· The natural environment is integral to Australia’s capital, Canberra

By Chief Minister of Canberra, Australia Capital Territory—Katy Gallagher MLA

Summary:The natural environment is integral to Australia’s capital, Canberra. The intrinsic value of biodiversity and natural ecosystems was recognised and considered in Canberra’s planning from its inception in 1908. Areas were set aside for their natural beauty and intrinsic values. The removal of grazing and limits on timber and vegetation removal since the city’s early days have created the foundation for an extensive system of reserves that protect our biodiversity and ecological communities. ACT citizens, together with the ACT Government, are proud of this legacy and work to manage and restore the significant biodiversity that makes Canberra the ‘Bush Capital’.

“Canberra will be recognised throughout the world as a truly sustainable and creative city; as a community that is socially inclusive—acknowledging and supporting those who are vulnerable and in need and enabling all to reach their full potential; as a centre of economic growth and innovation; as the proud capital of the nation and home of its pre-eminent cultural institutions; and as a place of great natural beauty.” --This is the vision for Canberra, the ‘Bush Capital’ articulated in the vision of The Canberra Plan: Towards Our Second Century (2008).

Canberra was chosen for its aesthetically pleasing natural backdrop of hills and mountains. On 1 January 1901, the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania formed the Commonwealth of Australia. The Constitution of this new Commonwealth said the Parliament must choose a site at least one hundred miles (160km) from Sydney as the new capital of Australia. Over the following months the area of Yass–Canberra emerged as the favourite site because of its clean air, good water supply and invigorating climate.

In October 1908, the Seat of Government Bill, confirming Yass–Canberra as the nation’s capital, was passed by the Parliament. Surveyor Charles Scrivener was instructed to find an attractive setting for ‘a beautiful city ... embracing distinctive features ... worthy of the object, not only for the present but for all time’. The Australian Capital Territory, with Canberra as its hub, was formed.

The development of Canberra as the ‘Bush Capital’ owes much to three other people: Chicago architects, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, who provided the prize-winning design for the city in 1912; and landscape architect, Charles Weston, who pioneered the ‘greening’ of the area and its surrounding hills between 1911 and 1926. When the Australian Parliament first sat in 1927, Canberra was seen as the ‘modern and the picturesque blended into a composite and harmonious whole, cradled in a setting that for its purpose can have no peer’.

Early on, Walter Burley Griffin recognised a “... desirability that the lands at the Federal Capital which are to form local National Parks, and on which it is proposed to establish forests, be preserved in or reforested in their natural state.” The primary approach to restoration of the natural landscape was the removal of livestock grazing and the halting of woodcutting, lopping of trees for fodder and ringbarking of trees. The areas of the inner-hills that now form Canberra Nature Park have not been grazed for close to 100 years, creating the backdrop to the city of Canberra and contributing to the significance of the biodiversity within our region.

Canberra’s reputation for its unique landscape setting has continued to this day. The landscape is a reflection of its natural features; the mountains, rivers, hills and plains. One of our first nature reserves was Black Mountain Nature Reserve, established partly for its scenic qualities but also for its contribution to biodiversity conservation. The Namadgi National Park and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve protect the ACT’s mountains and forests. The Murrumbidgee River Corridor and a string of reserves along the Molonglo River protect the major river corridors in the ACT. The Canberra Nature Park includes 33 separate reserves established for their scenic beauty and, more recently, to protect significant areas of land containing endangered ecological communities Other areas, such as the Lower Cotter Catchment have been reserved for their water catchment values. Collectively this reserve system accounts for some 60% of the land in the ACT, with 55% managed primarily for nature conservation and biodiversity management.

Historically established for their landscape qualities, the parks and reserves scattered within and on the edges of the city are easily accessed and enjoyed by many Canberrans everyday. Kangaroos, an integral part of the ACT’s ecosystems, and are observed on most walks in the ACT’s parks and reserves.

The Ngunnawal people are the Aboriginal custodians of the ACT. ‘Connection to Country’ is a term often used by Aboriginal people as a way to explain their cultural and spiritual relationship with a particular landscape. They and their ancestors have had an affiliation with the land for tens of thousands of years and many continue that relationship today, caring for country. The sustainability of natural resources is vital to the continuation of Ngunnawal cultural knowledge.

Ngunnawal people traditionally used the land’s resources on a daily basis. Rocks were used to grind seed and crush colourful ochres for ceremonies, and chipped and shaped to form axe heads. Roots and branches were carved into spears and boomerangs for hunting. The sap from trees was used as glue and medicine. The strappy leaves of dianellas and lomandreas and the strong stems of tussock grasses were selected to weave baskets, nets and traps for animals. Women collected certain berries and tubers ideal for dyeing plant fibres for decoration. Animals were used to the fullest degree: the meat for food, the fur for warmth, the sinew for binding weapons. The Bogong Moth was a sign for tribes throughout the area to go into the Australian Alps to practise lore including trade, marriages, initiations and other sacred ceremonies. The ACT Government is working with the local Aboriginal community to capture and record traditional knowledge, promote greater appreciation of the region’s cultural heritage values and reinvigorate traditional uses.

The ACT is situated in two bioregions – the South-East Highlands bioregion and the Australian Alps bioregion. The southern half of the ACT is in the Australian Alps bioregion. The higher land, above 750 metres, retains nearly all its natural vegetation and lies almost entirely within Namadgi National Park and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. The sub-alpine, montane and wet forest communities that occupy this part of the ACT are part of a much greater continuous network of mountain and alpine parks that includes Kosciuszko National Park and the Victorian Alps. The scale and connectivity of this reserve network does much to protect the ecosystem function and plant and animal diversity of the ACT’s higher lands. The remaining areas of the ACT are lower in altitude and form part of the South-East Highlands bioregion. Key vegetation remnants have generally been retained as conservation reserves. However, urban expansion, weed and exotic animal invasion and recreation place significant pressure on the natural landscape. Climate change is likely to impose additional pressures.

The ACT Government is strongly committed to ensuring the significant tracts of land committed to the reserve system are well maintained and preserved for future generations; however, additional measures are needed to support biodiversity across the ACT. The ACT Nature Conservation Strategy 2013–2023 aims to build on the significant protection and management of biodiversity within the reserve system by enhancing the resilience of natural areas at wider ‘landscape scales’. The strategy provides direction on how to better integrate and extend conservation efforts beyond reserves to include natural areas across a range of land uses and tenures, and cross-border, to ensure ecosystems remain healthy and well-managed. This approach will provide the best chance for natural ecosystems to adapt to expected longer-term shifts in climate.

The Nature Conservation Strategy notes, ‘In a world where biodiversity is threatened and declining, the ACT remains a “good news story” in terms of conservation outcomes. In 2007, the ACT was the only Australian jurisdiction to receive a World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) triple-A rating for its nature conservation estate in terms of its rated comprehensiveness, extent and standard of management’.

Monitoring the distribution and abundance of threatened species and distribution and condition of ecological communities is essential for identifying trends, informing on-ground recovery actions and thus conserving biodiversity. The ACT has many targeted recovery plans for nationally threatened species including the Brindabella Midge Orchid, Glossy Black Cockatoo, Golden Sun Moth, Grassland Earless Dragon and Northern Corroboree Frog. The ACT is also reintroducing some species such as the Eastern Bettong (from Tasmania) which has been missing from the Australian mainland for at least 70 years due mainly to predation by the European Red Fox.

The Planning and Development Act 2007 (ACT) facilitates decisions about land use planning and the balance between nature conservation and development.xvi This includes a range of provisions, including, for example, a requirement for an Environmental Impact Statement to be prepared for developments that are likely to have a significant adverse environmental impact on threatened species and ecological communities and for clearing of native vegetation that meets certain thresholds.

The ACT Planning Strategy provides the broader planning framework through which nature conservation and development needs can be met in a sustainable city. Ecologically sensitive planning approaches, such as urban intensification, will allow for continued urban and economic growth that does not unduly impact upon nature conservation.

The ACT Government is committed to protecting two lowland endangered ecological communities—Natural Temperate Grasslands and Yellow Box–Red Gum Grassy Woodlands listed under the Nature Conservation Act 1980 (ACT) and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth).

Nationally these two ecosystems are highly threatened. The ACT retains the best and largest remnants of these ecosystems and their associated flora and fauna.

Weed and pest management remain significant challenges because of their recurrent nature and pervasiveness. New technologies for weed and pest management, such as biological control, offer the best chance of addressing weeds and pests over the long term. In the short term a focus on stopping new incursions of weeds and pests and protecting key environmental assets is proving effective. This is also aided by new technologies such as the new ACT and Southern Tablelands Weed Spotter website.

Maintaining and enhancing ecological connectivity to address habitat fragmentation is widely regarded as a critical element in assisting biodiversity to adapt to climate change. The Nature Conservation Strategy aims to enhance connectivity between native vegetation patches to allow the easier movement of species across the landscape, facilitating better access for them to additional habitat and resources.

While these are significant challenges, the ACT is well placed to meet these challenges as:
> the level of reservation of ecosystems in protected areas provides the critical building block on which to build further conservation efforts.
> the ACT has significant scientific and research institutions located within its boundaries and makes good use of their expertise to drive innovative approaches to conservation.
> the size of the ACT and its governance structures mean coordination and integration across government and cross-border is simpler than in other jurisdictions
> the ACT has an engaged and informed citizenry who actively participate in conservation of biodiversity and citizen science.

Canberra is the Bush Capital of Australia and will continue to manage that legacy. Since its inception, Canberra has long recognised the intrinsic values of biodiversity and natural ecosystems, and the value of the ecosystems to the sustainable functioning of our city. The bush is what makes Canberra special. Canberra’s citizens have developed a strong sense of place within the city and its environs. The values that Canberrans see in the biodiversity within the ACT’s boundaries are critical to the maintenance of that biodiversity. It is these values that allow the ACT to restore and manage its significant conservation estate with the support of a considerable volunteer base.

The vision of the early planners: the Parliament of Australia; Charles Scrivener; Walter Burley Griffin, Marion Mahony; and Charles Weston set the foundations in place. The citizens of the ACT, with the support of the ACT Government, are continuing those traditions for the benefit of our biodiversity and our future generations.