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World Heritage Site has been downgraded, but it is not too late for it to be saved

This value is evident if you have visited the Blue Mountains with their rugged sandstone rock faces, hidden falls, and diverse life. Dharug and Gundungurra’s traditional owners have long appreciated this value, as they cared for and lived in the Country (Ngurra) and were, in turn, nourished by the land.

After fires destroyed 71% of the area of the Blue Mountains, the World Heritage Site has been officially downgraded.

Read more: ‘Severely threatened and deteriorating’: Global Authority on Nature lists the Great Barrier Reef as critical.

Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — the official advisor to UNESCO — rated the site as being of “significant concern,” a drop from “good with some concerns.” It’s now in the second-lowest category.

There are some signs of hope, even though the news is grim. Despite climate change threats, bushfires, and decades of pollution, efforts are being made to minimize the lingering effects. The results are encouraging.

Ancient trees and unique animal species

The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area is divided into eight areas, covering just over a million hectares.

The number of regent honeyeaters has declined, and their range has contracted due to the clearing of woodland habitat. Shutterstock

Wollemi National Park in the north is the largest protected area (499,879 hectares). The park is famous for being home to the last wild Wollemi Pine. These trees are part of a very ancient lineage that dates back to the time when all the land masses on Earth were part of Gondwana over 100 million years ago.

Read more: Wollemi pines are dinosaur trees.

The World Heritage area harbors 1,500 plant species, and 127 of them are rare or threatened. An outstanding example of the area’s uniqueness, it also contains more than 90 Eucalypt species — 13% of the global total.

Many rare and endangered animal species also find refuge in the World Heritage Area.

The Regent Honeyeater is a celebrated season visitor. The less skink is also endangered and only found in the Blue Mountains.

Current Threats

The IUCN has released a new report that identifies eight threats to the Blue Mountains. Climate change and bushfires are the most concerning threats, according to the report.

The fires that ravaged the Blue Mountains last summer caused permanent damage to many species. These species are vital to the unique biodiversity in the area. Climate change threatens the fragile ecology of the region through changes in rainfall and rising temperatures.

IUCN has also classified invasive animal and plant species, such as foxes and feral cats, as high threats. The IUCN also listed mining and quarrying, altering habitats, and a few specific aspects of climate changes (storms and droughts, extreme temperatures)

IUCN has also identified potential threats, such as future noise pollution at the new International Airport in Western Sydney. The IUCN also cited the potential danger of future flooding caused by a proposal to increase the wall at Warragamba Dam in order to mitigate floods.

Black Summer bushfires destroyed 71% of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Shutterstock

Clean up your act.

Climate change and bushfires are major problems that require a coordinated international and national response. However, some of the issues facing the Blue Mountains region can be addressed on a smaller scale.

The Blue Mountains has been under pressure for decades from a variety of human forces, such as the outdated sewage systems of the City of the Blue Mountains and coal mining pollution. We’re happy to see that the environment is still recovering, even though it hasn’t been fully restored.

Insufficient sewerage systems have polluted streams and rivers throughout the Blue Mountains for decades.

In 1988, the Sydney Water Corporation launched a $250 million 25-year scheme to reduce pollution caused by poorly treated sewage. By 2010, the region’s sewage treatment system was upgraded to replace 11 outdated treatment plants.

At Winmalee, in the lower Blue Mountains, all Blue Mountains wastewater has been treated to a greater standard and released far away from the waterways of the World Heritage Area.

The Greater Blue Mountains Area also faces pressure from coal mining. In 2001, UNESCO expressed concerns about the water pollution caused by mines such as Clarence Colliery.

Ian Wright, the author, samples water from a contaminated Wollangambe River. Ian Wright is the Author.

This mine is located in a state forest near the World Heritage boundary. A 2017 study found that wastewater discharged from the mine severely contaminated the water quality of the Wollangambe River and damaged the ecology along a 20-kilometre stretch.

Read more: How our research is helping clean up coal-mining pollution in a World Heritage-listed river.

Two years earlier, Clarence Colliery, owned by Centennial Coal, was prosecuted after more than 2,000 tonnes of coal material (a slurry of water and coal particles) spilled into the Wollangambe River.

Centennial Coal Agreed to comply in 2017 with a new EPA license requiring the disposal of less polluting wastes.

The results for October are encouraging. The results show a huge reduction in zinc levels in mine waste (more than 95% compared to 2012).

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Jane S. King

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