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8.2 - Better planning is required to protect and restore the environment

8.2.1 - Strategic, national-level planning is required

To achieve the outcomes in the National Environmental Standards, comprehensive planning under the EPBC Act is required. Effective planning enables cumulative risks to be managed, the response to future impacts to be coordinated and the clear priorities for restoration to address historical impacts to be identified. Not all issues or threats are limited to a particular area. There are nationally pervasive issues that would benefit from strategic coordination, such as the management of feral animals or adaptation of the environment to climate change.

Strategic plans for big-ticket items can:

  • provide a national framework to guide a national response
  • direct research (for example, feral animal control methods)
  • support prioritisation of investment (public and private)
  • enable shared goals and implementation across jurisdictions.

National-level plans can achieve efficiencies and provide a consistent approach that can be reflected in regional plans. They can also inform activities in those areas where a regional plan is not in place.

Specific opportunities that lend themselves to national strategic planning include:

  • the delivery of a comprehensive, adequate and representative National Reserve System
  • high-level and cross-border threats, such as biosecurity or feral animals
  • forecasting the pressures and risks of climate change scenarios to support other planning efforts and to guide decision-making.

There is an opportunity to drive greater collaboration in the approach to managing nationally pervasive issues by setting clear priorities for the issues that should be addressed through strategic national plans. Many of these issues are not new, some were indeed identified in existing agreements such as the foundational governmental agreements (for example, CoAG 1992). Recent unpublished work by the Australian Academy of Science and the National Environmental Science Program’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub provides a contemporary analysis of the nationally pervasive threats to threatened species and ecological communities listed under the Act.

Current efforts to control feral cats is an example of how a coordinated, cooperative approach between governments contributes to effective management of threats. Box 25 explains the value of this collaborative approach and how it could be enhanced through a strategic national plan.

Box 25 - Cooperation between governments for effective feral cat control

Feral cat control

Cooperative efforts to tackle the impact of feral cats provides an example of what could be achieved with enhanced intergovernmental collaboration through strategic national planning and coordinated investment.

The key driver for more effective management of cats relates to their impact on native animals. Predation by cats has been a significant factor in 27 of the 47 extinctions of Australian reptiles, birds and mammals (Woinarski et al. 2019). Feral cats also threaten 75 critically endangered and near-threatened mammal species (Woinarski et al. 2015), as well as 40 threatened birds, 21 reptiles and 4 amphibians (DoEE 2015).

Feral cat management is carried out by the States and Territories. Jurisdictions vary widely in their management response, from efforts to eradicate cats from offshore islands, targeted baiting, trapping and exclusion programs (notably Western Australia) to little management at all in some jurisdictions.

In 2015 Commonwealth, State and Territory Ministers agreed that feral cats threaten wildlife, and that managing them is important for threatened species recovery. Coordinated action has been driven through reformed legislation to remove barriers to feral cat management in jurisdictions as well as a national focus through the Threatened Species Strategy (Australian Government 2015).

The Threatened Species Strategy outlines the establishment of the Feral Cat Taskforce, quantitative targets for feral cats, increasing predator-free areas, eradication from key islands, and dedicated funding for research, monitoring and management (including a culling program).

There is recognition of the need to improve outcomes from feral cat management programs in Australia. Appropriately funded, targeted research to address knowledge gaps is critical to address this need (Webber 2020).

A strategic national plan for feral cats could enhance this current model of intergovernmental cooperation by providing a statutory basis for implementation, monitoring and reporting and would enhance the current approach to strategic, targeted investment.

Note: The information in this Box draws extensively from contributions made by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee to the Review.

A national plan could be developed to support preparedness for new threats (such as a biosecurity incursion), or responses to acute events (such as a bushfire) that require a rapid response (Box 26). The Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity (CoAG 2019b) has created a framework for governments to coordinate and identify priority areas of reform and action to build a stronger and more effective biosecurity system. It provides a model for Commonwealth leadership and interjurisdictional cooperation for strategic national plans. It deals with established biosecurity threats, as well as providing the settings for rapid response to new events.

Box 26 - Establishment of arrangements for emerging or acute threats

Biosecurity model for response to pest or disease outbreaks

When a pest or disease outbreak occurs in Australia (also referred to as a biosecurity incident), arrangements are in place to allow for a rapid nationally coordinated response. When the pest or disease is exotic to Australia or occurs in more than one State or Territory, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment takes the lead in coordinating the national response to the outbreak.

Plans, groups and processes come together under a nationally agreed system to respond to the incursion. The system is used consistently by all jurisdictions (NBCEN n.d.(a)). National environmental biosecurity pest and disease incursion response plans are developed under the National Environmental Biosecurity Response Agreement (CoAG 2012). Similar plans exist for pest and disease incursions affecting agriculture.

Red imported fire ant

Red imported fire ant (RIFA) (Solenopsis invicta) is a rapid-spreading invasive species that can inflict painful bites on people, pets and livestock.

RIFA is a superpest that is likely to affect most areas of the economy, including agriculture, animal industries, infrastructure, biodiversity, human health and lifestyle, by stinging animals, invading crops, causing anaphylactic reactions in humans, compromising electrical systems and disrupting sporting events. It continues to be the target of national cost-shared eradication programs.

The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program was first established in 2001 in response to the discovery of RIFA in western Brisbane and Fisherman Island, Queensland and there have been a number of iterations responding to new incursions.

The current 10-year investment of $411.4 million to 2027 aims to find, contain and destroy fire ants in South East Queensland. The program is delivered by Biosecurity Queensland on behalf of the Australian Government and all State and Territory Governments.

An independently chaired steering committee provides clear guidance and support to ensure program transparency and accountability. The committee is made up of representatives from all jurisdictions and monitors the program’s progress against agreed targets and milestones.

The most recent 2-yearly efficiency and effectiveness review of the program (Wonder 2019) recommended 37 improvements to assist the program to achieve its intended outcomes. The review noted that there are some promising indications, but the success of the program will rely on consistently targeted effort and review.

Given the importance of eradication of this highly invasive species, responses to incursions are mobilised quickly under the national arrangements and have resulted in eradication at previous locations in Queensland (Yarwun in 2006 and 2013, Brisbane Airport in 2015 and Port of Brisbane in 2016) and in other jurisdictions (Port Botany, New South Wales in 2016). The current program is aiming to clear ants from an area of over 600,000 hectares. An eradication response is also underway at the Port of Fremantle, Western Australia after RIFA were detected in November 2019 (NBCEN n.d.(b)). Without a clear, nationally coordinated response, the management of RIFA incursions would be impossible.

Overarching plans also exist for biosecurity incursions for livestock and plants.

A similar model could be applied to other acute threats or events, such as a response to bushfires. Having an established process and mechanisms for collaboration and sharing costs can support direct and rapid action and minimise the delays that result from needing to develop arrangements once the acute threat or event has already occurred.

Source: QLD DAF 2020

The EPBC Act should be amended to provide a statutory basis for strategic national plans, which should include requirements for:

  • compliance with the National Environmental Standards
  • alignment with threats to MNES identified in relevant statutory documents such as conservation advices
  • clear priorities and assigned responsibilities for investment
  • mandatory implementation, monitoring and reporting
  • periodic evaluation and review, on a 5-yearly basis.

The Act should establish a clear process for the Commonwealth to make and implement strategic national plans. This should include requirements for consultation and transparently seeking the advice of the Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) Committee, and a requirement to make decisions in a way that is consistent with plans.

Agreement to align with and implement the priorities of national-level plans that address threats to MNES should be an explicit requirement for accreditation under the EPBC Act. This is because national-level plans are a key part of addressing threats to MNES and achieving the environmental outcomes of the National Environmental Standards (Chapter 1 and Chapter 7).

Some priorities in strategic national plans, and those that relate to preparedness for dealing with emerging or acute threats, may be relevant to the broader environmental responsibilities of the States and Territories. In these cases, implementation plans prepared by each jurisdiction would support integration of these plans into the environmental management systems of the States and Territories.

8.2.2 - A greater focus on regional planning

The EPBC Act should be amended to enable adaptive regional planning approaches that reflect National Environmental Standards. These amendments, together with a commitment to make and implement plans, are necessary to support a fundamental shift in focus from project-by-project development transactions, to effectively planning at the right scale for a sustainable environment and for sustainable future development.

Regional plans would consider cumulative impacts and key threats and build environmental resilience in a changing climate by addressing cumulative risks at the landscape scale. Managing these threats to matters of national environmental significance (MNES) at the regional scale will have flow-on benefits for more common species and biodiversity more broadly.

Regional plans should be developed that support the management of threats at the right scale, provide a sound basis for regulatory decision-making, and set clear rules to manage competing land uses. These plans should direct investment in protection, conservation and restoration to where it is most needed and where the environment will most benefit.

Regional plans should be developed consistent with the National Environmental Standards to enable the Commonwealth to accredit the plans, based on advice from the ESD Committee on whether the plans will effectively achieve the outcomes in the Standards (Chapter 1 and Chapter 4).

Ideally, these plans would be developed in conjunction with States and Territories and community organisations. However, where this is not possible, the Commonwealth should develop its own plans to manage threats and cumulative impacts on MNES. The regional planning efforts should initially be focused on those regions of highest pressure on MNES.

The benefits of a regional planning approach include:

  • the ability to take pre-emptive actions to address declines before species become eligible for listing
  • implementing priorities of strategic national plans to contribute to achieving national environmental outcomes
  • certainty about where prospective development could occur and, more importantly, should not occur
  • more efficient environmental research and monitoring of habitat recovery to support threatened species and ecological communities
  • contributing to and ensuring ownership of environmental outcomes where communities are involved in regional plan development and implementation
  • directing investment to where it is needed most to achieve environmental outcomes such as restoration.

The development and implementation of regional plans should be guided by key principles for quality regional planning. Regional plans should be:

  • based on appropriate and best available scientific, economic, social and cultural knowledge
  • determined at the appropriate scale
  • developed in collaboration with the community and stakeholders
  • integrated with other national, jurisdictional and regional plans
  • able to respond to changing circumstances to guide improvements
  • appropriately resourced and funded to implement the specified conservation measures
  • able to quantify and demonstrate progress towards goals and targets, through regular monitoring, measuring, evaluation and reporting of organisational and project performance and the use of the results to guide improved practice
  • clear about how information will be managed (Chapter 10).

These principles should be incorporated into the EPBC Act – for example through a National Environmental Standard for regional planning.

It would be inappropriate for the Commonwealth to make detailed plans at every scale. Plans developed by other parties, such as States and Territories or local planning organisations should be able to be accredited under the EPBC Act. When accredited, these plans would support governments to avoid duplication of development assessment and approval, while enabling Commonwealth oversight that local planning activity is clearly meeting national outcomes (Chapter 7). Plans made by the Commonwealth, or accredited plans made by others, must adhere to the National Environmental Standards and the principles for quality regional planning.

Three regional planning tools are recommended:

  1. Regional recovery plans – which identify recovery priorities for multiple threatened species and ecological communities at the landscape scale.
  2. Ecologically sustainable development (ESD) plans – spatial plans that identify environment, economic, Indigenous and social priorities and incorporate outcomes for MNES.
  3. Strategic assessments – spatial plans that consider proposed development by a proponent(s) in a coordinated manner.

Regional recovery plans

At the Commonwealth level, a shift is required from recovery planning for an individual listed species or community to planning at a landscape scale, with a focus on collective biodiversity conservation outcomes for threatened species and ecological communities that are protected under the EPBC Act.

Regional recovery plans should provide for coordinated management of threats to all listed species and communities in a region and consider the cumulative impacts of these threats. They should identify important populations or areas of habitat critical to the survival of a species or ecological community.

Regional recovery plans should incorporate local ecological knowledge, including Indigenous knowledge (where appropriate) and could draw from regional-scale plans that are already in place, including Healthy Country Plans or plans prepared by natural resource management groups.

Regional recovery plans should set out the geographical focus of restoration to most efficiently and effectively deliver the outcomes defined in the National Environmental Standards for MNES. These plans will include guidance on the land that, if restored, would provide greatest environmental benefit at lowest cost. Regional recovery plans should also provide the basis for prioritising action and investment, including the offset obligations arising from development.

A regional approach to recovery plans drives efficiency because many listed species and communities in a region rely on the same habitat and suffer from the same threats. New listings in a region can be more easily incorporated and individual species recovery plans would only be required as the exception. Such landscape-scale planning would also have benefits for more common species and contribute better to arresting the overall decline of the environment. Initial focus should be on Australia’s unique biodiversity hotspots, which would protect and restore the most MNES.

The EPBC Act should be amended to allow for regional recovery plans that require:

  • compliance with the National Environmental Standards
  • consistency with other statutory documents, such as conservation advices and strategic national plans
  • clearly identified priorities for conservation and restoration activities
  • quantitative performance targets for conservation and recovery of each species or community
  • monitoring and reporting against agreed quantitative performance targets to understand if the species within the plan area are recovering
  • adjusting the plan where recovery is not being achieved, or incorporating newly listed species, ecological communities or priorities from other relevant plans
  • costing and appropriately resourcing the plan to support implementation.

The Minister should establish the process and priorities for planning and seek transparent advice from the Biodiversity Conservation Science Committee (Chapter 4) on developing the detailed framework for regional recovery plans.

Areas of focus should include biodiversity hotspots (such as south-west Western Australia or eastern coastal regions), areas foreshadowed by future developments or where current multi-species plans could be readily incorporated into a regional recovery plan.

Other priority areas for developing regional recovery plans should focus on areas of highest pressure on the targeted MNES. This could include threatened species or threatened ecological communities that regularly trigger controlled action decisions, such as the koalas in Queensland and New South Wales.

Ecologically sustainable development plans

The EPBC Act currently includes a bioregional planning mechanism which has only been used in Commonwealth areas. While these plans provide guidance, consistency with them is not required when making decisions. The Act should be amended to replace the bioregional planning mechanism with the ESD planning approach recommended by this Review.

ESD plans should be spatial plans that address environment, economic, Indigenous and social priorities. ESD plans should support more integrated management of the environment by accommodating the respective interests of the Commonwealth, and States and Territories.

ESD plans should set clear rules to manage competing land uses and identify future long-term development aspirations. They should identify areas where impacts on the environment should be avoided or minimised, where development may be of lower or higher risk to the environment, and where development assessment and approval is not required. The Commonwealth Environment Minister (or an accredited party) should make decisions on development approvals in a way that is consistent with the provisions of the ESD plan.

Having ESD plans within the EPBC Act does not mean that the Commonwealth must plan for everything. Rather, through the National Environmental Standards, the Commonwealth can be clear about national-level outcomes and priorities for MNES. These outcomes and priorities can then be incorporated into planning conducted by others.

The Commonwealth could collaborate with a State or Territory to develop ESD plans in priority areas, or a jurisdiction could propose its own plan to be considered and accredited by the Commonwealth. Existing plans, such as those by local councils or natural resource management organisations, could be accredited to avoid duplication of planning efforts. ESD plans developed by others such as the States and Territories, could be accredited by the Commonwealth as an alternative to strategic assessments (for example, the strategic assessments for Western Sydney and Melbourne growth boundary). This would overcome a key shortcoming of current strategic assessments under the EPBC Act (Chapter 3).

The development of ESD plans should be driven by clear priorities that consider areas where MNES are likely to be subject to future long-term development pressures or national economic development priorities (such as northern Australia). ESD plans should also identify where restoration of the environment would be most beneficial. This would ensure that longer-term development priorities do not conflict with efforts made to restore the environment.

The EPBC Act should be amended to enable the development and accreditation of ESD plans. The Act should establish a clear process for the Commonwealth to make ESD plans. This should include requirements for consultation and transparently seeking the advice of the Ecologically Sustainable Development Committee. Regulatory decisions must be made in a way that is consistent with plans. Plans made by others (such as a State or Territory), and accredited by the Commonwealth Environment Minister, should be subject to the accreditation model set out in Chapter 7.

To be made or accredited under the EPBC Act, ESD plans should:

  • be consistent with the suite of National Environmental Standards including MNES, data and information, compliance and enforcement, and Indigenous engagement and participation in decision-making
  • integrate the requirements of relevant strategic national plans, regional recovery plans, species and community plans to effectively address threats across tenures and borders
  • identify social, economic, cultural and environmental values, including the location of likely future development, areas of cultural value to Indigenous Australians, and areas that are priorities for environmental protection, conservation and restoration
  • identify priorities for investment in environmental restoration
  • assign responsibility and accountability for implementation of the actions contained within the plan
  • identify processes for monitoring and reporting on the outcomes of the plan, including adherence to established Commonwealth requirements for environmental monitoring and evaluation
  • include 5-yearly reviews to ensure plans are adaptive and achieving their intended environmental outcomes.

Transitional arrangements for existing bioregional plans made under the Act (such as marine bioregional plans) should be considered. When existing plans are reviewed, adjustments may be required to ensure they meet both the principles for quality regional planning and requirements for compliance with the National Environmental Standards. The same should apply in transitioning other existing planning tools under the Act, including potential future modifications to strategic assessments.

Strategic assessments

Part 10 of the EPBC Act provides for landscape-scale assessments in the form of strategic assessments. The legal arrangements for strategic assessments are complex (Chapter 3), but those that have been conducted have led to more streamlined regulatory arrangements (Chapter 6). Some have been criticised for not achieving their intended environmental outcomes (VNPA 2020). The use of a strategic assessment in some cases, for example for growth corridors of major cities, has been a work around rather than the most ideal planning tool. The recommended ESD plans would provide a more effective planning tool, and a clearer foundation for regulatory decision-making.

The EPBC Act should continue to enable proponents to enter into a strategic assessment with the Commonwealth for developments not covered by an ESD plan. As is the case now, a strategic assessment would provide a single approval for a broad range of actions covering multiple projects. This would provide certainty of permissible development areas and environmental outcomes.

A strategic assessment should be required to be developed in a manner that is consistent with the National Environmental Standards and regional recovery plans (where they are in place). The accreditation model outlined in Chapter 7 should be applied to strategic assessments.

Recommended adaptive planning tools

Table 2 summarises the recommended adaptive planning tools.

Table 2 - Summary of recommended plans

Plan type

Leadership, collaboration and approval



Spatial coverage

Strategic national plans – for nationally pervasive issues such as high-level and cross-border threats

Led by Commonwealth, approved by Commonwealth

National framework to guide a national response, direct research and support prioritisation

Enable shared goals and implementation across jurisdictions

Not spatially focused

Regional recovery plans – for listed threatened species and ecological communities and where relevant migratory species

Led by Commonwealth, approved by Commonwealth

Protection, conservation and restoration priorities for listed threatened species and ecological communities

Coordinated threat management, consideration of cumulative impacts

Support prioritisation of Commonwealth action

Clear protections for MNES

Priority regions in the first instance

Ecologically sustainable development plans

Collaborative process led by jurisdictions or jointly between jurisdictions and the Commonwealth

Made by the Commonwealth, or made by others and accredited by the Commonwealth

Biodiversity, economic, cultural and social values

Consistent with the National Environmental Standards and regional recovery plans

Set clear rules to manage competing land uses

Basis for development decisions

Priority regions in the first instance or where proposed by a jurisdiction for accreditation

Strategic assessments

Led by proponents and approved by the Commonwealth

Biodiversity, economic, cultural and social values

Consistent with the National Environmental Standards and regional recovery plans

Provide a single approval for a broad range of actions

Where instigated by proponent


Recommendation 25

In the second tranche of reform, the EPBC Act should be amended to support more effective planning that accounts for cumulative impacts and past and future key threats and build environmental resilience in a changing climate. Amendments should enable:

  1. strategic national plans to be developed, consistent with the National Environmental Standards, to guide a national response and effectively target action and investment to address nationally pervasive issues such as high-level and cross-border threats
  2. regional recovery plans to be developed, consistent with the National Environmental Standards, to support coordinated threat management and investment to reduce cumulative impacts on threatened species and ecological communities
  3. ecologically sustainable development plans to be developed and accredited, consistent with the National Environmental Standards. These plans should address environmental, economic, cultural and social values and include priority areas for investment in the environment
  4. strategic assessments to be approved, consistent with the National Environmental Standards and regional recovery plans and provide for a single approval for a broad range of actions
  5. the Commonwealth to accredit plans made by other parties, where these plans are consistent with National Environmental Standards and other relevant plans
  6. plans to be made consistent with key principles for quality regional planning.

Recommendation 26

In the second tranche of reform, the Commonwealth should establish a dedicated program to develop and implement strategic national plans and regional plans with a focus on key Commonwealth priorities, including:

  1. strategic national plans for key, new and emerging threats of national significance
  2. regional plans in biodiversity hotspots, areas foreshadowed as national priorities for economic development and areas where matters of national environmental significance are under greatest threat.