Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


Dampier Peninsula

7:40 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak about the imminent threat posed to a unique part of Australia. It is a stretch of the pristine Kimberley coastline, which tells the story of our planet and our country from 130 million years ago. It has a record of our planet that was formed at a time when Australia, Antarctica and New Zealand formed a single land mass. This area stretches 200 kilometres along the Kimberley coast and provides us with evidence of a diverse range of ancient habitats and the fossilised footprints of the dinosaur inhabitants of that area. Some of the largest, if not the largest, ever to walk this earth have left footprints in this place. The isolation of the geography, climate and lack of human interference, and, many of us would argue, the custodianship of the traditional owners have resulted in a historical record of outstanding quality and immeasurable value, one that we are only just discovering.

One hundred and thirty million year old prints are found in the Broome sandstone along the rocky coastline from south of Broome to the end of the Dampier Peninsula, including of course James Price Point. It is surreal to think that an area so old and so important is now under threat for resource development, yet we have no full idea of its unique value; it is still being discovered. The proposed development of the Browse LNG processing hub intersects with this area of the coastline, bringing with it people, pollution, development and an opening up of this area—this in the name of progress when alternatives exist for this particular processing plant.

The evidence of dinosaur footprints on the north-west coast is in fact not a new discovery. However, the tidal zones which see some of these sections of the trackways covered by water for much of the day and much of the year mean that documenting these materials has taken a long time and continues to take some time, and as I understand we are only touching the tip of the iceberg with what we have seen so far. In many sections, there is only a window of two or three hours per day to look at these trackways and to look at the footprints. In fact, some cannot even be seen until very low tides. Therefore, you need to use these valuable hours very carefully to identify, photograph and create casts of the prints. Like many archaeological processes, this identification and discovery has not progressed quickly, although at various times it is reported that girl guide groups, volunteers and even the Army have lent a hand to help discover and reveal these amazing records of prehistoric life.

A number of scientists have dedicated their time to this, but most have not been able to secure the sustained grant funding or support or interest over the years from governments to complete this work.

However, all this is changing as people realise what an invaluable area this is. Dr Steven Salisbury of the University of Queensland's School of Integrative Biology has undertaken a significant amount of work to document this site, mostly in a volunteer capacity, and will be releasing a major paper on this work later this year. Some of the beginnings of his work, and also that of Dr Tony Thulborn, has recently been articulated in a New Scientist article.

Some initial findings offer a taster of what we can expect to hear about in the future. These were presented in Broome on Saturday night of the weekend just past, at Notre Dame University in Broome. These findings have demonstrated that this area was a regular pathway for at least four types of dinosaurs, perhaps many more, and that there were significant interaction between them. The work of Dr Salisbury has been complimented, with prior work done by Dr Tony Thulborn which has also been documented in New Scientist this month. As Dr Salisbury has said:

Before we've even had a chance to work any of this stuff out, we're facing the possibility of losing it.

He likens the area to a jigsaw puzzle: different environments, each with a range of tracks, plants and other fossils. It is a unique area that is apparently incredibly rare on an international scale, all the more so because it has remained untouched and isolated until now. This will not be the case, of course, if the proposed Browse hub becomes a reality, given the proximity of the proposed development to the prints. In fact, I have been there and seen some of these footprints—it is an amazing experience—and the tracks of the pipelines of the development will be smack in the middle of some of the most important trackways and prints at this site. Ambiguity should not exist about something so important. We should not be putting something so important at risk.

Aspects of the National Heritage Council's recommended approach to the heritage listing of these dinosaur footprints is not well defined. The queries remain about the boundaries of the heritage area; what is in, what is out, and what trackways and footprints are in there? The boundaries leave uncertainty about whether or not the heritage area does, in fact, cover the footprints. This is because the outside marine boundary has been tied to the tideline, and in that environment it varies a lot. It has been left up to the developer to define the boundaries. One wonders how the protection system works in this country. The location of the heritage area falls largely short of the area marked for development, avoiding the overlap, which presents further questions about the development. We are extremely concerned that this development will impact on the dinosaur footprints. Both Dr Salisbury and the Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit in Western Australia have voiced their concerns about the processes undertaken in different assessments on this project. The EPA assessment is being strongly questioned by many in the community because of the way it was carried out.

These footprints are a unique window to our prehistoric history. This area is also important because it is one of the only places—if not the only place—in the world where Aboriginal culture intersects with our prehistoric history, and with dinosaur footprints and trackways. The dinosaur footprints and trackways have been woven into the song cycles of the custodians and traditional owners of this land. These song cycles go up and down the coast and stretch into central Australia. I have seen one of these dinosaur footprints and have been told the story about this particular footprint and fossil, and how it is integral to and wound into the song cycles and the culture of the traditional owners of this land.

This is one of the most important areas for dinosaurs and archaeology not just in Australia but also internationally, one of the only areas in the world where dinosaurs have helped form the landscape, and we are only just beginning to understand this unique and invaluable archaeological cultural site. And now we have a gas hub that does not need to be located at James Price point—smack in the middle of what will turn out to be one of the most important sites for dinosaur footprints and trackways. We have understood only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the value of this site. We are going to be losing it, if this proposal goes ahead, before we even know what is there. How is that intelligent decision making in the year 2012?