Now backed by a parliamentary majority, Queensland’s Labor Government is set to soon enact tougher tree clearing controls it was unable to pass through Parliament during its previous minority term. But at what cost to landholder certainty, Queensland’s future food needs, and indeed, the environment itself?
Cattle producers in Queensland, home to almost half of Australia’s cattle herd, have warned that tougher tree clearing laws in the State will result in the “worst of both worlds”.
Landholders argue the tighter restrictions will lead only to greater thickening of native vegetation, in turn choking out grass and causing more erosion, bad outcomes for both the State’s future food security and the environment.
Environmental groups say tree clearing in any form causes extreme environmental harm, reject claims the laws will cause negative environmental or production outcomes, and describe recent increases in clearing rates as a crisis for the environment, native animals, inland waterways and the Great Barrier Reef that must be stopped.
As political footballs go, Queensland’s tree clearing laws are about as beaten and as battered as it gets.
A recent parliamentary inquiry heard the laws have been changed some 18 times in the past 19 years, as the issue has been kicked back and forth with every shift in political power between the Labor Party and Liberal National Party (LNP).
The cycle of intensifying and abating controls has led to almost two decades of confusion, division and uncertainty.
Calls are mounting for both sides to depoliticise the debate and work together to deliver a bi-partisan solution and certainty once and for all.
In the latest chapter the Palaszczuk Labor Government introduced an amendment Bill to Parliament on March 8 that will reintroduce vegetation management controls wound back by the previous Newman LNP Government in 2013.
The Palaszczuk Goverment tried to pass a similar bill in 2016 but was defeated on the floor of Parliament. Now backed by a Parliamentary majority after the last Queensland election in November 2017, it is wasting no time pushing its new laws through. The public was given less than two weeks to make submissions to a Parliamentary Committee that is considering the new legislation, and the committee itself has until April 23 – this coming Monday – to deliver its final report.
If passed in their current form, the new laws will:
- ban broadscale clearing of remnant vegetation for agriculture;
- prohibit clearing for high value agriculture and irrigated high value agriculture;
- Reduce the age at which regrowth is considered protected ‘high value regrowth’ from vegetation that has not been cleared for 28 years to 15 years. The Queensland Government says will protect an extra 232,000 ha of trees;
- Increase monitoring activities to ensure landholder compliance;
- Increase by almost three times the maximum penalties courts can impose for illegal clearing to more than $500,000;
- Require farmers to get approval to thin vegetation;
- Replace self-assessable codes for mulga harvesting with the need to gain approval for a development application for 400ha at a time at a cost of $3130 per application;
- Require a riverine protection permit before removing vegetation in a water course;
- Require that vegetation cleared for fodder is left where it falls;
- Property management maps locked into via a certified Property Map of Assessable vegetation (PMAV) will not be affected by the new laws;
- The Government says it will also have retrospective powers to prosecute any landholder deemed to have breached the new laws going back to March 8 when the amendment bill was were introduced to Parliament. It said this was done to minimise potential for pre-emptive clearing.
The Queensland Government says the laws are needed to reduce the rate of land clearing, lower carbon emissions, protect important native habitats and better safeguard the health of the Great Barrier Reef, and will in the process protect tens of thousands of jobs that depend on the reef.
As justification for the crackdown, the Government says clearing rates increased to 400,000 hectares in 2015/16 after the previous LNP Government relaxed clearing restrictions introduced by earlier Labor Governments. Continued clearing at this rate would “drive native wildlife extinction, put at risk the Great Barrier Reef, increase Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and prevent Australia from meeting its international climate commitments”, the Queensland Government says.
The State’s natural resources minister Anthony Lynham insists landholders will still be able to maintain their land and to clear fodder trees to feed their stock. “The majority of landholders will continue to do the right thing, as they do now.”
Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch maintains the laws are backed by science, and were “expertly prepared” by the Queensland Government’s Herbarium and peer reviewed by the CSIRO.
Landholders concerns at hearings
Despite Queensland Government assurances they will be able to continue to manage their land, landholders told recent parliamentary inquiry hearings in western Queensland that details hidden in the fine print mean the legislation will seriously constrain their ability to do that.
A common view expressed at the hearings was that native vegetation has always required management to maintain a balance between environmental health and grassland productivity, for thousands of years through the use of fire and more recently with mechanical management.
Many spoke of a clear trend of native woodlands ‘thickening’ and encroaching on grassland over time, drawing both on their first-hand experience as land managers and from the research and knowledge of experts such as former Queensland Government rangelands scientists Dr Bill Burrows and Dr Ian Beale.
“There has been a lot of research done on this and unfortunately it has been ignored,” Augathella landholder Guy Newell told the Charleville hearing. “Dr Bill Burrows… demonstrated that over Queensland’s history from the time white people came to Queensland thickening started.
“We have seen areas turn from grasslands into semi-woodland areas and then into heavily thickened areas. Under the right conditions it can go from nil canopy cover to full canopy cover in as quickly as 30 years, and that is when erosion and that sort of thing becomes a real risk factor.”
Current legislation allows landholders to use ‘self-assessable’ clearing codes to conduct thinning and fodder harvesting of mulga to feed stock in dry times, allowing timely responses to changing seasonal conditions without the need to apply for and wait to receive a development permit.
Under the new legislation, landholders will have to apply for a development approval to thin 400 hectares of thickened vegetation at a time (less in coastal areas), with each application costing $3130. Some landholders said they have been told to expect 21 day processing delays.
More specifically, the inquiry was told the new legislation will prohibit clearing within five-metres of native trees with a diameter of 20 centimetres or more and a height of 1.3 metres or greater.
While the State Government says thinning is still allowed, landholder and thinning contractor Cameron Tickell said in reality this detail will make thinning activities impossible.
“The earthmoving machinery we use is seven to eight metres (wide). As we go through, it is physically impossible to clear the undergrowth and the thickened vegetation around those remnant trees, so–called remnant trees,” he said. “State code 16 (the new code to be introduced with the Bill) will be completely useless for landholders as the practice of thinning under this new code is impossible.”
Landholder Robyn Bryant said the alternative of lopping with chainsaws was substantially more expensive and not economically viable. “This would ultimately render one third of our property useless, reducing our asset value by well over $1 million, a cost we cannot carry long term,” she said.
(A Queensland Department of Natural Resources spokesperson said State Code 16 contains a mechanism for applicants to ‘propose other clearing methods’ with the 5m zone for DNRME assessment, but what form proposed ‘other methods’ could take have not been detailed.)
The recent hearings also underlined the extent to which rural landholders feel their voices have been marginalised and sidelined in Queensland’s vegetation management debate.
Many expressed frustration that their years of first-hand, practical land management knowledge, acquired in many cases over multiple generations on the same land, have been disregarded by what they see as a State Labor Government trying to win support from city-based environmental voters.
Feedback and submissions to the inquiry related the view that the Queensland Government has been highly selective in its use of information, and has only told ‘half the story’ to the voting public and mainstream media, to justify its case for tougher controls.
For example landholders question why the Queensland Government has focused its public comments only on satellite monitoring data which shows the amount of vegetation cleared, but not how much vegetation has grown at the same time.
They ask why the Queensland Government has not communicated the context that the 400,000ha cleared in 2015-16 represents only 0.23pc of Queensland’s total area, or that much of that clearing was “reclearing” of previously cleared land (A NRME spokesperson told Beef Central that two-thirds of the 400,000ha area was vegetation in ‘Category X’ (non-remnant vegetation) areas, and the remaining one third of the clearing identified was in remnant vegetation for a range of purposes including weed control, fodder harvesting, thinning, constructing infrastructure and cropping).
Lost in the debate, producers say, is the reality that running a successful, long term commercial grazing enterprise goes hand in hand with managing land in an environmentally responsible way – looking after country is essential to maintaining productivity, particularly for the many landholders whose tenure spans generations and hope to pass their properties on to future generations.
Many said the current tree clearing laws already provide the right balance between maintaining productive capacity and environmental protection, and say the use of satellite monitoring ensures that anyone who does the wrong thing will be detected and penalised.
However they feel that with the new laws the Queensland Government is demonstrating it trusts no landholder to act responsibly, and is punishing all for the actions of the few who don’t manage land responsibly.
The heavy focus on protecting the Great Barrier Reef as a justification for the statewide crackdown was also questioned, given that the majority of Queensland’s rivers and streams do not flow to the Queensland coast but into the Murray Darling Catchment or Lake Eyre, with no discernable impact on the reef.
Among many other concerns raised during the hearings was the accuracy of maps used by the Government to assess clearing rates and to prosecute landholders. Many landholders raised concerns that the maps were not accurate, but regardless, they will bear the brunt of any mistakes through prohibitive fines if land is cleared in good faith according to maps that are later found to be inaccurate.
The replacement of area-specific management plans in favour of a ‘one-size fits all’ approach across Queensland’s diverse inland landscapes was also criticised.
WWF says new laws won’t affect production
Environmental groups the World Wildlife Fund has long actively lobbied to end tree clearing in Queensland.
The group rejects claims the will constrain agricultural production.
Spokesman Dr Martin Taylor said virtually all woody regrowth in Queensland will remain exempt “from clearing controls of any kind”.
He said regulated ‘high value regrowth’ represented only four percent of all non-remnant vegetation in Queensland, and high value regrowth “has not and never has” been banned to clearing, contrary to claims it has. “Clearing of high value regrowth is exempt from any need for assessment or prior approval if clearing follows a code and if prior notice is given,” he said.
WWF-Australia Conservation Director Paul Toni said the existing legislation does not provide the ‘right balance’.
“Tree-clearing is an extremely environmentally harmful activity. It releases vast amounts of greenhouse gases, pollutes waterways, erodes topsoil and destroys the habitat of native animals and plants driving some to the brink of extinction. It should be recognised as an environmentally harmful activity and not as an issue of minor importance.
“It is a nonsense to suggest that the proposed legislation will stop any production. The legislation will not prevent the existing use of land for grazing or cropping. It will merely stop clearing of environmentally valuable native vegetation.”
The WWF spokesman said there was no scientific evidence to support claims the new laws would lead to more thickening of native vegetation and ultimately reduce grass and cause more erosion.
“Thickening and thinning are part of a natural cycle in healthy landscapes,” Mr Toni said.
“Virtually all erosion is caused by tree-clearing and overgrazing and/or excessive tillage rather than regrowing trees or shrubs. There are no monocultures of native trees in healthy landscapes.
“In any event, as the land can continue to be used for its existing use if ‘thickening’ is believed to be a problem, management practices can be changed to reduce it, including by lopping. The proposed changes to the legislation will merely prevent broadscale tree-clearing of environmentally important vegetation under the guise of ‘thinning’.”
The WWF said the self-assessable thinning code had been used “to bulldoze thousands of hectares of forest without any protections for wildlife or the wider environment”.
It says more than one million hectares of bushland was bulldozed in the four years since the former Newman government wound back the previous Labor tree clearing laws in 2013, estimating that clearing had caused the deaths of more than 5000 koalas and millions of native animals.
Strangling food production in red tape: AgForce
Queensland farm group AgForce says the Queensland Government is ignoring the reasons why farmers manage native vegetation, which is to produce quality food and fibre and to assure the State’s future food security.
Queensland’s population is about to reach five million people in June, and the State will have a further one to two million mouths to feed within the next 20 years, according to the State Government’s own population projections.
Earlier this year AgForce asked the Queensland Government to consider adopting a new policy based on agreed land management plans and property maps between the Government and landholders, with individual agreements defining how vegetation management would occur on each property.
AgForce said the policy would have given the Government certainty about vegetation management activities while giving farmers certainty about the future without strangling them in red tape.
Put the politics aside, let the science tell the whole story, and work with those most affected by these laws to come up with a long-lasting solution
“Put the politics aside, let the science tell the whole story, and work with those most affected by these laws to come up with a long-lasting solution,” president Grant Maudsley said at the time.
But by ignoring that policy and pushing ahead with its vegetation management controls the Queensland Government was making it harder and more expensive for Queensland farmers to grow food.
Mr Maudsley said the proposed changes stifled Queensland’s agricultural growth by scrapping high value agriculture development applications, by including vegetation that hasn’t been managed for 15 years in the definition of High Value Regrowth, and by replacing self-assessable vegetation management codes with the need to gain approval under an Accepted Development code.
“The Palaszczuk Government is strangling farmers in red tape and treating them like cash cows while at the same time reducing the income earning capacity of their land and making it harder to ensure the right balance of trees and grass,” he said.
“Everyone with a backyard knows you have to mow your lawn and weed your garden or it becomes overgrown, and farmers have to regularly manage the vegetation growing on their land too.”
Why no economic modelling?
AgForce has also questioned why the Palaszczuk Government, which last year commissioned an independent study into the social and economic impacts of a proposed Federal Department of Defence plan to take over agricultural land in Queensland, saw no need to conduct similar economic modeling of the impacts of its tree clearing laws.
“The Palaszczuk Labor Government attacked the Federal Coalition Government at the time claiming they were ‘prepared to wreck lives and damage agricultural industries without bothering with independent expert advice’, yet are now doing exactly the same thing,” he said.
“No economic modeling has been done, and the scientific reports used to justify their flawed laws only examine how much vegetation has been cleared, not how much vegetation has grown. You can’t make good decisions when you are only looking at a small part of the picture.
“Let’s get this issue sorted once and for all and develop a long-lasting solution that is good for both agriculture and the environment. Our food is too important to be caught up in politics election after election.”
- What impact could the new laws have on Queensland rural property valuations? See Beef Central’s weekly property email tonight for Linda Rowley’s analysis