An area of protected bushland that was part of the environmental offset for Sydney Western Airport has been bulldozed for a car park in a new defence.
The clearance was uncovered in an independent audit of the federal government’s progress in providing the necessary habitat destruction compensation for the new Badgerys Creek transportation hub.
The main compensation for clearing Cumberland’s endangered lowland forest is approximately 900 ha of bushland at a defense site in the suburb of Orchard Hills.
The site, known as Defense Establishment Orchard Hills, is an explosives storage and training site listed on the Commonwealth Heritage Register as almost entirely overgrown with endangered forest.
Federal Environment Department officials had already questioned the credibility of offsetting habitat destruction for the airport with listed land that the government already owned. Now, the most recent offset delivery report, prepared for the Federal Department of Infrastructure, shows that a small portion of historic scrubland has been cleared for a parking lot for a new guided naval missile facility at the Orchard Hills site.
Conservationists have raised concerns about the deforestation, with the Australian Conservation Foundation describing it as “another disturbing example that underscores fundamental flaws in our national environmental law”.
“The offset scheme facilitates the steady decline of areas of unique ecological importance,” said Sophie Power, the ACF’s national biodiversity policy adviser.
“For offsets to be credible, they must provide real, additional, durable protection and recovery.”
The clearing was identified by an independent surveyor reviewing the Orchard Hills offset.
Under the development conditions, the infrastructure department has to submit annual reports on its progress in delivering the environmental offsets. The reports date back years, with the 2020 review only recently released.
The independent review is attached as an appendix and notes that the inspection of the site identified a recently cleared building site and temporary bushland development which had been mapped as Cumberland Plain Woodland in poor condition.
The surveyor wrote that the cleared area would need to be removed from the backfill as it is unlikely to recover “without significant restoration efforts”.
They also recommended launching an investigation into how the development within the offset came about to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Lisa Harrold is President of the Mulgoa Valley Landcare Group and was a member of a panel of experts who advised the infrastructure department on the creation of the offset plan.
Harrold has been vocal about her disappointment with the decision to use Orchard Hills as the main balancing point when it was already inscribed on the Heritage Register and had been promised as a permanent nature reserve by both major political parties as early as 2007.
“The fact is they completely disregarded the whole equalization process,” she said.
“Without community members like me digging through reports and realizing they cleaned up some of the offset, there would be no recourse.
“What we’re left with is one government agency saying to another, oh, sorry, we screwed up.”
The Department of Defense did not respond to questions about the development or whether it was seeking an environmental permit for clearance within the heritage area. The Environment Division, after receiving questions from Guardian Australia, said it was conducting “preliminary investigations in line with our published compliance policy”.
A spokesman for the infrastructure department said the structure identified by the independent auditor is “near the tentative boundary of the offset site.”
“The department was aware that this boundary could change once the final defense facility footprint was known and subsequent changes to the boundary have increased the offset,” they said.
The spokesman said the department has robust monitoring systems for the airport offsets and work is underway on the next annual report.
But Tim Beshara, policy and strategy manager at the Wilderness Society, said the story of the Cumberland Plain Woodlands’ decline to the brink of extinction is a “farce” that reveals layers of failure in the administration of Australia’s environmental laws.
He said the bushland at Orchard Hills is the best remaining example of woodland and its inscription on the Heritage Register means governments have a duty to steward and protect it.
“And now it’s supposedly been ‘secured’ elsewhere to compensate for other demolitions, but somehow nobody seems to be checking when the bulldozers are arriving,” he said.
“There is not a single obligation to protect the Cumberland Plain that the Commonwealth has not evaded or failed to do… and yet no one seems to be responsible for it.”