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Nature territory or neglected territory? As the NT moves into election mode we look at the growing environmental threats facing the Top End.

The Top End--it's big, it's beautiful and it's under growing pressure.

Decades of neglect of environmental problems like weeds, feral animals, fire management and overgrazing by cattle have seen a massive decline in many species and a serious decline in the integrity and health of many ecosystems. And, according to the CSIRO, the impacts of global warming on the NT will make these problems worse.

More attention is starting to be paid to these longstanding problems, however Territory Governments of all persuasions and many industry sectors are continuing to push for new large scale industrial ventures based around fossil fuels (gas), minerals (including new uranium mines) and broad-scale irrigated agriculture.

The Territory's environmental problems are further compounded by Departmental conflicts of interest and empire building, outdated environmental and planning legislation, slack regulation and a chronic lack of funding and vision.

Trans-Territory pipeline (TTP)

US company, Alcan, operates the alumina mine and refinery at Gove in Arnhem Land. In partnership with the oil and gas giant Woodside, Alcan is seeking approval to build a 940 km long gas pipeline to supply gas for a major expansion at Gove. The pipe would run west to east across the top of the Territory from Wadeye on the west coast to Gove on the Gulf coast. If approved the pipe would see a permanent corridor 30 metres wide and a trench up to two metres deep driven through forests and woodlands, rivers, wetlands and escarpment country.

Any pipeline route would provide permanent access for vehicles, people, pollutants, weeds and feral animals into what are currently remote and relatively pristine environments in the south Daly catchment, Arnhem Land and the Arafura 'swamp'. The negative environmental, social and cultural impacts of this new access are likely to be serious and irreversible.

Glyde Point industrial estate

The NT Government Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Environment (DIPE) wants to build a 40 square kilometre industrial estate at Glyde Point, a pristine marine and coastal environment 40km northeast of Darwin. This would then facilitate heavy industry, including chemical factories and mineral smelters. The project is currently subject to an EIS process conducted by the Office of Environment and Heritage, a small unit within DIPE. Environmental concerns over a conflict of interest have been ignored by the Territory government.

The Daly River

Longstanding departmental and industry plans for a major expansion of agriculture in the remarkable Daly River catchment are temporarily on hold--but they have not gone away. Plans have been deferred pending the conclusion of a public consultation process instigated by the Martin Government in 2003 in response to deep community concerns. The plans involve a huge increase in land clearing and water extraction with the potential to irreparably damage the Daly River ecosystem and its unique native fish and turtle species.

Opposition to the plans by environment groups, local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, recreational fishers and tourism operators has exposed that the knowledge about the river and the aquifers that feed it during the Dry Season is so rudimentary that no 'development' decisions can be safely made at this time.

Tiwi Island forest clearing

A major native forest clearing and woodchip plantation project is now underway on Melville Island which, together with Bathurst Island, makes up the Tiwi Islands. Great Southern Plantations (GSP), a WA based 'plantation' logging company is in the process of taking over Sylvatech Ltd, which has an agreement with the Tiwi Land Council allowing it to clear up to 26,000 hectares of beautiful native forest on Melville Is.

The project has been approved by the NT and Commonwealth governments. Initial approval was for 26,000ha of native forest clearing to establish short rotation crops of the exotic species acacia mangium for export to Asia as woodchips. Despite previously claiming to not be involved in native forest clearing, GSP is talking up the proposed expansion involving clearing a further 80,000ha of native forest. If approved the impacts of this expansion on the Tiwi Island environment and community would be devastating.

Weeds

Despite the growing recognition that there are serious weed problems over most of the Territory, known environmental weeds are still being introduced and approved for use in gardens and on agricultural and pastoral land. As in other places, many garden species have escaped to become weeds including African tulip, Candle bush, Neem, Poinciana, Rubbervine, Snakeweed, Couch grass, Lead tree, Pepper tree and Umbrella sedge.

Despite this, NT Government departments and industry are still promoting 'pasture improvement' techniques that involve the use of a range of known environmental weeds for cattle pasture including such serious weed species as buffel grass, para grass and leucaena.

Uranium mining

It is not only the under-performing and under-reporting Ranger mine in Kakadu that is the cause of concern for ACF and other groups. The French Government-owned uranium mining company Areva/Cogema is again trying to get approval for a new uranium mine in World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park.

Plans to mine the Koongarra uranium deposit, adjacent to the highly significant and much visited Nourlangie Rock, have been rejected since the early 1970s. ACF first campaigned against this mine plan in 1970! Corporate pressure will once again be applied to the Traditional Owners to get approval for the mine. In a welcome sign, senior members of the Martin Government have spoken against the mine and even the pro-nuclear Howard Government has agreed in principle with a UNESCO recommendation that the mine not proceed. Despite this, the threat from current and potential uranium operations remains very real in Kakadu and beyond.

Against the backdrop of an NT election due later this year the new Martin ALP Government has taken some tentative but positive steps for the environment, such as the proposed new Parks and Conservation Masterplan, the creation of an EPA, a ban on commercial cotton growing and increased funding for cane toad control.

However the fundamental problem remains. The NT does not place a high enough value on its relatively intact ecosystems or on its finite natural resources. There are important lessons that must not be lost. ACF is working with other groups to avoid repeating the mistakes of inappropriate development and impacts in the nation's south.

Some in NT government and industry circles use the fact that the Territory does not yet have the clear and chronic environmental problems that are found in southern states, like massive over-clearing, salinity and water crises, to justify a culture of complacency, neglect and approval for forms of economic development that are clearly unsustainable.

These issues are real and increasingly serious challenges for the Top End that could close our options for ecologically and culturally sustainable economic development, and threaten one of Australia's great natural regions--a risk that none of us can afford or allow.

For more information, go to the Environment Centre NT's website, www.ecnt.org

The Environment Centre has been campaigning for the NT environment since 1983 and always appreciates support from people around Australia concerned about the wonderful Territory environment.

Peter Robertson, is the Convenor of the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory and Dave Sweeney is ACF's Anti nuclear Coordinator.
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Title Annotation:Northern Territory
Author:Robertson, Peter; Sweeney, Dave
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Words:1185
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