Canberra's inconvenient truth is that, through an accident of history, important remaining habitats of the flora and fauna of the grasslands and woodlands of south-eastern Australia survive on land in Canberra earmarked by city planners for development. The creation of the ACT leasehold land system last century reduced incentives for landholders to intensively farm land, which, combined with the reservation of land for specific developments, spared a lot of flora and fauna from the clearing, ploughing, overgrazing and farm chemical use that has stripped much of NSW and Victoria of these species.
When Canberra's planners set aside land for specific purposes last century they could not have envisaged that these sites would be among the last refuges for species such as the button wrinklewort - a nationally endangered yellow daisy, one of whose major strongholds is 52 hectares of critically endangered woodland in Yarralumla, at Stirling Park, Attunga Point and Scrivener's Hut. This inconvenient truth became a legal barrier when the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was proclaimed in 2000, requiring any proponent to get the approval of the Commonwealth minister for the environment for developments that significantly affect nationally threatened biodiversity.
As the city continues to expand, the remaining grassy ecosystem remnants around Canberra are under constant pressure, and continue to be dissected and reduced in the hope destruction of some areas will not affect remaining portions. What is not well understood is that not only do such developments destroy areas of land but that surrounding bushland is usually affected. The spread of weeds and clearing for fire mitigation are among the effects of such development. This clash between biodiversity conservation and development is highlighted by the National Capital Authority's release last Friday of draft amendments to the National Capital Plan that would facilitate development of seven embassies on three hectares of Stirling Park and a prime minister's residence at Attunga Point in return for modest designation of part of the remainder as ''open space''.
Of particular concern is the reassignment of Attunga Point on the shoreline of Lake Burley Griffin as a development site for a new prime minister's residence. What one planner dismisses as a ''quarry'' features two top-quality areas of button wrinklewort habitat in threatened woodland. While we would be delighted to find future prime ministers care about wildflowers, a lodge development is not compatible with their conservation. In addition to the direct damage from building on this site, it would require re-routing Alexandrina Drive, the lakeside bike path and security facilities through valuable woodland and button wrinklewort populations in Stirling Park.
Because of the high value of these lands for conservation of flora and fauna, Friends of Grasslands, under a direct partnership agreement with the National Capital Authority, has held more than 30 work parties at these sites since 2009, contributing more than 2000 volunteer hours for conservation of these lands. This illustrates that a wide variety of concerned Canberrans care deeply about these places and are willing to go out of their way to conserve them.
We welcome the authority's proposed changes to the National Capital Plan, to rezone grasslands at Yarramundi Reach and the ridge-line portion of woodlands at Stirling Park from ''national capital use'' to ''open space''. Yet Friends of Grasslands is extremely disappointed the authority has not proposed the far superior option, to designate Stirling Park and Yarramundi Reach as a protected nature park.
It is not only the authority that is conflicted. The University of Canberra's Institute for Applied Ecology has a proud record of undertaking key research informing conservation of the flora and fauna of our grassy ecosystems. Therefore, it appears perverse that a couple of other senior figures at UC should launch a competition to design a prime minister's residence on a site that would destroy key habitats.
Regardless of what planners envisaged 22 years ago in their 1990 National Capital Plan, societal standards have changed. Federal environmental law ensures society is responsible for conserving the last populations of the button wrinklewort and grassy ecosystems. The development planners need to ''get off the grass'' and use their imagination to find other sites for embassies and lodges. There are many other options. Lodge Park is the logical place for a new prime minister's residence. Let's keep our button wrinklewort and grassy woodland alive and healthy and keep alive Walter Burley Griffin's vision to retain the hills, including Stirling Park, as a natural heritage and focal backdrop to the city.
Jamie Pittock is a project leader with the Friends of Grasslands (fog.org.au)