Clearing case raises questions over environmental laws

James Nason, 15/02/2012

A paddock on Alpha Station, Wyandra, in May last year after woody weed control work was conducted. A $110,000 fine handed to a Queensland landholder last December for clearing ‘not-of-concern’ native vegetation has amplified the view that environmental imposts placed on landholders are not based on science, Property Rights Australia chair Joanne Rea says.

Wyandra landholder Trenton Hindman received the record fine after pleading guilty to clearing without a permit.

The charges related to woody weed control work he undertook on his property Alpha Station in 2007 and 2009 which was designed to return degraded turkey-bush infested country back to grassland.

He argued in court that the work had produced a positive environmental outcome by returning the country closer to its pre-European settlement condition, a proposition supported by recent CSIRO research from western NSW.

However, magistrate Michael Hogan accepted the evidence of Brisbane-based botanist with the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management, Andrew Franks, who said the clearing of native vegetation tended towards “landscape fragmentation, habitat loss, weed invasion, loss of nutrient cycling and increased greenhouse gases and a range of other effects”.

Magistrate Hogan said there was evidence that the clearing had included some small trees and shrubs in addition to the turkey bush, and the planting of some buffel grass had indicated that the work was not exclusively focused on regenerating native grasses.

Mr Hindman was fined $110,000 plus $13,770 in legal costs (See Beef Central’s report from December 7 here).

Mr Hindman is currently developing a fighting fund to launch an appeal and will hold a field day for the public on Alpha Station where the clearing took place on March 14.

'Adverse outcome' challenge

The size of the fine and the DERM botanist's stated view that the work caused 'adverse environmental outcomes' has prompted anger from landholder rights group Property Rights Australia.

PRA chair Joanne Rea said the comments by Mr Franks that the work created adverse environmental effects took on a different context after the land had already been modified by long-term European settlement and management and changed fire regimes.

Research by the Charleville Pastoral Laboratory over four decades had shown that rather than causing environmentally damaging effects, the type of woody weed control practiced on Alpha had in fact reversed environmentally damaging effects, by replacing turkey bush with a more ecologically substantive and bio-diverse system.

Work by researcher RL Miles had highlighted how a two-stage process involving water and wind caused soil erosion in mulga lands, and confirmed the importance of maintaining total groundcover to combat such erosion.

The presence of turkey bush made it harder to achieve the required level of groundcover.

The replacement of turkey bush and false sandalwood at woody weed densities with native grassland led to increased groundcover.

Examples of this work had shown increases of vegetative matter by 300pc, decreased amount of bare ground for weeds to establish or erosion to occur, increased nutrient cycling, increased rain penetration and an enhanced habitat for flora and fauna starting with the biota in the soil.

Mrs Rea said the role played by grasses in greenhouse gas recycling has long been underestimated and undervalued.

The speed with which country returned to a pre-cleared state had also long been underestimated.

During the Hindman trial an official from the Remote Sensing Centre for DERM noted that in the 22 months between the two clearings on Alpha Station, the areas seemed to have returned to a state comparable to the pre-clearing condition.

Queensland leasehold landowners are required under the state's Land Act to keep their land free of encroachment of woody vegetation, Mrs Rea said. “Not only is this almost impossible to do but is uneconomic no matter what method is used. With the constraints now put on landowners by permits it will almost never be attempted,” she said. 

She said DERM inspection guidelines should allow inspectors to regard the variety of native grasses established and the extra groundcover provided by them far more favourably.

“In case anyone is in any doubt, this extent and density of turkey bush was less prevalent prior to European settlement.

“Modifying it is returning it more closely to its pristine state. Mulga and false sandalwood can also become woody weeds under their ideal conditions.

“The decision to prosecute this landowner is surely an error of judgment and a peppercorn fine should have been imposed.”

Different standards also seemed to apply to DERM’s treatment of mining and agricultural landholders.

In response to the recent release of contaminated mine water into the Fitzroy Basin river system, a DERM spokesman had publicly stated that “both releases were minor and early investigations indicated that they were unlikely to have caused environmental harm”.

Mrs Rea question why the same approach had not been taken in Mr Hindman’s case.

“The question that I would like to ask, as would many landowners, is if DERM can decide that a breach by a mine is of minor importance, why then can it not show an equal measure of common sense with regard to landowners and decide that operations that they have carried out may have improved the environment and that prosecution is therefore inappropriate?”

  • NATIVE VEGETATION FIELD DAY: Trent Hindman will host a native vegetation field day at Alpha Station, 12km east of Wyandra on the Elimina Road, on March 14, from 10am-12pm followed by lunch. The field day will include a before and after paddock walk showing an area of turkey bush infestation followed by open grassy woodland. A stick raking demonstration will also be included on a thinning-permit area. A meeting of the Mulga Fighting Fund will follow in the Wyandra Hotel at 7pm.


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