The thin green line
“Today I watched the black-cockies flying in the wind. They love it, going back and forth like sheets of paper,” Margaret Owen tells me over the phone from her home in suburban Perth. She has just returned from her almost daily visits to one of the few remaining patches of bush left around the city where Carnaby’s and Forest Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos come to eat, play and roost.
“Margaret, who is Secretary of the Urban Bushland Council, has been fighting to preserve the banksia, jarrah, tuart and allocasuarina woodlands that make up these often tiny but vital areas for many years, battling to keep these green corridors linked together and protecting them from the threat of the bulldozer.
She has devoted countless hours to monitoring the endangered cockies, inspiring the local community to rally against developments, engaging the local media, persuading landholders to rethink their plans, but mostly, and most frustratingly, attempting to negotiate the labyrinthine state and federal nature laws that are supposed to prevent the devastation of threatened species habitat.
One of the longest battles has been with the University of Western Australia over a 64-hectare piece of land where they want to build student housing, but which is of vital importance to Forest Red-tails, who began roosting and foraging around the Underwood Avenue site in 2011—610 were counted there in 2016.
The land was declared a ‘Bush Forever’ site in 2000, under a Liberal state government program to preserve ten per cent of vegetation complexes across the Perth-Peel area and provide protection for linkages between ecological communities, yet disregarding state protection, the Labour state government approved the University’s proposed development in 2004 and again in 2010. It has been referred for review under the EPBC Act twice, bouncing back and forth between bureaucrats and politicians.
“The land should be undevelopable because of the laws protecting threatened species and endangered ecological communities,” Margaret says, “but 17 years later the threats to the bushland continue. The current Minister for Environment, Minister Dawson, is still to make a decision as to whether to grant an extension of time for the University’s plans.”
More bush is on the chopping block south of Underwood Avenue—3.4-hectares of banksia at an old hospital site. “It’s just a thin strip of bush and Subiaco and Nedlands Councils support its retention, but the state and developers do not.” says Margaret.
The frustration that Margaret feels at this, when 70 per cent of banksia woodland, so vital to the ongoing existence of Carnaby’s, has already been cleared, is palpable. She believes that the community and science is being ignored. “Why should we be responsible for drawing attention to these threats—it should be the government’s job to uphold our policies and laws on behalf of the community and future generations.”
“We’ve got to respect what we’ve got left. With an increasing population we need to protect the areas that are threatened. We need to build smartly and we need legislated protection of declared nature reserves that means something.” But most significantly, she says, “We’ve just got to keep on fighting.”
Photo: Margaret Owen by Laurie Scott