Our national environment laws are broken. They’re not up to the job of protecting our unique and precious wildlife and ecosystems. When it comes to reforming our nature laws - everyone has skin in the game because no matter who you are, or where you're from these laws are impacting the nature that makes your home special. Take a look at how it’s failed in the ACT and South Australia below, and check back as we explore the places we love across the country and the urgent need for reform of our national environmental protection framework.

Australian Capital Territory - Airport Road Jeopardizes Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon

Some places are known for their sprawling beaches or snow capped mountains—the ACT is known for its grasslands. With less than 1% of natural temperate grasslands remaining, every patch is significant—not least of all because they provide home to the critically endangered Canberra grassland earless dragons.

Known in only three remaining locations, the Canberra grassland earless dragon is a species the Federal Environment Minister has prioritised in the fight against extinctions—but perhaps even that won’t secure its protection under our current broken environment laws. 

The Canberra grassland earless dragon is critically endangered. Photo: John Wombey, CSIRO

One of the last remaining wild populations of Canberra grassland earless dragon is under imminent threat from construction of a proposed private road by the Canberra Airport. The road was first assessed, and approved under the laws in 2009. At that time, the plan proposed a road that went around the dragon’s threatened habitat. However, in the decade since the approval was first made, the plans changed such that the road is intended to divide the critically endangered grasslands—bisecting the population of Canberra grassland earless dragons and likely leading to the population's extinction. 

Despite the planning changes and the increasingly threatened nature of the Canberra grassland earless dragon in May 2020 the road received final approval and was set to be built. Community groups have actively campaigned for the protection of the grasslands and in 2023 the Environment Minister intervened to halt the works - but only after bulldozers showed up at the location. It's future remains uncertain. 

The Grassland Earless Dragon is one of the priority species listed in the Threatened Species Action plan launched by Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek in 2022.  The Plan also includes the Government’s commitment to zero new extinctions.  It’s crucial that this commitment is backed by clear powers to stop actions which increase the risk of extinction for species like the Grassland earless dragon, and that our national nature laws protect the habitat these species need to survive.  Current laws lack these powers and protections and this needs to be fixed.

To read more about this case see here.

South Australia - Rocket Launching Facility at Whalers Way

Located on the remote southern tip of Eyre Peninsula, Whalers Way is a powerful reminder of the nature that makes South Australia so special. 

The conservation area, along with the adjacent Thorny Passage Marine Park, is home to many threatened species that are protected under the EPBC Act. Not least of all, a population of endangered Southern Emu-wren (Eyre Peninsula), which is a shy and tiny bird that has been pushed to the brink of extinction by habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation. With fewer than 750 individuals remaining, the future of the bird relies on habitat at Whalers Way, which is home to one of the four largest remaining populations.  

Other threatened species that call the area home include:

  • Mallee Whipbird (Vulnerable)
  • Eastern Osprey (Marine and Migratory) 
  • White-bellied Sea Eagle (Marine)
  • Southern Right Whale (Endangered, Cetacean and Migratory)
  • Australian Sea Lion (Endangered and Marine)

The Southern Emu-wren's future is reliant on what happens at Whalers Way. Photo: Ashwin Rudder

Despite the fact that Whalers Way is formally protected for conservation under State legislation, and is home to nationally significant species,  a plan to build a “temporary” rocket launch pad at the site was approved in 2021. The project was not considered under the EPBC Act because the proponent self-assessed that it was unlikely to have a significant impact, even though the stated purpose was for three “test” rocket launches to measure the impact of launch noise of threatened species.

There have been no successful launches from the “temporary” launch pad, despite multiple attempts in 2021 and 2022. Indeed, one of the “test” launches resulted in a fire demonstrating the extreme risks of hosting a rocket launching pad in an area of conservation significance that is also recognised as a high bushfire risk area. 

These “test” launches were meant to inform the assessment of a proposal to build a permanent rocket launch site at Whalers Way. The permanent facility was referred under the EPBC Act in 2021 and is currently in the assessment phase – it has been deemed a “controlled action” but has been stuck in the status of “further information requested” from the proponent for over two years. A proposal to damage and degrade the environment like this should be an easy “no”, however, with the current laws as weak as they are there is significant concern that the project will be approved notwithstanding the important environmental values at stake, including critical habitat for threatened species such as the endangered Southern Emu-wren (Eyre Peninsula).

The fact that a rocket launch pad was able to be built in a protected area that is critical for the survival of the Southern Emu-wren (Eyre Peninsula) exposes the holes in both Federal and State environment laws - and how they interact. To read more about this case see here.

With thanks to the Conservation Council ACT and Nature Conservation Society of SA. 

Peta Bulling

Nature Campaigner