Media Releases - 30 October 2020

Statement on the Natural Disaster Royal Commission Report

Burnt coast at Mallacoota headland. Image: Ben Baker.

The Wilderness Society provides the following comments on the release of the Natural Disaster Royal Commission Report, Tim Beshara, Manager of Policy and Strategy at the Wilderness Society said:

“This is the first Commonwealth Royal Commission in Australian history that has reflected on the impacts of climate change, and it's the first one that looked at environmental issues since the 1970 Royal Commission into oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef.

"To quote a former Royal Commissioner, Kenneth Hayne, "reasoned debates about issues of policy are now rare. Three or four word slogans have taken their place" and for us, nature conservation and climate change issues are where politicians have engaged in reason the least.

"The bushfire Commissioners have been granted an incredible opportunity to reset the policy debate on nature conservation and climate issues. There are some areas of debate where we believe they could have engaged more strongly, like on Australia’s climate policy in general or on the increased need to better protect wildlife habitat in the wake of last Spring and Summer’s bushfires, but nonetheless, the Commissioners have provided a series of recommendations that, if implemented, would better prepare Australians to protect and restore nature as we face similar challenges in the future.

“It has become increasingly obvious through these catastrophic events that our community and our natural environment are inextricably linked. In just one example, the Gospers Mountain fire started with a lightning strike in a remote part of the Greater World Heritage Area, ultimately burnt over half a million hectares and plunged all of Sydney into smoke-filled darkness for months. When it comes to responding to climate change-driven disasters, the protection of nature is also the protection of human life and property—they are one and the same. 

“The Wilderness Society welcomes recommendations around establishment of a register of key environmental values, action on Recovery Plans and Threat Abatement Plans for species facing extinction due to natural disasters, including environmental resilience in funding arrangements ahead of disasters, and increased aerial firefighting capabilities. We will be engaging with governments and agencies to ensure that these recommendations are carried out in full. 

“The Wilderness Society identified that a major gap last Spring and Summer was that, during the emergencies, firefighters and wildlife experts had little information to hand about the most important ecosystems, habitats and species in imminent danger. This meant they didn’t have clear guidance on how to deploy resources to help protect and recover these most special of environmental values. The Royal Commission has backed our call for the establishment of a register of key environmental values to guide emergency responses and the development of a coordinated wildlife recovery framework to respond rapidly in the aftermath of natural disasters.

“The Wilderness Society also called for the Commonwealth Government to identify, update and fund the Recovery Plans of the species placed at increased extinction risk due to natural disasters. And we thoroughly welcome the Commission’s endorsement of our call for the Commonwealth Government to carry out its existing obligations under the EPBC Act in developing comprehensive Threat Abatement Plans in relation to catastrophic bushfire risk for key Endangered species.

“The Commissioner’s call to include environmental resilience and recovery as part of the natural disaster funding arrangements could be a powerful game changer for nature conservation efforts. We called for a standalone nature-specific natural disaster fund so that wildlife groups and agencies can respond immediately when a disaster is imminent, rather than waiting for a funding announcement weeks or months after an event. Had the environment been included in standard funding arrangements, then Australia's response to events like last Spring and Summer's fires would have been dramatically different.

“We also welcome the Commission’s call for increased aerial firefighting support but would have preferred if the Commission had added more emphasis on the role this approach can take with remote-area firefighting. The ability to get planes or helicopters out into remote areas to help contain fires while they are still small, is the key to preventing the scale of catastrophic fires. The majority of the fires from last Spring and Summer were started by lightning in very remote areas and then spread to impact on communities later. The emphasis in increased firefighting resourcing really needs to be focussed on controlling those remote fires, when and where they start,” Tim Beshara concluded.

For further comment contact Tim Beshara on 0437878786.

View the full Wilderness Society Bushfire RC submission 

Relevant RC recommendations that relate to Wilderness Society recommendations

16.17 Some protection priorities are clearly embedded and formally recognised in emergency management, such as critical infrastructure. However, in the case of sites of environmental and heritage value, emergency services often rely on external information and relationships with other agencies to understand environmental values at risk during disasters

16.20 There is a need to better integrate consideration of environment and heritage assets in emergency planning and response. This requires accessible data, including on the location of environmental, heritage and cultural sites, the distribution of species and ecological communities and priorities to guide response efforts. 

16.21 In assessing environmental and heritage impacts and prioritising recovery efforts, a number of states and territories have adopted a ‘rapid risk assessment’ methodology. This allows them to identify immediate interventions, as well as longer-term recovery priorities. 

16.22 Rapid determination of environmental priorities assists in ensuring timely implementation of strategies to recover from natural hazards.

16.35 State and territory governments should ensure that effective wildlife response and recovery capabilities are developed and integrated into emergency planning processes for natural disasters. This could include consideration of specific wildlife and heritage coordination capabilities, such as rapid deployment of appropriately trained personnel.

16.52 We heard that the basis on which species and ecological communities are identified as being threatened is reactive. Listing of species relates to declines in numbers and distribution and probability of extinction,53 and does not account for imminent or potential future pressures,54 such as anticipated increasing natural hazard risks. 

16.53 We understand that natural hazard risks for wildlife and ecosystems can be considered under the EPBC Act in two main ways: 

• First, natural hazard occurrence or prevalence may factor into the determination that a particular species or ecological community is threatened, and by extension influence the management and protection of that species or community. We heard fire is noted as a threat for a number of listed species, and factors into conservation advices and recovery plans for these species. The Interim Report for the EPBC Act review notes that, although the EPBC Act provides for the preparation of recovery plans for threatened species and ecological communities, there is ‘no requirement to implement a recovery plan, or report on progress or the outcomes achieved’. It notes that ‘under these arrangements it is not surprising that the list of threatened species and communities has increased over time and there have been very few species that have recovered to the point that they can be removed from the list’.

• Secondly, a natural hazard can be identified as a ‘key threatening process’. To date, no natural hazards have been listed as such. 58 We heard that ‘things are listed as, or could be listed as a key threatening process if they could cause a species or an ecological community to become endangered, or threatened, or to become more threatened or endangered’. We heard that, in 2008 fire regimes was nominated as a key threatening process. No decision was made at that time to give effect to the nomination, and renewed consideration was sought in 2018. In light of increasing anticipated impacts of natural hazards, we suggest this nomination be reconsidered. 

22.100 There are also gaps in the assistance provided through the DRFA in respect of certain needs that regularly arise out of natural disasters. We have previously noted that a number of social issues can emerge after a natural disaster, such as family violence, and this can lead to an urgent demand for legal assistance and social services. There is also the question of limited access to funding for environmental and ecological recovery and rehabilitation; or for indirect economic impacts, such as the loss of tourism following a natural disaster.

Recommendation 22.5 Develop nationally consistent, pre-agreed recovery programs Australian, state and territory governments should expedite the development of pre-agreed recovery programs, including those that address social needs, such as legal assistance domestic violence, and also environmental recovery.

Relevant Wilderness Society recommendations broadly taken up by the Royal Commission:

RECOMMENDATION 9 The Commonwealth should clarify its role in the active firefighting protection of MNES. A centralised capacity should be established (either within AFAC or elsewhere) to provide surge capacity to deal with remote fires that goes beyond aerial firefighting. 

RECOMMENDATION 10 The federal funding formula for the firefighting response needs to be adjusted to actively incorporate MNES as a funding criteria. The formula should be adjusted to incentivise the rapid response to fires when they start, including aerial fleets and water bombing. 

RECOMMENDATION 18 Better funding should be provided to protected area agencies and other organisations/individuals involved in site, species and ecosystem monitoring (including university researchers, conservation groups). 

RECOMMENDATION 19 The Commonwealth should complete the KTP for bushfires and institute a threat abatement plan. This plan should establish a ‘key natural assets’ register to support coordination and prioritisation of fire planning and defence with other jurisdictions. This register should comprise high value MNES for which regularly updated bushfire risk modelling shows a significant sensitivity to fire events, such as World Heritage Areas, rare and isolated plant communities (e.g. Wollemi Pines), Wilderness and Reference Areas or severely range-limited critically endangered species like the Kangaroo Island Dunnart. Investment may be required to better understand fire risk and mitigation requirements for nationally significant species and key natural assets. [We also anticipate it may be appropriate for a similar or combined register to be established for Indigenous cultural heritage—but this would clearly be subject to Traditional Custodian approval.] 

RECOMMENDATION 20 All species recovery plans and site-based plans for world and national heritage sites should be reviewed in light of potential climate-impacts. These plans should be funded and implemented.

RECOMMENDATION 26 The Commonwealth establishes a standing climate disaster recovery fund (focussed on nature recovery) that can make rapid-post disaster funding allocations as required.