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Paper cuts: Saving Kangaroo Island from tiny steps towards destruction

Opinion

Environmental groups on Kangaroo Island concerned about the incremental destruction of habitat are fighting a complex paper battle on multiple fronts. Kathie Stove explains what they are up against – and why they care.

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Kangaroo Island visitors usually greet the spectacular scenery, swathes of native vegetation and abundant wildlife with something approaching awe. It’s a vanishing sight across the world.

The observant among them might notice, as they speed toward scenic destinations, the worst of the savage chopping back of the vegetation along the roadside (it’s for safety you know), but it still looks lusher than the roadsides back home.

What they can’t see is the gradual decline of much of that once thick roadside vegetation to relatively thin, see-through strips that are probably doomed. The numerous kangaroos and wallabies hide the declines in bandicoots and insects. Conservation reserves are being infiltrated by weeds and wild pigs.

In a race to take advantage of Kangaroo Island’s new-found prominence on the tourist route, the island is proceeding to make decisions that will – not today or tomorrow but soon enough – destroy the very thing people are coming to see.

Like many other groups trying to save their little bit of Australia, we ‘greenies’ on the island try to put a brake on developments and actions that interfere with ecosystem resilience and fracture the connectivity between safe habitats. There’s a lot to do on an island of about 4500 square kilometres and the same number of people.

We enjoy our efforts at restoration in conservation and national parks. What’s not to enjoy – fresh air, exercise, good companionship topped off with an echidna toddling past or a sea eagle riding air currents above the southern ocean?

What is definitely not to enjoy is writing submissions and attending information or “community engagement” sessions about developments proposed to capture the promised tourist bonanza. But it has becoming a large part of our life, and not just the volunteering part of it. To say it is a farce would be anointing it with some element of humour.

The small Kangaroo Island community is but one of many forced into a never-ending scrutineering role.

In the past five years or so we have, as individuals and groups, made submissions and attended sessions on a proposed links golf course on the south coast (two rounds), a tourism resort at American River, new guidelines for roadside native vegetation management, high-end “villages” proposed for the wild coast of Flinders Chase National Park, a port development for Smith Bay to export plantation timber and a new Natural Resources Management Plan. There’s more but you get the picture.

We are told to make the submission pertinent. That not only means hours reading the instructions on what you can and cannot comment on, but also days wading through documentation that includes environmental impact statements and development plans, and all the marketing guff that goes with them. Then onto composing relevant submissions.

Let me share some examples.

For a tourist resort at American River the development application ran to 840 pages plus six volumes of drawings.

Those of us submitting comments on the public environmental report for Kangaroo Island Golf Resort near Pennington Bay in 2014 were faced with more than 600 pages of reading matter.

The golf course land was long degraded but there were serious reservations about the whole thing making sense of any sort. Water would have to be piped in from a point almost 30 kilometres away and the land is currently overrun by native grazing animals (greens and echidnas – what could possibly go wrong?).

Our submissions got us nowhere.

Worse, the course layout was, after approval, moved south and partly on to coastal land – much more exciting golf apparently. The Crown Lands Management Act was altered and the land made available for sale.

Our round two submissions about the minister approving the sale couldn’t comment on the golf course development itself. And the previous environmental assessment for the degraded farming land was assumed for the healthy biodiverse coastal vegetation.

The reading matter wasn’t profuse. In fact, getting hold of it was almost impossible, and very time-consuming.

But that didn’t stop us. The environment minister’s decision by email stated “780 submissions about the proposed sale of the land were received from members of the public on Kangaroo Island, the broader community and interested stakeholders. All but five of the submissions received in the public consultation period raised significant concerns”.

Sandy Beach – another spectacular coastal feature of Flinders Chase National Park. Photo courtesy the Public Parks NOT Private Playgrounds Campaign

Yet, the minister deemed the community to be in favour of the development. Approved!

So when in rapid succession we were told of the proposal by the Australian Walking Company to build “villages” in Flinders Chase National Park on fragile and exposed coastal sites, we were ready for a real fight.

The three “friends of parks” groups on the island withdrew labour and formed a campaign team with Eco-Action Kangaroo Island. A rally on the steps of parliament house in Adelaide attracted many other friends’ groups and a crowd estimated at 800. A crowdfunding campaign raised $38,000 to take the developers and government to court on environmental, community and planning grounds.

We still made our submissions to the Native Vegetation Council about vegetation clearance, rehabilitation and offsets (only 250 pages to read). The proposal for the development itself was assessed and approved as category 1 (merit) development – not requiring public consultation.

We didn’t have to read through the 721 pages of development application then. But the lawyers are, and we are paying them.

The South Australian Government subsequently announced it would “breathe new life into South Australia’s parks and improve nature-based tourism experiences through a $11.8 million commitment in the 2019–20 State Budget”.

Breathing new life apparently means upgraded walking trails, campgrounds and amenities, and a new day-visitor facility to “activate nature and heritage-based tourism experiences across South Australia and improve accessibility”.

And the operating budget for Environment and Water? Down by $7 million on the previous year’s budget.

The small Kangaroo Island community is but one of many forced into a never-ending scrutineering role. The thousands of small projects fought every day add up to large-scale destruction of the natural resources vital to all life. They are worth the same effort as big-ticket causes like the Great Barrier Reef, Stop Adani and Murray-Darling River, because they add up to the same effect.

Meanwhile, governments are working to the premise that society captures the environment in the service of the economy. Perhaps I’ll write a submission on that.

Kathie Stove is a freelance writer and editor living on Kangaroo Island. She is a member of the Friends of Dudley Peninsula Parks.

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