One largely overlooked point in the debate about whether the plan to allow starving cattle into national parks and reserves will threaten their conservation values is the fact that on many of these properties, cattle have never actually left.
All of the areas the Queensland Government will re-open to temporary grazing for drought-affected cattle were cattle properties since settlement, and have largely continued to carry cattle in one form or another since they were acquired for conservation purposes.
Legislation rushed through Queensland Parliament this week allows temporary grazing to be conducted in parts of six former cattle properties now classified as National Parks until December 2013.
It also gives the State Government a further two years to destock eight former cattle properties purchased by the previous Bligh Labor Government with Commonwealth assistance, under the National Reserve System.
The former cattle properties were acquired under ex-premier Anna Bligh’s 2008 pledge to expand Queensland’s national park network from five percent of the state’s land area to 7.5pc, or 20 million hectares, by 2020.
Queensland's Coalition Government says the legislation, passed on Tuesday, will unlock grass for grazing on more than 50,000 hectares of land in national parks and potentially up to 390,000 hectares on the National Reserve System properties, all in severely drought-affected areas where cattle are in desperate need of feed to stay alive.
Incumbent national parks minister Steve Dickson argues that much of the land was acquired by the former Labor Government "just to lock up land, often with very little conservation value, to meet a percentage target" and with no plans for its management. None of the parks and reserves in question could be classified as ‘pristine wilderness’, he said: “All have all been grazing land in the past and can assist cattlemen in this crisis,” he said.
However the move has earned public condemnation from Federal Environment Minster Tony Burke, who has accused the Queensland Government of trying to wreck conservation areas.
Mr Burke, who has previously blocked Victorian Government moves to allow grazing in alpine areas as a bushfire mitigation tool, says he is similarly determined to block the Queensland Government in this move.
“If I'm unable to block the Newman government on this occasion then I will be obtaining advice to see what can be changed to prevent this sort of cowboy behaviour from ever happening again," he was quoted as saying in The Australian.
Backing Mr Burke’s position, National Parks Association of Queensland (NPAQ) spokesman Paul Donatiu has declared that cattle will damage the land and affect biodiversity of the properties in question.
"Cattle are responsible for spreading weeds," he said.
"They certainly affect and destroy the habitat of native ground-dwelling animals and they can also do substantial damage to waterways in these parks."
However the parks and reserves that will be ‘unlocked’ have been carrying cattle in some form or another continuously since settlement, and, in many cases, ever since they were acquried by the Government.
Some continued to run cattle under commercial grazing leases for two years after they were purchased in 2010, while many are still carrying “Cyclone Yasi cattle” – cattle dispersed far and wide from surrounding properties when the devastating February 2011 event flattened vast areas of timber and thousands of kilometres of fencing.
In the past six months the Queensland Government has also issued temporary grazing permits on some of the reserves after wild fires – some of which started inside unmanaged national park and reserve areas – destroyed thousands of hectares of desperately needed grass on surrounding cattle properties last summer.
A perpetual frustration for landholders when country is locked up for conservation purposes is that Governments typically fail to invest the resources required to manage the land on an ongoing basis, and to keep fuel loads and invasive pest and weed species under control, which ultimately results in catastrophic impacts for surrounding operations.
In contrast, the cattle industry keeps rural and remote areas populated and monitored, and provides a fundamental commercial imperative for landholders to maintain the health of the landscape and to keep week and animal pests at bay.
“If anything a few cattle on these places for six or seven months would do a lot of good,” Mt Garnett cattleman and former Cattle Council of Australia president Greg Brown said.
“It would reduce the intensity of the fires.
“There is probably 250 square miles of country on some of these places, a lot is heavy grass country, and the fuel loads that build up on them at times is just frightening.
“If they go up in smoke in November it becomes totally unmanageable.”
Landholders also ask why the Federal Government is standing in the way of providing a simple solution to an animal welfare crisis when it deemed the welfare of Australian cattle such a major issue in June 2011 that it shut down the $500m a year live cattle trade to Indonesia for two months.
Mr Burke’s view is that Queensland should sign up to the Federal Government’s new Farm Finance package so landholders can take out concessional loans to buy fodder or agistment for starving cattle.
However Greg Brown says most producers simply aren’t in a position to take on more debt, as the Federal Government wants.
“I think it is so absurd for a Government minister to say you’re better off borrowing another $600,000 when the indebtedness in the bush is something pretty horrendous now,” Mr Brown said.
“I think it is pretty absurd for the federal government to say this, people are just beyond borrowing and there is no way in the world from what I’m hearing they want to borrow another cent.”
He said that there was no indication that the reserves in question contained fragile plant or animal species that would be threatened by the presence of cattle. The fact that the parks and reserves had been declared conservation areas after more than 100 years of running cattle indicated cattle offered no threat to their conservation values.
For its part the Queensland Government is sticking firmly by its national park grazing plan: “We won’t stand by and watch while graziers are forced to destroy their own stock when we have land and feed available,” National Parks minister Steve Dickson says.