Review of Botanic Gardens Environmental Assessment

Submitted by Webmaster on Mon, 15/05/2006 - 13:03

The primary reason for Future of Cairns interest in the Flecker(Cairns) Botanic Gardens redevelopment is to ensure that Cairns CityCouncil is accountable rather than being an objection to the plan perse’. One year ago the CCC attempted to ram through a 30 million dollarproject without providing justification for the project and without anyimpact assessment and with the most pathetic public consultation everseen for a project of this scale. That kind of behaviour is simplyunacceptable from any level of government in this century. Put anotherway, nearly all other councils and government agencies do all of thethings that the Cairns City Council failed to do, when they propose aproject. The result of the appalling lack of professionalism andaccountability was that opposition by community groups and the publicwas able to stall the botanic gardens redevelopment project for morethat a year to allow the project to be put on a sound basis. Phase 1was supposed to have been completed by now, and probably could havebeen well underway had the council done the necessary preliminarystudies and proper public consultation. Phase 1 of the redevelopmentstill has not started as the State government is withholding fundsuntil the necessary studies are completed. . The report that will bereviewed in this article in the Environmental Assessment of Master Plan Implementation, March 2006 by GHD Pty Ltd.as downloaded from the council website. If the report disappears fromthe council website, contact Future of Cairns for a copyWhen Future of Cairns reviewed the Master Plan for the gardensredevelopment over a year ago – there were many glaring and seriousissues. Attempts were made to raise these issue with the council at thetime and some of the original written material sent to the council can still be downloaded from the botanic gardens blog on this site. A short list of the main environmental issues includes:

  • Proposal do dig up a large area of endangered vegetation to enlarge the lakes;
  • Proposal to dig up areas with poisonous acid sulfate soils;
  • Noconsideration for how to manage the ecology of the lake, whichperiodically degenerates into a cesspit full of weeds and noxiousintroduced fish; and
  • No consideration of the potential for degradation of the endangered vegetation due to changes in drainage or weed invasion;

There was a large list of other issues such the scope for commercialmonopolisation and lack of management of botanical collections, howeverthese subjects are beyond the scope of the environmental report that weare going to review. Firstly we would like to state that we are in general very happywith the report and we rate it 8 out of 10. The report should have beencommissioned before the master plan so that all the environmentalissues were known before the master plan was prepared. Three of thefour issues listed above were comprehensively addressed in the reportand confirmed the advice we provided to council. There are a few major issues with this report that apply to environmental impact studies in general:

  1. They concentrate on determining what cannot be doneaccording to environmental legislation and therefore define the lowestallowable environmental performance standard rather defining a highstandard of environmental management;
  2. The are backwardlooking as they determine environmental values based on aging datasetsand personal experience rather than predicting the likely value of theenvironmental features present within the project area during the projects life span;
  3. The are very weak in their treatment of man made landscapes and modified natural landscapes; and they
  4. Ignore the social value of the environment

The result of the above limitations means that there is a gapbetween the environmental assessment from GHD and a holistic treatmentof all environmental facets of the proposed project. Here are somequestions that the environmental report does not adequately answer asthey are outside the currently accepted framework for such reports. The report largely addresses the direct impacts on the naturalecosystems brought about by the proposed project. Other changes to thenatural ecosystems during the life of the master plan will be caused byweeds, fragmentation and drainage changes and these are of far moresignificant than the direct impacts but they received very littleattention. The report also generally failed to state whichenvironmental areas had the most value and what these values were andhow these values might be maintained in the long term. For example, thevegetation map by GHD is very good but it was not accompanied by notesthat explain desirable and undesirable changes in these vegetationtypes. Therefore we still do not have a proper basis for monitoring andmaintaining the ecosystem values in the area. Unless this gap isrectified, there is no means of detecting and addressing environmentaldegradation. The ‘missing’ information is the sort of stuff that shouldreally be in the master plan. Looking forwards - how important will the natural vegetation in thebotanic gardens be in a generations time when most other examples ofsimilar native vegetation will have been lost to housing developments,invasive weeds, crazy/fire ants and saltwater intrusion from sea levelchange (15 cm would be enough to kill many freshwater swamps). Does thebotanic gardens have a role in protecting vegetation types that areunlikely to be protected elsewhere. In South East Queensland similarswampy natural landscapes have gone from being in good condition tocompletely degraded over a period of 20 years. About man-made landscapes, why is the botanic gardens lake that wasdug 30 years ago different to a ‘natural’ lake formed by a floodingriver 30 years ago? The report says that since the lake is ofartificial origin the quality of the environment in the lake does notreally matter – we don’t agree. The lake should function like a naturalwaterbody, have reasonable water quality, provide habitat for nativespecies and not become a receptacle for noxious exotic species. Social environmental interactions are extremely important in thecontext of the botanic gardens yet are not discussed in the report. Thebotanic gardens has the only publicly accessible feather palm swamp inAustralia. For many, this is the only swampy lowland jungle experiencethey will ever have. It is very important that the quality of theenvironment be maintained so coming generation can see what an unspoiltjungle looks like. Bird watching at the lake is also very popular, yetthe environmental report make no statements about the protection orimprovement of much appreciated bird watching circuit.Our critique of matters that were within the scope of the report are relatively minor:

  • The list of directly observed reptiles and mammals wasquite small. I have personally observed many species that were not onthe list in the last two years. The forest varies from being havingvery high densities of active animals to being silent so survey resultcan vary widely depending on the day of the survey. Lace monitor,pythons, file snakes and water snakes (Mcleays) are common butseasonally active. Paddymelons and echidnas and agile wallabies are inthe adjacent environmental park and/or Cairns Central Swamp and may bepresent in the gardens from time to time.
  • No mention wasmade of tree kangaroo – I have not found any but I still hear reportsof tree kangaroos from other people. There seems to have been no effortto contact local naturalists who spend time in this area to find outwhat they have seen.
  • Water quality in the lake did notinclude testing did not include testing for nutrients. As nutrientpollution of the lake is likely to be the main cause of the floatingdecaying masses that periodically form in the lake, this omission issignificant. Nutrient traps may be required on incoming waters.
  • Thepresence of weeds is noted, but what were these weeds and what impactare they having on the ecology and presentation values of the remnantvegetation in the gardens?

The most likely consequence of the evironmental report is that theproposal to greatly enlarge the size of the freshwater lake will haveto be dropped as acid sulfate soils would be disturbed and endangeredvegetation would be destroyed. We hope that the standard of environmental reporting represented bythe report that we have just reviewed becomes standard council practiceinstead of something that is extracted from them under duress.

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