Plan for Molonglo nature reserve released after legless lizard habitat bulldozed

Plan for Molonglo nature reserve released after legless lizard habitat bulldozed

A stuff-up that led to the demolition of part of the rare pink-tailed worm lizard's habitat in Canberra's west precipitated the release of a plan to guide the restoration of the Molonglo River corridor.

Planning and environment minister Mick Gentleman released the Molonglo River Reserve Draft Management Plan on Thursday, saying it was the "final piece of the puzzle needed before we can declare the area an official reserve".

Larry O'Loughlin from Conversation Council ACT overlooking North Coombs.

Larry O'Loughlin from Conversation Council ACT overlooking North Coombs.Credit:Katie Burgess

However the plan should have been published in 2014, as part of a 2011 agreement between the federal and ACT government that allowed development in the Molonglo Valley to take place.

Its release was delayed by a squabble over the size of a buffer zone at the Kama Nature Reserve, one of three offset sites the territory government agreed to establish as part of the deal.

A pink-tailed worm-lizard.

A pink-tailed worm-lizard.Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

But in the meantime development continued in the area, with an a development application to build a new estate, North Coombs, filed last July.

The Conversation Council of the ACT opposed construction on the site, because it took in half a hectare of the lizard's habitat.

When the estate development plan was approved, the Conservation Council filed an appeal in the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

But no one told the developers an appeal was in train, Conversation Council ACT region executive director Larry O'Loughlin said.

"We thought this needs to be discussed, how are they going to go about that and our objection was overruled so we appealed to the tribunal and by the time we got to the tribunal, there'd been a mistake, an administrative error and no stop work had happened and so the work had been completed, the habitat had been removed, the trees bulldozed," Mr O'Loughlin said.

The small legless lizard is only found in a handful of rocky hillsides in south-east Australia.

The discovery of one specimen in Googong in 2009 caused 54 hectares to be fenced off for a Worm Lizard Conservation Area.

Asked if one lizard was worth such a fuss, Mr O'Loughlin said it was hard to say goodbye to a species when so many have become extinct.

"How do you say which species should go? We don't know yet how important they'll be," Mr O'Loughlin said.

"They're not a big cuddly panda or something, you can't put them on a poster or maybe you could. They're only little things, but they're quite unique and quite rare and we've got the only population in the world other than that little bit at Gundagai."

Since the habitat was destroyed, the Conversation Council dropped their appeal - but on the proviso that the plan for the corridor finally be released.

"That process, that North Coombs process was really too late, there's not much more we could do by carrying it through the tribunal so we just said okay, release the report of plan of management so we know how you're taking account of your impact on the reserve and so we know what's happening in the reserve and a commitment was made at that time, that's why this report is being released today," Mr O'Loughlin said.

The proposed reserve will extend 23 kilometres along the Molonglo River, protecting 1300 hectares of riparian zone and species like the supurb parrot and critically endangered box gum woodland.

Mr O'Loughlin said it would have been better if the area had been formally protected before development began.

"It's always better if you identify the areas that need to be protected before you come in to do the development not only because the developers are then a little bit more sensitive in the way they do their work and know what they're trying to protect, but also the residents come to the place knowing it's special," Mr O'Loughlin said.

However Mr Gentleman said future suburbs and nature reserves could be scoped simultaneously.

"If you look at Canberra's history there was a lot of development even before nature plans were devised so in this case we're bringing them together," Mr Gentleman said.

But the government came under fire last year after it sought an exemption from having to do a full environmental assessment for the "Molonglo 3" area it planned to open up off William Hovell Drive and behind the National Arboretum.

The Suburban Land Agency argued there had been enough environmental work done in the area, so the impacts were well known, in spite of the development involving extensive clearing of vegetation and more than 36 hectares of pink-tailed worm lizard habitat.

An Environment Directorate spokesman said the application for that exemption was only received two weeks ago and was currently being assessed.

"A recommendation will be made in coming weeks to the Minister for Planning," planning delivery executive director Brett Phillips said.

A spokesman for Mr Gentleman said a 15-kilometre buffer zone at Kama Nature Reserve would be established before the start of construction on the new suburb of Whitlam, however the exact dimensions are yet to be determined.

Have your say on the draft management plan for the proposed Molonglo River Reserve at:

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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