Native vegetation was home to several threatened species and was in a Great Barrier Reef catchment
November 24, 2017 — Queensland farmers are suspected of having defied rare federal government intervention and cleared a large swath of land without commonwealth approval, according to conservationists.
The native vegetation was in a reef catchment, meaning the clearing could worsen pollution on the Great Barrier Reef. Government-commissioned studies show it provided habitat to several threatened species.
Queensland is experiencing a boom in tree clearing – rates jumped 33% in 2016, in a region that is already considered the only “global deforestation hotspot” in the developed world. About 400,000 hectares were cleared in 2015-16, meaning Queensland now has two-thirds the annual rate of deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon.
In 2015 the landowners at Wombinoo, about 70km south-west of Cairns, gained approval under lenient Queensland state laws to clear more than 3,000 hectares of mostly untouched remnant native vegetation.
Between 2015 and 2016, the farmers began undertaking that clearing, with 560 hectares of trees felled and burned before environment groups noticed and alerted the federal government.
The government took the very rare step of forcibly referring the planned clearing for assessment under the federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Under that law, activities that potentially affect “matters of national environmental significance” must be assessed by the federal government.
An assessment found the clearing would need federal approval. It also found the previous clearing required investigation because it might have destroyed the habitat of a number of threatened species, including the greater glider and koalas.
No approval has been granted for further clearing, and the investigation of the previous clearing is apparently still incomplete, but footage has emerged purportedly showing a further 60 hectares was cleared between March and April this year. The clearing allegedly includes one large plot, as well as a strip about 60 metres wide, according to the Wilderness Society, which gathered the evidence. But landowners who spoke to the Guardian said all relevant approvals had been secured before any clearing took place.
The Wilderness Society alleges that half of that new clearing is in a creek bed that drains on to the Great Barrier Reef, raising concerns about the impacts on water quality there. According to the Wilderness Society, some of the new clearing appears to have occurred outside the area that received approval from the state government.
Lawyers at the Environmental Defenders Office of New South Wales have written to both the federal and state governments on behalf of the Wilderness Society, informing them of the clearing and asking what action would be taken.
One of the owners of the property told the Guardian he had all the approvals from both state and federal governments for the clearing. He also said the clearing was simply removing trees from along a fenceline, which he believed did not need any approvals.
“As a producer we’re sick of people like [the Wilderness Society] trying to stop productivity in this bloody nation and that’s why we’ve got a deficit going up at $20,000 a second,” he said.
“Everything I have done is above board. I don’t have time to sit down and talk about negative things and parasites who are putting bloody hurdles in front of people who are trying to be productive. Now I’m busy. Thank you,” he said before hanging up.
A spokesman for the federal Department of Environment and Energy confirmed that proposed clearing at Wombinoo had been determined to be a “controlled action” and would therefore undergo “a comprehensive environmental assessment”.
“This decision was made because of potential impacts the action could have on listed threatened species and the Great Barrier Reef,” the spokesman said.
The department was “actively examining” allegations regarding land clearing, he said, so “it would not be appropriate to comment any further”.
Jessica Panegyres from the Wilderness Society said: “Beautiful forest has been completely annihilated, flattened by bulldozers then set ablaze, killing countless native animals in the process.
“This land is in a Great Barrier Reef catchment and the likely home to koalas and greater gliders, which are threatened with extinction.
“The Turnbull government must act on its pledge to the United Nations to use its powers to stop deforestation in reef catchments. This is just another example of clearing in Great Barrier Reef catchments occurring without federal approval.”
Earlier this year in Cape York in Queensland, more than 100 hectares were cleared there without approval, after the intervention of the federal environment minister in 2015.
While clearing has skyrocketed in recent years in Queensland, there are fears it will accelerate even faster in the coming months, with notifications of planned clearing jumping even higher. Notifications have been made at a rate 30% faster since April 2016 than in the three preceding years.
“There’s a deforestation frenzy happening in the catchments of the already struggling Great Barrier Reef, which means more erosion and more sediment-laden water smothering coral and seagrass,” Panegyres said.
“Unfortunately this is just the tip of the iceberg. In Queensland alone, an area the size of the MCG is bulldozed every three minutes, killing an estimated 45 million animals each year.”