A new report on the biodiversity values of the Mt Canobolas State Conservation Area (SCA) was released in March 2021. It concludes that significant harm to biodiversity would inevitably result from a large scale mountain biking centre in the SCA.
The findings and conclusions of the report are given below.
This document has been produced in response to a proposal by Orange City Council (OCC) to develop a large-scale mountain biking competition centre within the Mount Canobolas State Conservation Area (SCA). This report presents detailed and current site-specific scientific data on the biodiversity values of the SCA and objectively assesses the biodiversity conservation values against current environmental legislation and conservation frameworks.
- Any assessment of development proposals within the SCA should recognise that it meets the criteria for an Area of Outstanding Biodiversity Value. Although the AOBV status of the Mt Canobolas SCA has not yet been officially recognised, the Precautionary Principle mandates that activities in the SCA should be assessed on the basis that it has been recommended for Preliminary Determination as an AOBV.
- The Precautionary Principle is particularly important when considering development in a reserve such as the Mt Canobolas SCA that is recognised as important for conservation of unique biodiversity, particularly since it is dedicated for that purpose. The Precautionary Principle holds that where there is a risk of harm to biodiversity and alternatives are available for the activity, the activity should not go ahead.
- Avoidance of impacts on rare or threatened entities is the first step in development planning. This report provides accurate distribution data for the biodiversity and habitats that should be avoided.
- Protection of threatened biodiversity in the SCA depends not just on the avoidance of the locations of known individuals of rare or threatened species, but also on the protection of sufficient habitat to guarantee their survival into the future.
- Many populations of species on Mt Canobolas are likely to be close to their minimum thresholds for viability owing to low population sizes, which in turn is due to the small size of the SCA (1,672 ha). In essence, many populations in the SCA cannot withstand further losses of habitat from developments such as the mountain biking proposal and the inevitable debilitating disturbances that would accompany it.
- Current ecological theory includes the concept of metapopulations which recognises that within overall areas of suitable habitat, sub-populations of species wax and wane over time, flourishing in some areas before dying out, only to rise in other areas where they had been absent. This means that even though individuals of a species may not be present in a particular area at the time of a survey, that area may nonetheless be important as potential future habitat to maintain the metapopulation.
- Habitat integrity is essential to maintain populations of threatened or endemic species, such as orchids, lilies and lichens. A criss-crossing network of mountain bikes tracks through the habitat of a threatened entity, while it may avoid the locations of known individuals, nevertheless removes and fragments habitat, and disrupts metapopulation dynamics, whilst also potentially impacting unrecorded individuals.
- The entire forest and woodland vegetation within the Mt Canobolas SCA is part of one or other of three threatened ecological communities listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered under the Biodiversity Conservation Act (BC Act). The unique outcrop heaths and shrublands of the SCA are likely to be recognised as a distinct Plant Community Type in the future that would likely qualify for listing as threatened.
- Four endemic flora species, Prostanthera gilesii, Eucalyptus canobolensis, Caladenia boweri and Paraprasophyllum canobolense have been described from the SCA. The first two are listed as Critically Endangered and Vulnerable, respectively, and the latter two have been nominated as threatened.
- Six other flora species in the genera Bulbine, Melichrus, Dipodium, Diuris, Asterolasia and Phebalium are also under study as putative new endemic species restricted to the Mount Canobolas Volcanic Complex. All are likely to qualify for listing as threatened.
- It can be expected that more endemic species unique to the Mt Canobolas SCA will be discovered among the more than 200 species with disjunct populations isolated on the mountain. Accordingly, the SCA is a scientific treasure house of genetic diversity which should be protected for the value of its biodiversity above all else.
- There are very few, if any, places that have as much biodiversity value in a relatively small area as Mt Canobolas SCA. It would be tragic if unrecognised species were pushed towards extinction by unsympathetic development, even before they are discovered.
- The SCA is the only refuge in the Orange district for montane and sub-alpine herbs that are now locally rare, and in some cases, endangered. The high species richness and numbers of these herbs indicate the ecosystem functions over large parts of the SCA remain in close to pristine condition. In particular, 12 areas of high native orchid diversity, or ‘orchid hotspots’, are identified in this report and should be protected.
- Four lichen species, Gyalideopsis halocarpa, Sarcogyne sekikaica, Megalaria montana and Xanthoparmelia metastrigosa are endemic to the SCA and all are likely to qualify for listing as threatened.
- The SCA hosts the only lichen community in Australia to be listed as threatened, the Mt Canobolas Xanthoparmelia Lichen Community Endangered Ecological Community. It is prominent on rock plates, rock outcrops and surface rock in the SCA and is threatened by mountain bike and foot traffic on rock plates and rock gardens.
- One fauna species is confirmed as endemic in the SCA, the Mt Canobolas Velvet Worm, Cephalofovea pavimenta. A yellow planarian worm, Fletchamia near sugdeni may represent another endemic invertebrate species. Systematic survey of invertebrates would likely considerably expand the known biodiversity of the SCA and reveal more endemic species.
- Seven described species or ecological communities in the SCA have been identified by the Biodiversity Conservation Division of the Department of Planning Industry and Environment as susceptible to Serious and Irreversible Impacts (SAII). In addition, a further 13 described and undescribed species endemic to the SCA would also meet the SAII criteria and must be assessed accordingly.
- The data and mapping in this report show clearly that significant biodiversity occurs throughout the Mt Canobolas SCA. There are no areas of the SCA without significant biodiversity. Consequently, any large-scale development within the SCA is highly likely to have adverse impacts on multiple sensitive areas and entities.
- This report identifies eight highly sensitive areas of exceptional conservation significance within the SCA where any development should be prohibited.
- It is important to note that not all parts of the SCA have been adequately surveyed and that it is likely other important populations, hotspots and individual occurrences of important biodiversity remain to be discovered.
CONCLUSIONS and RECOMMENDATIONS
- It is recommended that minimum buffers of 50 m be set for individual plants, populations, habitat areas, threatened ecological communities and orchid hotspots to avoid damage to threatened biodiversity in the SCA.
- The unusually high biodiversity value of the Mt Canobolas SCA is demonstrated by four outstanding characteristics:
- The SCA meets the criteria as an Area of Outstanding Biodiversity Value (AOBV).
- It has an unusually high number of endemic species (11+) for such a small reserve (1,672 ha), two of which are listed as threatened so far.
- It has a unique threatened endemic lichen community.
- It has a large number of communities and species (20) meeting the criteria for Serious and Irreversible Impacts (SAII).
- It is incumbent on the proponent’s consultants to assess the impacts of proposed developments in the SCA as if it were an AOBV. This means that under the BC Act the development cannot be assessed by a Review of Environmental Factors, but must be assessed under the Biodiversity Offsets Scheme using the Biodiversity Assessment Method (BAM) and a Biodiversity Development Assessment Report (BDAR).
- The survival of eleven species endemic to the Mount Canobolas Volcanic Complex depends on the protection of their habitats from development. All of these taxa have very low areas of occupancy and most have very low population sizes. Consequently, any loss of habitat pushes them towards extinction.
- Because of the rarity and confinement of the endemic species within the SCA, it is not possible to offset losses to their populations by protecting habitats elsewhere. There is no alternative but to protect the remaining populations of these species from further losses of individuals and habitat.
- As with other unique biodiversity within the SCA, the endemic Mt Canobolas Xanthoparmelia Lichen Community must be totally protected from development owing to its low area of occupancy and vulnerability to disturbance. There is no opportunity to offset damage to this community through reservation of areas outside the SCA.
- It testifies to the importance of the SCA for biodiversity protection that its small area of 1,672 ha supports 20 SAII entities that are considered at high risk of extinction from development. Crucially, these entities, which include all the forest and woodland vegetation in the SCA and the Silver-leaf Candlebark, occupy the entire SCA, essentially making the whole reserve subject to SAII.
- SAII entities are only allowed to be disturbed if a rigorous assessment determines that the adverse ‘impact is outweighed by the social and economic benefits the development will deliver to the State. It is highly doubtful that the benefits of a mountain biking complex on Mt Canobolas rise to State significance and justify harming these entities. The most prudent approach, using the Precautionary Principle, to conserving SAII entities is the avoidance of all harm, i.e. in the case of the Mt Canobolas SCA, there should be no mountain bike track development anywhere within the SCA.
- The above considerations clearly demonstrate that, for multiple reasons, the OCC mountain biking proposal within the Mt Canobolas SCA should not be approved. However, if the proposal were to be declared a State Significant Development, any disturbance to the SCA would require offsetting under the BC Act.
- A major impediment to offsetting is that the uniqueness of the biodiversity on Mt Canobolas means that no equivalent area of vegetation is available to use as an offset. Consequently, any loss of biodiversity from the SCA is a permanent loss and would go against the principle adopted by the NSW Government of no net loss of biodiversity from New South Wales. Essentially, the biodiversity on Mt Canobolas is irreplaceable and should not be reduced any further than it already has been.
- There is no comparable reserve in the Central West, and very few of similar size, if any, beyond the Central West, that support such an array of unique biodiversity. Without doubt the Mt Canobolas SCA is the most important nature conservation reserve in the region and must be protected in perpetuity from inappropriate development of any kind, including mountain bike development, such as proposed by OCC. In terms of potential harm to unique biodiversity there is no worse place in the region for the establishment of a mountain biking park.