Rare plant species protected as transport hub given green light

There has been success for conservators in Australia as a new transport hub in south-west Sydney is granted a green light under the condition that a rare plant species is protected.

The Hibbertia fumana plant, a delicate shrub with yellow flowers, had last been documented in 1823 and was thought to now be extinct. This changed when 370 individual plants were discovered during vegetation surveys in western Sydney in late 2016. These surveys were part of a ‘targeted search’ for other, endangered species of hibbertia flowering plants, imposed as a condition on the rail freight plan for the proposed Moorebank Intermodal Terminal Facility. The discovery of the supposedly extinct plant was an unexpected gift for conservationists.

Hibbertia fumana had been thought to be extinct. Photo by A.E. Orme, Royal Botanic Gardens Domain Trust.

Despite it having been rediscovered two months earlier, the presence of the plant was not revealed to the Planning Assessment Commission when the stage one planning for the freight terminal was approved in December 2016. It only made its way onto the critically-endangered list four days after the ruling had been passed – too late to make any difference. It was only due to the persistance of a local community group, Residents Against Intermodal Development Moorebank (RAID), and the legal expertise of the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), that the critically endangered plant’s presence was taken into account. The federal Environment department said in a statement that “new species listings do not affect pre-existing approvals”. Qube, the company developing the freight hub, even went as far as to challenge the community’s right to be heard in court. Fortunately for the plant, the company’s opposition proved to be in vain.

Thanks to the hard work of RAID and EDO, the Land and Environment Court has now imposed strict conditions on the project in order to protect the flowering plant. Firstly, Qube will be required to develop a hibbertia species protection plan in order to assess the exact number of individual plants growing within the rail corridor. A disused rail spur must be removed and remediated, and, once rehabilitation is complete, the developers must seek the approval of the Office of Environment and Heritage to include sections of the remediated land as part of a biobanking agreement.

Biodiversity is essential for a prosperous economy and healthy environment, but the State of the Environment report of 2016 suggested that Australia was not doing enough to protect it. The decision of the court regarding the Hibbertia fumana plant and the development of the Moorebank Intermodal Terminal Facility shows that this can change. Hopefully, in future the presence of rare plants will be taken into account without the necessity of environmental groups campaigning for their protection.