Canberra conservationists are breathing fire on the Canberra Airport for its plans to build a new road, claiming it will destroy one of the last known wild habitats of the endangered Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon.
The airport site, located between the Molonglo River and Mount Majura, falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government (which is also why it’s the only place in the Territory allowed to display roadside billboards).
Fairbairn, to the east of the airport, is home to the former RAAF base, a public golf course and several other businesses but is only accessible from Pialligo Avenue via Scherger Drive. It’s also the only way into the airport’s freight area.
A more direct, northern access road via Majura Road has been on the cards since the 20-year master plan for the site was released in 2014. This followed approval under national environment laws in 2009. However, in the years that followed, Canberra Airport struggled to secure a portion of the land so the plans were slightly revised.
In August last year, the road was pitched as forming a critical part of attracting more international airlines back to the capital, including restarting direct flights to Singapore.
But the Conservation Council ACT Region sees it differently, saying it would effectively slice through a patch of “critically endangered natural temperate grassland” and “threaten the survival of the Dragon”.
The Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon, measuring less than 150 millimetres long and weighing 5 to 9 grams, has been listed as endangered nationally since it was officially recognised as a lizard species in 2019.
Monitoring is ongoing at nine sites across the ACT and is supported by the ACT Government, the University of Canberra (UC) and Melbourne Zoo.
The Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve is breeding an “insurance population” for eventual release back into the wild.
In 2021, the species was found at just two sites, and the year before, two dragons were located near the airport.
Conservation Council ACT Region executive director Elle Lawless says despite this information, the road project has yet to be reviewed by the Federal Environment department.
“We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis,” she said.
“The Environment Minister has included the Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon in her list of 110 species to be prioritised in the fight against species extinctions. To honour this commitment and maintain a chance at protecting this species, the road must be stopped now.”
Australian community group Friends of Grasslands has also fought the Federal Government for years on developments to York Park and Ainslie – as well as proposed work at Lawson North and Campbell Park – for “approved destruction” of Dragon habitat. They’re just as vocal on the Canberra Airport proposal.
“The new Federal Government has an opportunity to live up to its rhetoric for conserving threatened species – such as the Canberra Dragon – by revoking approval for this unnecessary road at the airport,” president Jamie Pittock said.
“As for the Canberra Airport Group, their standing in the Canberra community will be forever diminished if they kill the Dragon with their planned road. No amount of greenwashing could forgive Dragon killers.”
The Canberra Airport has defended the plans, describing them as an upgrade to an existing road and the result of no fewer than five environmental approvals over the years.
“To date, we have had five Master Plans and Environment Strategies approved by the Minister for Infrastructure and Minster for the Environment,” head of aviation Michael Thomson told Region.
“Our plans include all the appropriate approvals, management plans, protocols, pathways for continuous improvement of our practices, and monitoring programs.”
Canberra Airport has also provided “extensive” funding towards the breeding program at Tidbinbilla over the past two years.
Mr Thomson says the company will continue to work with the Department of Environment to “ensure the proposed road does not negatively impact any native flora and fauna at the airport”.
The ACT Government has also given the upgraded road its in-principle support. In an economic priority plan released last March, the government stated it would continue to work with Canberra Airport, NSW and the Commonwealth to “realise the freight potential of Canberra Airport as an international transport hub”.