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Listing update for Shale/Sandstone Transition Forest ecological community: consultation guide

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Listing update for Shale/Sandstone Transition Forest ecological community: consultation guide
May 2014

This information guide is intended to help the public understand why the listing of the Shale/Sandstone Transition Forest ecological community is being reviewed, and what the updated listing would achieve and mean for people in the region.

In summary:

  • The Shale/Sandstone Transition Forest was listed as an endangered ecological community in 2001, under Australia’s national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

  • This review is updating the listing to provide substantial new information on the description of the ecological community.

  • A scientific assessment has been undertaken to re-define and gather evidence on its current threat status.

  • Public consultation and input from land managers is an important and valuable part of the assessment process. Consultation is open until 11 July 2014.

  • The Minister for the Environment will make the decision on whether to update the listing by the end of 2014.

The Shale Sandstone Transition Forest in the Sydney Basin Bioregion listing has benefits for the environment and associated ecosystem services, and benefits and opportunities for land managers.

  • The updated listing would continue to help promote a co-ordinated, ecosystem-scale approach to threat abatement in the region and for many threatened species that are found within the ecological community.

  • Listing under the EPBC Act means that an activity that is likely to have a significant impact on the ecological community needs to be referred to the Commonwealth environment minister for assessment and approval.

  • The updated listing will introduce minimum condition thresholds, to help identify patches where a referral may be necessary.

  • Routine property maintenance and land management practices carried out in line with other laws and guidelines covering native vegetation typically do not require referral under national environment law.

  • The national environment law only considers activities that are likely to have a significant adverse impact on a listed ecological community; activities such as large new developments, works or infrastructures. For example, activities that involve permanently clearing large areas of intact and high-quality native vegetation for new residential and industrial areas or energy infrastructure.

Public consultation on the Shale Sandstone Transition Forest in the Sydney Basin Bioregion ecological community

Shale/Sandstone Transition Forest was first listed as an 'Endangered' ecological community under the EPBC Act on 1 April 2001. Since this time more information has become available on the ecological community, while methods for assessing ecological communities against EPBC criteria related to levels of threat have also been up-dated. Updating the listing information would provide better support for decision-making regarding the ecological community and for this reason, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee is reviewing the existing listing. The Committee is an independent group of scientists appointed to provide advice on threatened species and ecological communities to the Australian Government Environment Minister.

Considering the views of stakeholders is a vital part of the assessment process. A formal public consultation period for the Shale Sandstone Transition Forest in the Sydney Basin Bioregion ecological community is now open and will close on 11 July 2014. The Committee is seeking comments on the draft Conservation Advice for the ecological community, and the proposal to list the ecological community as ‘Critically Endangered’. All comments received will be forwarded to the Committee and the Minister for consideration.

Once the Committee has completed its review, its advice on the conservation status will also be forwarded to the Minister who will decide in which conservation category the ecological community should be listed. Under the EPBC Act, the Minister’s decision is made on whether the ecological community meets the listing criteria and whether the listing will benefit its survival. The Minister’s decision is due by the end of 2014.

What is an ecological community under national environmental law?

Australia’s national environmental law, the EPBC Act, protects what are known as Matters of National Environmental Significance. The Act is only triggered if there is likely to be a significant impact to any of these matters.

Threatened species and ecological communities are Matters of National Environmental Significance. The EPBC Act defines an ecological community as an assemblage of native species that inhabits a particular area in nature. They often relate to types of native vegetation, such as a certain kind of grassland, woodland or forest.

The native plants and animals within an ecological community have different roles and relationships that, together, contribute to the healthy functioning of the environment. Protecting native communities also protects ecosystem services such as good quality air and water; healthy soils; natural prevention or control of erosion and salinity; shelter and feed for stock; and the storage of carbon. These all contribute to better productivity of our land and water, which benefits people and society.

Human settlements and infrastructures where an ecological community formerly occurred do not form part of the natural environment and are therefore not part of the ecological community—e.g. sites where an ecological community has been cleared or replaced by crops, exotic pastures or developments. This also applies to sites where the ecological community exists in a highly-degraded or unnatural state. For instance, cropping lands and exotic pastures or areas where much of the native vegetation has been replaced by exotic species, and are no longer part of a natural ecological community.

What is the listing assessment process?

The assessment by the independent Threatened Species Scientific Committee (the Committee) involves clarifying the definition of the ecological community, determining where it occurs, and rigorously assessing its eligibility for listing as nationally threatened. An ecological community must be demonstrated to be significantly impacted by identified threats. It should also be shown that if these threats are not managed, there is a risk that the ecological community may be changed irreversibly and its natural composition and/or function could be lost forever. Three categories exist for listing ecological communities, depending on the level of extinction risk: vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.

What is the Shale Sandstone Transition Forest in the Sydney Basin Bioregion ecological community?

The Shale Sandstone Transition Forest in the Sydney Basin Bioregion ecological community is an extension of the existing listing of the Shale/Sandstone Transition Forest.

  • The ecological community is a form of Eucalyptus woodland or forest that occurs within the Sydney Basin in New South Wales. Its location is defined primarily by the geological substrate, where the shale based geology of the Cumberland Plain is influenced by underlying sandstone near the surface.

  • The ecological community is found to the west of Sydney, on the edges of the Cumberland Plain (particularly the southern edge), as well as on the sandstone-dominated Hornsby, Woronora, and Lower Blue Mountains Plateaux that adjoin the plain.

  • The dominant species vary with factors such as the position in the landscape and extent of sandstone substrate influence but the canopy is typically composed of trees of approximately 20m including the species Eucalyptus punctata (grey gum), E. crebra (narrow-leaved ironbark) and E. fibrosa (broad-leaved ironbark). Other Eucalypt species likely to be present include E. tereticornis (forest red gum) - especially in areas with low sandstone influence.

  • There is sometimes a mid canopy, often dominated by short eucalypts as well as Allocasuarina littoralis (black she-oak), with other species found particularly in areas of high sandstone influence including Syncarpia glomulifera (turpentine) and Acacia decurrens (black wattle).

  • The understorey layers can be either shrubby or grassy. The shrub layer is dominated by Bursaria spinosa (sweet bursaria) in areas with low sandstone influence, with other common species including Kunzea ambigua (tick bush) and Persoonia linearis (narrow-leaved geebung).

  • The ground layer is diverse and dominated by native grasses and herbs.

Why is the ecological community important?

Much of the vegetation of the region west of Sydney has been cleared, fragmented or heavily modified, and with this, many species have become locally, regionally or globally extinct. In particular, fewer mammal species are now found in this area. For many of the plant and animal species that remain, remnants of ecological communities such as Shale Sandstone Transition Forest are critical for their survival. For example, it helps to support the assemblage of woodland birds that occurs in the region, many of which are threatened.

Some of the Eucalyptus species found in the canopy of the ecological community play a particularly important role in supporting some birds and mammals through winter, by providing nectar at this time. This can be important for both resident species and for those that migrate along Australia’s east coast.

Up to 80% of the ecological community has already been cleared and that which remains is subject to ongoing pressures. These particularly include further clearing and fragmentation. While past clearing may have been primarily for agriculture, with the expansion of western Sydney, urbanisation is causing increasing pressure. Other impacts associated with both agriculture and urbanisation include damage by invasive plants and animals (including domestic pets), changes to water quality and flow and changes to the fire regime. Further threats to the ecological community include plant disease and climate change.

What are the benefits of listing an ecological community as nationally threatened?

There are a number of benefits to listing ecological communities under Australia’s national environment law:

  • Listing an ecological community can help to protect the landscapes that provide connectivity, corridors and refuge essential to protect and improve the ecological function, health and biodiversity of the region. It can protect habitat critical for refuge and recruitment of threatened species and for other species that are under pressure in the region. In turn, this helps foster the ecosystem services associated with an ecological community.

  • Listing threatened ecological communities helps protect them from future significant human impacts that may cause further decline. The aim of the national environment law is to ensure the matters of national environmental significance are given due consideration, along with broader economic, social and other issues in the planning of any large projects. Where possible, significant adverse impacts to the environment should be avoided, or the impacts mitigated, reduced or offset, when unavoidable.

  • National listing encourages agencies and community/Landcare groups to apply for environmental funding opportunities for conservation and recovery works. The Australian Government has a variety of funding programmes to encourage land managers to continue to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem services on their properties.

  • A conservation advice, published at the time of listing, provides guidance and options for environmental decision-making, including rehabilitation and conservation initiatives in the region.

  • In the case of the Shale Sandstone Transition Forest in the Sydney Basin Bioregion ecological community, the listing:

    • provides landscape-scale protection that complements existing national protection of many threatened plants and animals that are found within the ecological community; and,

    • protects the environmental values, including all the ecosystem functions and services associated with the ecological community, which contributes to the long-term productivity of the landscape.

What does a listing mean for landholders?

The national environment law is triggered if an action is likely to have a significant impact on the Shale Sandstone Transition Forest in the Sydney Basin Bioregion ecological community. If a proposed action is likely to have such an impact, it requires:

  • referral (determining if the action may have a significant impact on the ecological community)

  • assessment (the scope of the assessment depends on the complexity of the proposed action and impacts)

  • a decision on approval from the minister (who considers the environmental, social and economic factors involved).

Social and economic matters may be taken into account for individual projects that may have a significant impact on the ecological community, through the EPBC Act approvals process. Strict timeframes apply to assessments to ensure decisions are made as quickly as possible.

The normal activities of individual landholders and residents are typically not affected by a listing. Routine property maintenance, land management and other established practices are unlikely to have a significant impact and so do not require referral under national environment law, particularly if carried out in line with other national and state laws covering native vegetation.

For instance, the following actions are unlikely to trigger national environment law:

  • ongoing grazing, horticultural or cropping activities

  • maintaining existing fences, roads, internal access tracks and firebreaks

  • maintaining farm gardens and orchards

  • maintaining existing farm dams or water storages

  • maintaining existing pumps and clearing drainage lines

  • replacing and maintaining sheds, yards and other farm buildings

  • controlling weeds and spraying for pests on individual properties.

In all these cases impacts on important patches of the ecological community (e.g high quality, important corridor for wildlife) should be avoided.

Whether or not an action is likely to have a significant impact depends upon the sensitivity, value and quality of the environment which is impacted, and upon the intensity, duration, magnitude and geographic extent of the impacts. The major activity that is likely to have a significant impact on the ecological community is permanently clearing large or otherwise important areas of intact or high-quality native vegetation. This might include, for example, major mining, residential, commercial or other industrial development, developing wind farms, building new roads or widening existing roads or tracks (e.g. for electricity transmission lines), or converting large areas into new pastures or cropping fields. To help reduce significance of actions, the EPBC Act promotes the avoidance and mitigation of impacts, wherever that is possible.

What are the implications of changing the listing category from Endangered to Critically Endangered?

The listing category of an ecological community describes the degree of threat it faces and its chances of extinction. Endangered and Critically Endangered ecological communities are matters of national environmental significance and equally trigger national environmental law. The greater recognition of the ecological community’s value and threat status will help in managing and reducing threats due to human activities, such as land clearing and could also help to focus efforts for on ground restoration.

Where can I get further information?

  • Information on the existing listing of Shale/Sandstone Transition Forest:

  • The listing process:

  • The EPBC referral and approval process:

  • Australian Government natural resource management initiatives:

  • The department’s Community Information Unit: by phone on 1800 803 772 (freecall), or email at

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