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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts

Launch of Witchelina reserve; National Reserve System

E&OE Transcript
Doorstop Interview, Witchelina reserve, near Leigh Creek
4 June 2010

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GARRETT: [RECORDING FAILURE FOR THE FIRST 10 SECONDS]... a huge area of this country with very diverse landscapes, a great place for native animals and plants to recover as we build the biodiversity reservoir that this country needs to go into the future.

And it has been a great pleasure for me to be here today to announce this acquisition. I want to commend the Nature Foundation of South Australia.

This is about getting into partnership with Australians to acquire parts of our great country which we want to look after for all time. We want to make sure that biodiversity, the rich life that is in our native plants and animals, is well preserved and protected.

We want, on the eve of World Environment Day, to get hold of place like this and look after it for everybody, for all the time to come, because we know that places of this size are absolutely crucial to maintaining the protection of the environment in Australia.

This is a great day. It is a great day for the Caring for our Country program. On the eve of World Environment Day, it is a great day for the country to know that we can actually protect an area of this size, with the diverse ecosystems it has, and know that the research and conservation and the appreciation of this area, and the fact that it is now being looked after for perpetuity, means that I am especially pleased to be able to come up here and make this announcement today.

JOURNALIST: Minister, can you I guess succinctly describe this country and its significance and just the size of the parcel of land?

GARRETT: Here we are on over 4,000 square kilometres of country ranging from the salt lake areas in the southwest through to the stony gibber country, rocky ridges, acacias across the sand dunes. A lot of different and really important bio-regional areas all come together in one property of this size. And that means that we will learn a great deal more about the country and about its environmental qualities.

We have got the opportunity to build a conservation corridor running from the Northern Territory down into South Australia, where we protect biodiversity, we give our natural landscapes a bit of resilience and strength to deal with some of the pressures that they face. And we have something now in place for generations of Australians to better understand and to enjoy.

JOURNALIST: As well as biodiversity, this area has got a lot of interesting mineralogy as well. Will this actually prevent it from mining in the future or will it just add another layer of bureaucracy really?

GARRETT: There isn't a single part of the country that doesn't have some aspect of exploration licence and potential activity underway. This is a vast acquisition today and if there is to be any mining activity in the future, it will be done in such a way that it won't impact upon the environmental values here. I have no doubt about that at all.

JOURNALIST: So it can be done on a reserve?

GARRETT: Of course it can. In fact, one of the things that we are very conscious of is if we are going to build resilience into our natural landscapes in this country, we have got to strike effective partnerships with private organisations, with business, with Aboriginal people, and work out the best way of both managing our country, looking after it, building the biodiversity resilience that it needs, and enabling, in some instances, under the appropriate controls and regulations, sustainable activities and economic activity, to take place as well.

JOURNALIST: Why is this really necessary? I mean what has happened to the land over the years?

GARRETT: Well, it is tough country out here to the extent that it is arid landscape. It is one of those parts of Australia where people are always going to have significant challenges in running commercial enterprises, particularly grazing and pastoral activities.

And I think that when you look around you can see that the primary kind of geography and sense of this place is diversity. It is not a bunch of flat plains that have got grasses across it, which it is easy to run a property across. This is a big property with very diverse geography and pretty significant ecosystems. It is a place which will very well suit the kind of research and protection that we want to see take place and I know that the Nature Foundation does as well.

JOURNALIST: What needs to be done to make it into a reserve? Obviously, not so long ago, it was sheep station. What are we talking, how big is the process?

GARRETT: It means, firstly, coming in and having a good understanding of what is here and, as we have just heard from the Bush Blitz scientists, they expect to have a really comprehensive scientific research effort here. When they come back in here later on in the year, they will start to do baseline studies that are necessary so you know what you have got.

It means managing the country so that you don't have as much impact from ferals. It means making sure that, over time, you have got a management plan in place.

And, look, one of the things that we have done with Caring for our Country and with the National Reserve System, we increased the funding for the National Reserve System fourfold when we came into government. We recognised how important that was for Australia to conserve its biodiversity.

We also put in place a set of specific national guidelines that drive Caring for our Country and the investment. And we make sure that there are management plans in place, within two years, which will enable this property to be effectively managed from its pastoral period into its conservation era. And I am very confident that the expertise is there to do that job well.

JOURNALIST: In the last federal budget, there was about an $80 million cut to Caring for our Country. If it is such an important program, why are we cutting money from it?

GARRETT: Well I think the important thing to note about where we are taking Caring for our Country is that we have got a commitment of $2 billion to the program. And the efficiencies that we recognised needed to be made and the savings which we thought could be made, my expectation is that that will be made significantly through administrative measures. The base level funding is still there and we very much expect to continue the acquisitions program both under the National Reserve System and also through Indigenous-protected areas where we had significant investment as well.

JOURNALIST: Two million dollars - is that going to represent a reasonably large grant, I guess, for an acquisition?

GARRETT: It is in the mid-range. I think the thing about this is that this is that how are we as Australians, on the eve of World Environment Day, to respond to the big challenges of our natural landscapes and their health. One of the best things that we can do is acquire areas of real vital environmental significance and that is what we have done today.

And the value for money that the Australia taxpayer gets out of these kinds of investments, I think, is difficult to measure but it is priceless. Why is that? Because here we have an area of great size and of great importance in terms of its environment that will be managed for the future, for all Australians, and where the natural health of this part of Australia will be improved. That is what all of us want to see.

JOURNALIST: Do the neighbours want to see it or are they concerned about losing a pastoral property?

GARRETT: I have had a chance to speak to some of them and I am sure you will as well. And I think that when we have partnered up with organisations like Nature Foundation SA and others in other parts of Australia, it has been done on the understanding that pastoralists welcome the opportunity for there to be mixed activities in their region. What this property, Witchelina, will bring is additional economic activity to this region.

JOURNALIST: How?

GARRETT: You will have researchers and scientists that will come through. It will be a place, ultimately, that the foundation may want to allow for greater levels of visitation. I know, speaking to a couple of neighbours already, they are seeing increasing tourism come through this region.

Australia is place where Australians and people from overseas want to come and enjoy and they want to see the environment of Australia as well as understanding that there are other activities in regions, pastoral activities and the like, that are still ongoing. We are going to have that mix in place here and I think that will be a good thing.

JOURNALIST: So are you hoping that more stations will be de-stocked and acquired and turned into reserves?

GARRETT: Look, the key focus for us in Caring for our Country is to make sure that we protect our biodiversity. We have got a set of really clear guidelines in relation to properties of any kind that they must meet. If there are willing sellers and people want to enter into arrangements with the Commonwealth, and we can add to our National Reserve System, and they come forward and they meet the criteria, then why not.

JOURNALIST: How important is this eco-corridor that you are creating?

GARRETT: This eco-corridor that will run from the Northern Territory to South Australia is really important because it provides an opportunity for us to have resilience in the system, biodiversity protection on landscape scale.

That is really important in Australia particularly given the fact that we can get hit by drought, then we can get hit by flood. We need our country to be able to withstand the kind of rigours and pressures that it faces and to have a conservation corridor of this size, with this ambition, and for the Commonwealth to be able to support it on the eve of World Environment Day, is an absolute positive.

The other thing that I would say is that it is not only about the protection of the environment - that is absolutely critical; it is not only about the research and understanding the environment - that is absolutely important; it is also about sharing that with others and enabling them to visit, to take part in those activities, to build those partnerships. And, of course, to build tourism over time as well.

JOURNALIST: How vital do you think this transformation is? Were there species at risk? Why do we really need it?

GARRETT: One of the things that I have said is that if we are going to be serious and fair dinkum about protecting our biodiversity and our native plants and animals, we can't look at it on a case-by-case, bitsy basis that has been the practice of the past. We have to have some fair dinkum ambition. We have to look at landscape-scale actions and acquiring a property of this size for the National Reserve System is absolutely central to our vision for looking after Australia.

[ENDS]

Commonwealth of Australia