By referring to case studies on the operation of Pt 4 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (NSW), this article illustrates the types of uncertainties in ecological knowledge which local councils face where threatened species issues arise in the context of development applications. It argues that existing ecological knowledge is not in a position to address many of the demands made of it by the eight-part test of significant effect which determines whether a species impact statement (SIS) must be prepared and whether the concurrence of the Director-General of National Parks and Wildlife is required. An analysis of the relevant legislation shows that there is nothing which directly requires decision-makers to apply the precautionary principle to address these uncertainties in ecological knowledge. However, a closer analysis of the eight-part test in light of relevant case law indicates that it is framed in such a way as to incorporate a version of the precautionary principle. If the available evidence at this stage indicates that it is possible that proposed development will significantly affect threatened species, then the burden is cast on to the proponent to further clarify the situation through the preparation of a SIS. While this does not prevent decisionmakers from giving the go-ahead to proposals on the ground that other considerations outweigh environmental impact which is presumed to be significant, the precautionary principle prevents them from hiding behind the screen of scientific uncertainty, which has traditionally allowed them to claim that proposals are both environmentally benign and socioeconomically beneficial.
ANZSRC / FoR Code