Biodiversity offsets have taken storm as a policy safeguard for development. They came into effect in Canberra in 2015 through the ACT Environmental Offsets Policy (EOP), a statutory policy under the Planning and Development Act 2007. The EOP mandates that an offset must deliver conservation outcomes that improve or maintain the viability of the environment under threat when mitigation and avoidance are no longer an option.
Working in the field
Over the last month I had the opportunity to work alongside park rangers in the Offsets team. Our role was monitoring grasslands for Delma impar (Striped legless lizards). This involved setting up habitat for them and returning to check and count the population.
Striped legless lizards are a vulnerable species, threatened largely by urban development. The grasslands where they live have been heavily cleared. The flat and grassy terrain appears empty– perfect for development. When we first arrived at the sites, I wondered how they hadn’t been developed already. This raises a topical issue. Could greater community awareness improve the success of offsets? Many of the sites we visited were overgrazed, weed-infested and/or disturbed by humans. The offsets team does their best to manage them, but maybe community awareness is the missing ingredient.
Getting the community involved
The main contributors to overgrazing in the grasslands is kangaroos. Scientific consensus has provided support for an annual cull in Canberra to limit pressures on biodiversity. However, controversy amongst the general public, particularly with animal activist groups, remains. A simple first step to community engagement could be installing more signage at offsets sites. If the community knew how crucial the cull is for species like the striped legless lizard there may be more support and empathy for their plight, rather than for kangaroos.
Awareness could inspire a ParkCare group (perhaps the already established Friends of Grasslands) to help with monitoring, weeding and fundraising. Current practices discourage ParkCare groups from working on offset sites, but the extra hands could actually maximise results. During the time I spent with the offsets team, only two full time staff members were assigned to field work. Each day we had volunteers, but without them the process would have been arduous. Public awareness could help distribute this labour so more resources can support best management practices. The ACT Government recognises ParkCare groups are essential in Canberra. With proper training they could have a tremendous impact on offset sites too.
A broader community awareness could also encourage greater transparency in the management of offsets by creating a case for social responsibility. As we discussed in class, some practices, like claiming community contributions without consultation, are far from fair. Yet a weakness in policy allows the same agency to implement and review its own offset practices, limiting accountability. Greater awareness among our community could hold agencies responsible for their actions and ensure offsets deliver the best results.
Biodiversity offsets are a valuable tool for moderating development and ensuring we conserve biodiversity as Canberra grows. Community involvement could aid better management of offset sites by providing more resources, less public controversy, more transparent processes and greater community support.