term extent of salinity may take decades to centuries to develop, especially in areas where clearing was staggered.”

A year later the former Department of Parks and Wildlife (now Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions) cut its salinity management and science programs. Some 20-year old initiatives and an entire dedicated salinity management branch were abolished, and staff made redundant.

While government funding was being pumped into the Kimberley over eight years, programs and capacity in the south-west of the state that had taken decades to build, with nonpartisan support over three consecutive governments, were being abandoned, with irreplaceable expertise lost.

WA has no vision or grand plan for how to deal with the accelerating decline, and looming crash, in its unique wildlife. The lack of high order and comprehensive strategic plans underscores a policy of benign neglect, an attitude of “we don’t care…enough” that falls prey to political cycles.

Blind complacency and politically risk-averse decision making will not help advance beyond “business as usual”.

A paradigm shift in government thinking and management culture is critical, or the state is doomed to interminable myopia, just like Mr Magoo.