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Defence white paper shows Australian forces must safeguard nature too

Australian defence ranges, such as Shoalwater Bay, cover some 3 million hectares of the country. DVIDSHUB/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Defence white paper shows Australian forces must safeguard nature too

Australian defence ranges, such as Shoalwater Bay, cover some 3 million hectares of the country. DVIDSHUB/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The relationship of military forces to the natural environment is typically depicted as one of destruction, rather than protection. The federal government’s new defence white paper, however, shows signs that this relationship may be being reversed.

It builds on an earlier 2009 defence white paper which observed that “effective environmental management … is essential to ensure the long-term sustainability of ADF capability and the Defence estate”. This point was curiously absent from the intervening white paper in 2013.

The latest white paper builds on this ambition by highlighting the important role of the defence forces as stewards of Australia’s natural heritage. Australia’s defence force is responsible for some 3 million hectares of land, making it one of Australia’s largest property owners. The white paper notes that:

Effective environmental management is an important part of successfully managing and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Defence estate. The Government expects Defence to take its environmental stewardship responsibilities seriously, and to comply with relevant environmental legislation and regulations, including the protection of biodiversity on Defence bases.

Elsewhere, the paper acknowledges that the Defence estate will need to expand to meet future strategic needs. It notes that climate change and rising sea levels will place increasing pressure on land and sea assets in years to come.

The white paper’s accompanying Integrated Investment Program emphasises that planning for this expansion will incorporate sustainable land management practices, as well as various environmental measures such as new equipment for clearing unexploded ordnance, improved fencing and better waste management. The program suggests that significant maintenance activity will occur across Defence sites, including “substantial works … at selected locations to remediate environmental issues”.

Military environmentalism?

The sustainable management of Defence estate may seem like a fringe discussion compared with the national and global security issues with which the white paper mainly concerns itself. Globally, however, it is estimated that military training areas cover up to 6% of the Earth’s surface.

These sites encompass almost all major ecosystems, cover numerous biodiversity hotspots, and have a potentially significant role to play in global conservation. Recognising the importance of military lands, researchers have investigated the origins and effects of so-called “khaki conservation” in Western countries.

Some have claimed that increasing emphasis on conservation in the past few decades is merely rhetoric to justify and “greenwash” military occupation of land, and to hide environmental damage. This interpretation suggests we should be cynical of the Defence Department’s efforts to demonstrate its responsible stewardship over these areas during training activities.

Others have argued that, in reality, military-owned lands have become de facto wildlife sanctuaries. This is because they are often protected from agriculture and urban growth, and unlike national parks they are not subject to tourism and recreation. Take, for instance, the famous example of Salisbury Plain in the United Kingdom, where a rare and endangered fairy shrimp is thriving on military training grounds.

Australia’s surprising military landscapes

A typical Australian example is the Puckapunyal Military Area in central Victoria. The training ground has been one of the most intensively used military sites in Australia since its establishment before the second world war. It is also, however, home to 44,000 hectares of box-ironbark forest, more than three-quarters of which has been cleared elsewhere in Victoria.

The area contains hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, bats and fish. Many of these are endangered or have conservation significance. Recognising this, Puckapnuyal has been subject to restoration and revegetation programs since the early 1970s.

Shoalwater Bay on the Queensland coast is another example of the complementary role that Defence can play in the management and conservation of significant ecosystems. Shoalwater is home to the largest existing area of subtropical coastal heathland on Australia’s eastern coastline. These ecosystems are not particularly well protected under normal reserves elsewhere.

Managing the Defence estate into the future

Puckapunyal and Shoalhaven are just two examples among the many rich examples of biodiversity to be found among the Defence Department’s huge land holdings. As the Defence Environmental Strategic Plan from 2010 observed, “The Defence estate is a significant national asset comprising areas of land, air and sea with exceptional environmental and cultural value, including Indigenous heritage.”

This strategic plan came in the wake of the 2009 white paper and was due to be renewed after 2014. Given the importance of Defence estate from an environmental and conservation perspective, we can hope that the emphasis on this issue in the current white paper will give rise to new strategies and policies for the management of natural heritage at military sites around Australia.