Rural landholder advocacy group Property Rights Australia (PRA) has voiced concern about letters sent before Christmas by the Federal Department of Environment to landholders with Queensland Government-approved High Value Agriculture (HVA) clearing permits.
The letters state that the Federal Department has examined a number of existing HVA permits approved by the Queensland Government for the clearing of native vegetation and is concerned that some may impact on “matters of national environmental significance” protected under the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999.
The Department’s letter warns that people proposing to take action that is likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance “must refer their proposal to the Department for assessment and approval under the EPBC Act”. It warns that landholders face substantial penalties for undertaking action without approval.
It also states that an approval under Queensland’s Sustainable Planning Act 2009 does not remove the need for a development to be referred for assessment under the Federal EPBC Act “if a significant impact is likely”.
Recipients are asked to respond with information that demonstrates that their State approved clearing projects have been planned to avoid significant impacts on matters of national environmental significance.
Landholders who received the letters were given a short time to respond. One landholder who contacted PRA said he received his letter by registered post on December 17 with a deadline to respond by December 23 – giving him only four business days to reply.
PRA believes the letters are intended to prevent or delay landowners from engaging in legitimate clearing of vegetation.
PRA chair Dale Stiller said landholders only receive a HVA permit under Queensland’s Sustainable Planning Act after their proposed development has passed a rigorous and often expensive examination process. The land suitability assessment includes investigation to determine the suitability of the land to agriculture in relation to topography, climate, soil attributes and financial viability. Further assessments included soil erosion, salinity, protection of wetlands and water courses, landscape connectivity, the conservation of endangered and ‘of concern’ regional ecosystems, maintenance of essential habitat and matters under the State’s Nature Conservation Act 1992.
He said landowners currently making applications for HVA permits have been frustrated by a ‘never ending list’ of new requirements to the approval process, introduced by the Palaszczuk Labor Government.
Mr Stiller said the assessment “goal posts” were changed on July 27, 2015, when a new policy was introduced requiring further information to be retrospectively provided on previously lodged permit applications awaiting State Government approval.
He said the requirement amounted to “onerous requests for information not founded on potential risk”.
A land clearing case at Olive Vale in June 2015 highlighted a lack of Queensland Government power to suspend or revoke a previously approved permit. The Palaszczuk Government had since sought Federal Department assistance to stop or delay previously approved permits, he said.
Mr Stiller has expressed concern that the State Government and the Federal Environment Department are now working in concert to engage landowners with legally approved permits in a process designed to prevent or delay the lawful clearing of native vegetation.
“PRA finds these actions intolerable where engagement will result in entrapment with the landowner left in no control of lengthy process of investigation, assessment and reporting all at the landowners cost and the delay of the clearing works by months, if not years,” Mr Stiller said.
“PRA is dedicated to the task of the protection of landowners rights and has a network of vegetation management experts and legal advisors to which landowners can be referred for help.
“PRA believes that it is crucial that Landowners seek advice before engaging the State or Federal Departments with the quagmire of ambiguous requirements drawn from unfamiliar environmental law complexities made more confusing by the layers of two levels of government.”
Earlier this month a report prepared by former senior Queensland Government ecologist Dr Bill Burrows challenged the lack of scientific basis for calls by Environmental Non-Government Organisations (ENGOs) and the Palaszczuk Government to re-impose tougher restrictions on tree clearing in Queensland.
PRA has sought legal assistance to develop a pro-forma document for affected landholders who received the letters from the Department of Environment.
“Landowners need professional advice which is both costly and impossible to obtain in such a short time frame, running into the Christmas/ New Year period,” Mr Stiller said.
PRA believes the letter from the Federal Department of Environment fails to clearly define what it means by the word “significant” and is urging it to provide the precise and certain definition of the word according to the EPBC Act.
It also wants the Department to define how the clearing of native vegetation under a valid development approval could constitute a “significant impact”.
“The prospect of one branch of Government declaring a development lawful, while another suggests it may be unlawful – in this case, without any clear legal basis for doing so – is both preposterous and impossible to reconcile.
“Our elected representatives need to recognise that such a stance taken by a public servant is not simply unfair but unconscionable. It amounts to landowners subjected to double jeopardy when endeavouring to be financially viable and drought proof.
“Landowners who are acting within the law under a valid permit should be entitled to conduct their business unhindered by the personal agendas of government officers who may, for personal reasons, disagree with government policy..
“High value agriculture permits have been issued for the main part in north Queensland where regional remanent vegetation remains at 90pc and greater as evident in the Queensland government’s own recently released SLAT’s report.”