Land clearing laws threaten biodiversity

More land is cleared in Queensland than the rest of the country combined.

Within hours of the NSW Land and Environment Court decision on March 9 quashing new land clearing laws, the NSW government produced a new Land Management (Native Vegetation) Code.

The code was created to exempt land clearing from the usual development assessment processes. It was introduced after the government overhauled the state’s conservation laws in 2016, making land clearing easier for farmers.

The Land and Environment Court ruled the Land Management (Native Vegetation) Code 2017 was invalid because it was not approved by the environment minister before it was implemented by the primary industries minister.

The 2018 Code is identical to the 2017 Code, except it now clearly states that the minister for the environment gave her concurrence to the Code at 1.19pm on March 9 and the minister for primary industries made the Code at 3.40pm on March 9, thus curing the breach that was the subject of the court challenge.

The Nature Conservation Council (NCC) responded that the government’s reinstatement of the land-clearing laws goes against the wishes of voters and leading scientists. The NCC and the NSW Environmental Defenders Office (EDO NSW), which represented the NCC, said the government should not simply remake the laws, since the case showed environment minister Gabrielle Upton had not done the work required to protect biodiversity.

“This is not simply a matter of incorrect paperwork,” said EDO NSW chief executive David Morris. “Ecologically sustainable development is not just another box to tick. The environment minister has a legal responsibility to protect biodiversity in this state.”

NCC CEO Kate Smolski said: “By waving these laws through a second time without even pausing to consider the consequences, Premier [Gladys] Berejiklian has gone against the wishes of voters and the advice of leading scientists.

“The government’s own experts have warned 99% of koala habitat on private land is left exposed to clearing by these laws and that there would be a spike in tree loss of up to 45%”

“Ms Berejiklian has also squandered an opportunity to give the state’s 1000 threatened species a fighting chance of survival.”

“These laws are literally a matter of life and death for native animals and should have been redrafted to include significantly stronger environmental protections before they were introduced.”

“As the state’s peak environment organisation, we will continue to do everything we can to expose the damage of land clearing and will not stop until we have laws that give nature the protection it deserves.”

The NCC is looking into future legal challenges. Community opposition to the government’s action will be vented at the massive Time2Choose rally planned for Saturday March 24, one year before the next state election.

Meanwhile, the Queensland government has tabled legislation to implement its promise to “end broadscale clearing in Queensland”. The Labor government failed in its first term of minority government to pass legislation to overturn the laws passed by the previous Liberal National Party government.

During the minority government period, 1 million hectares of native forest were cleared. The introduction of tougher land clearing laws was a key issue in the re-election of the Labor government.

The initiative was welcomed by environment groups, but with reservations. Queensland Conservation Council coordinator Tim Seelig has described the changes as “an important milestone” and the group said they “strongly welcomed” the changes. But the Wilderness Society was more equivocal, describing the changes as a “good first step”.

WWF called the changes “a major step forward”. But in a public statement, WWF conservation director Paul Toni noted the group saw “room to improve the bill” — something he said they would take up with the committee reviewing the bill.

Analysis by WWF-Australia’s Martin Taylor found much of the forests cleared between 2013 and 2016 (590,785 hectares) was done on land mapped as “category X” or “exempt”, meaning it was outside the scope of the Vegetation Management Act.

In an article on March 12, The Guardian’s Michael Slezak wrote: “The single biggest reason to doubt the impact of the changes is that most clearing in Queensland happens on land that is not regulated by the law the government’s bill proposes to amend.”

More land is cleared in Queensland than the rest of the country combined. Only NSW comes close. It is a significant factor in total greenhouse gas emissions, and run off has a severe impact on the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef. The limitations of the Queensland bill in addressing national environmental concerns points to the urgent need for a strong national environmental legal framework.

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