17 May 2010 – The NSW Government today announced the country’s first legally binding bio-banking covenant to protect environmentally sensitive land in return for development rights over similar land.

But The Greens have slammed the scheme, saying it will enable the destruction of endangered species.

“Biobanking is a backward step for threatened species conservation in NSW because it allows land of significant ecological value to be destroyed if land of supposed ‘equal value’ is protected elsewhere,” The Greens said.

Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, Frank Sartor, said the deal involved the protection of 80 hectares of “high conservation land” at Camden south west of Sydney owned by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.

“This historic agreement ensures the protection of 80 hectares of native vegetation including 36 hectares of critically endangered Cumberland Plain Woodland,” Mr Sartor said.

The scheme works by using a market mechanism: a consultant determines the number of credits to be allotted to a parcel of land and these are then sold on the open market to anyone from a philanthropic organisation to a developer interested in fast tracking approval for a site that has similar environmental characteristics, but may be more marginal in terms of its long term biodiversity profile.

In today’s announcement the landowners received payment of $1.7 million for 607 ecosystem credits from the
NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water with funding provided by the Growth Centres Biodiversity Offset Program, which receives levies from developers operating in the south-west and north-west Sydney Growth Centres.

Part of the payment  – more than $555,000 – has been paid into the BioBanking Trust Fund, which will make annual allowances to the landowners to manage the biobank obligations, such as removal of weeks, fencing and revegetation of degraded land.

According to Freehills partner Peter Briggs who negotiated the deal on behalf of the landowners the scheme is a breakthrough and will protect sensitive land in perpetuity by use of a market mechanism.

“It creates a market mechanism to put a price on biodiversity and create economic incentives for preservation of high value sites,” Mr Briggs said.

Similar legislation was already in place in Victoria and was being considered in Queensland and by the Federal Government, he said.

Freehills consultant, John Taberner said that local or state governments could make the purchase of biodiversity credits a condition of development consent.

Mr Briggs said the new scheme had “formalised what’s already been in place.”

For some years now the planning system had allowed informal offsetting as a way to gain development approval for land that had environmental concerns, Mr Briggs said.

“The problem was it was not recognised by statute. This overcomes that risk. It is a lot clearer, more transparent and more objective.”

However, The Greens do not agree with the assessment of a win-win for the environment and developers and said the scheme could lead to the local extinction of some threatened plant and animal species.

“Rather than Biobanking being the environmental success story the Environment Minister Frank Sartor depicts it as, it signals the end for some vital bushland and habitat,” NSW Greens MLC Ian Cohen said.

“The site conserved today in Camden is at the expense of some remnant Cumberland Plain Woodland, an endangered ecological community which will now be destroyed.

“Biobanking is a backward step for threatened species conservation in NSW because it allows land of significant ecological value to be destroyed if land of supposed ‘equal value’ is protected elsewhere.

“Most of the land the Government claims they will be conserving under Biobanking is either already earmarked for protection or unsuitable to be developed.

“Biobanking is essentially greenwashing some development, while being a backward step for conservation.

“The biobanking scheme can allow a developer to develop in an area that has a listed endangered ecological community by purchasing credits to protect a site elsewhere.”

Mr Cohen said NSW had 957 species listed as threatened including 91 ecological communities.

“The fundamental principle behind native plant and animal species being listed as threatened is so they can be conserved and protected.

“Apparently not any longer.”

A DECCW spokeswoman said land that had unique and endangered species would be subject to a “red flag” that would prevent development under any condition.

Mr Frank Sartor’s office issued a media statement with the following key point about BioBanking:

  • There currently 37 expressions of interest to create a biobank site. Some of the sites are up to 1000 hectares.
  • There are over 50 accredited Biobanking Assessors undertaking assessments on land in NSW.
  • DECCW has approved one biobank agreement site, is assessing applications to set up five more sites with a total of around 200 hectares of bushland.
  • In developing the BioBanking Scheme, DECCW has looked at international and Australian models.
  • International experiences in the United States of America have also been used including North American environmental banking industry in areas such as California, Florida and North Carolina, where thousands of hectares have been secured for conservation.
  • Australian models include the Victorian Government’s Bush Tender and Bush Broker programs, conservation auctions in the Liverpool Plains and Southern Rivers of NSW.
  • A Ministerial Reference Group was established to advise the Minister and assist with the development and review of the Scheme. It comprises leaders from conservation groups, the property and mining industries and local government.
  • This initiative helps meet the NSW State Plan targets to increase by 2015 native vegetation extent and condition, the number of sustainable populations of a range of native fauna species and the recovery of threatened species, populations and ecological communities.
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