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Our Nature: Our Future The case for next-generation biodiversity conservation laws for the Northern Territory

We live in a special place. The Northern Territory’s nature is exceptional on a local, national and international scale, from its vast savanna woodlands, to its free-flowing rivers and wetlands, to its spectacular escarpments and iconic desert landscapes. Our nature is intrinsic to our life, our economy, our society and our culture. The rich biodiversity of the NT sustains human and all other life, with our existence dependent on healthy, functioning and resilient ecosystems. It also underpins our economy and social and cultural life through the creation of jobs and livelihoods via nature-based tourism, land and sea management, and providing opportunities for camping, bushwalking, cruises, tours and engagement with Indigenous culture. Nature is an indivisible part of life, and therefore all Territorians have a responsibility for its conservation, now and for future generations. Yet the unique nature of the NT is under threat on multiple fronts. While many of us have long assumed our remoteness and largely undeveloped landscapes have offered protection, multiple threatening processes such as weeds, pests and changed fire regimes are causing serious impacts on our wildlife and ecosystems. Mammal populations are in sharp decline, with many at risk of extinction.

  • Climate change is projected to have significant impacts on the biodiversity of the Northern Territory by as early as 2030, and extreme impacts by 2070, including increased droughts, changed fire regimes, erratic rainfall and extreme temperatures.
  • In 2021, research revealed that three of the Northern Territory’s ecosystems – the tropical savanna, the arid zone and its coastal mangroves – in fact meet the criteria of
  • Land clearing is increasing in the NT. Land clearing is currently the greatest threat to biodiversity in
  • Clearing native vegetation destroys habitat for native animals, fragments the wider ecosystem and can contribute to the spread of invasive weeds and feral animals, exacerbating the impacts of other threatening processes.

There are significant development pressures in the Northern Territory which could entail unprecedented levels of native vegetation clearance, including the development of the onshore shale gas (“fracking”) industry, the replacement of native vegetation with exotic pastures to supply the beef industry, plans for up to 200,000 hectares of large-scale broadacre cropping (primarily cotton) and a projected increase in large-scale solar projects. The primary focal point for this development pressure is the pastoral estate, which makes up approximately 45% of the Northern Territory’s landmass, and is (largely) subject to coexisting native title rights and interests. The Northern Territory’s biodiversity and conservation laws are not adequate to respond to the above threats and challenges. Existing protected areas (including national parks, reserves and Indigenous protected areas) provide little protection from the development pressures listed above. Unfortunately, the NT has arguably the weakest regulation for land clearing of all jurisdictions in Australia. Indeed, we are the only jurisdiction in Australia without native vegetation legislation, or a Territory-wide biodiversity conservation strategy. Unfortunately, the Northern Territory has witnessed a fourfold increase in land clearing approvals in the last four years alone, with few legal mechanisms and policy frameworks available for a strategic or integrated approach to landscape management.

While the loss and degradation of native vegetation is an ongoing threat to biodiversity and the resilience of ecosystems, the NT’s relatively intact ecosystems are a significant asset. There is an unparalleled opportunity for the NT to retain and build healthy landscapes through the proper management and appropriate protection of native vegetation, and to derive significant benefits from these ecosystems and the services they provide, including from critical industries such as tourism and agriculture. The Northern Territory Government has previously committed to including reform of land clearing laws. Plans in 2011-2012 to enact a Native Vegetation Management Act did not proceed, despite being introduced to Parliament and undergoing extensive community and stakeholder consultation. More recently, the Northern Territory Government indicated it would reform land clearing laws in its environmental regulatory reform program. However, this commitment appears to have been abandoned, with the exception of some amendments to the Pastoral Land Act described below.

In this context, the purpose of this paper is to:

  • articulate some of the key values associated with the Territory’s nature
  • provide a synthesis of the state of the science regarding the Territory’s nature (with a particular focus on the impacts of land clearing on our tropical savannas);
  • review the existing regulatory framework for biodiversity protection and native vegetation clearing in the NT, including identifying key issues with how the  framework operates;
  • identify and propose options for reform to inform stakeholder, government and public discussion

These reform options will be further developed (with stakeholder input) into a briefing paper for the preferred reform option based on stakeholder and public feedback, to be provided to the Northern Territory Government with the aim of achieving a commitment to regulatory reform. While all Territory ecosystems will benefit from legislative reform that delivers enduring protection for biodiversity, the primary scientific focus of this discussion paper is on the state of our tropical savannas. Research consistently ranks our tropical savannas as the most at-risk ecosystem in the NT5, with our savannas under increased pressure, yet afforded little legal protection (particularly on the pastoral estate).

Download the full discussion paper here.

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