On ecological consultants

On ecological consultants
There is in each valley area of the North Coast typically a small group of developers and a small pool of ecological consultants to service their needs as in carrying out ecological surveys necessary for the developers’ projects to progress through local or state government hoops, such as they are. 


Most ecological consultants will attest to knowing of inadequate studies being produced with insufficient effort and methodology being put into studies. Some will relate how they have been advised their work is too thorough and this has cost them work.


Ecologists vary in the performance of their duties and all ecologists whom I have spoken to report that they have seen some shocking things going on with the reports and studies presented.


Not all of them are deliberately compliant but some of them are. After all in the small circle of developers there will naturally be pillow talk about which ecologist gave them a satisfactory report. It is then more likely that that ecologist will gain further employment with the developer and his mates in the developers’ club.
The ecologist who refuses to find anything but the truth will end up working for DECCW or somewhere in the outback of New Guinea.


Not all poor results are down to corrupt activity. You get what you pay for and if a consultant has say 5 days to study a whole property of several hectares he can only report what he sees in that time. He has no idea what happens in different seasons. In Spring for instance nature seems to burst into life with flowering plants bringing parrots, bats and gliders much more in evidence and with male koalas dispersing looking for a mate and making disgusting noises in the bush.
Sort of like on the way home from the Country Club on Saturday night .


I recently had occasion to speak to a Joint Regional Planning Panel meeting on the Macquarie Gardens development down the Port end of Maria River Road. Now those ecologists probably did the best they could in the 5 days they were employed and reported an EEC, Core Koala Habitat and so on.


The time of year in which a study is done can be crucial to the result. They did not study the area fully in Spring/Summer as they were not employed in that time. They spent one day in summer (Feb. 9, 2007) and the 4 days in autumn. (April 1-4, 2008).
For all they knew there could have been a pack of thylacines running around the property in spring. But they were not employed for that time.
Then there is effort. An ecologist can write about having spent man hours doing study tasks and combine the persons’ time. A couple for instance might spend a night trapping and releasing unharmed creatures back into their habitat in the middle of winter. They can do call playbacks where they broadcast animal calls for say Powerful Owls and again for Green and Golden Bell Frogs and drive around the bush with a spotlight.
Because there are two of them for 3 hours they can double the time spent and write up 6 hours in their report. Looks impressive but in reality means bugger all.

Come back in a different time of the year and spend a week and the result could be the opposite.

That is not a satisfactory result for the environment but music to a developer’s ears. (Must get that mob next time).

The qualifications to be an environmental consultant are not really known. You would think they would all have a Bachelor of Science with an environmental major but not necessarily. Two of the best botanists I have met have no paper to show but their work sees them sought after by National Parks when they want a fair dinkum result on EEC’s or threatened flora.


Then at Goolawah Estate a report raised no serious objection to subdivision development there. The community was horrified because the high conservation value of the forest there seemed obvious and commissioned Kendall and Kendall to examine the report.
Kendall and Kendall found several alleged errors in assumptions, methodology and conclusions.
For instance they pointed out that you cannot say Queensland blossom bat was not present because it did not show up using an anabat recorder which records the noises we can’t hear with which microbats navigate.
That is because they don’t emit noises to navigate! They get around by sight and smell.


To give them their due Lands Taree accepted the criticism of the study and asked another ecologist, Ben Lewis, to do firstly, a targeted flora survey and a habitat based fauna survey, and based on the outcomes of this report a targeted fauna survey focusing on threatened species.


Lewis took the known conservation values a step higher when his team came up with six threatened species of fauna including koala, and an Endangered Ecological Community (Swamp Sclerophyll Forest). This report also identified the likelihood of several other threatened species including the Common Blossom Bat. Most of us call it just a paperbark forest without realising how much of this stuff has been cleared for agricultural purposes like fencing or filled in to expand coastal towns. This particular paperbark forest is an important link to the SEPP 71 listed Goolawah Lagoon.
Later the public proved Core Koala Habitat with more sitings including a breeding female with joey.
This is a prime example of how time and effort, seasonal timing, scientific methodology , historical records along with community participation are all important in getting an accurate estimation of what is there before a forest is clear felled for subdivision.


Actually I have been developing a Plan of Management for Ecological Consultants for a few years now in consultation with ecologists and green groups like the North Coast Environment Council and the NSW Nature Conservation Council.


This scheme attempts to remove that potential for conflict by providing a way to break the nexus between developer and consultant, by ensuring strong accreditation of consultants and by providing qualified and rigorous assessment of the product with the direct payment for the ecological services removed from the developer/employee situation.


I have proposed a committee be formed in each regional area which will appoint an ecologist or firm to each job according to qualification and experience.


The Committee, managed by DECCW, would consist of NPWS officers, senior ecologists from another region and a member of an environmental group and one from the community. The Committee would handle the advertising of the project, appointment of the ecologist and, importantly, the payment of the ecologist from money lodged by the developer. There would need be no contact between ecologist and developer.


Oh and of course all that would be useless if there was not the will to preserve valuable environmental qualities and the State Government chose not to see the trees for the greenbucks as is happening right now at Goolawah Estate.




At the moment there is a strong perception, particularly amongst environmental groups, that ecological consultants operate in a pool of sharks, and that developers will shop around until they find a consultant likely to produce a favorable result for their project’s quick and inexpensive progress.

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