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Queensland land-clearing changes threaten trees farmers need

The Queensland State Government has recently proposed changes to the Vegetation Management Act 1999. Under the planned reforms, landowners will be able to clear and thin out vegetation using self-assessable…

Brigalow trees are vital for soil health and erosion control. They’re only just recovering from 19th century clearing. Why does the Queensland Government have it in for them? Arthur Chapman

The Queensland State Government has recently proposed changes to the Vegetation Management Act 1999.

Under the planned reforms, landowners will be able to clear and thin out vegetation using self-assessable codes without the need to apply for permits. This is sounding warning bells for already endangered brigalow-dominated communities.

Brigalow (Acacia harpohpylla) is a silver-leafed, black trunked tree; “brigalow” was an Aboriginal name adopted by white settlers in the 19th century. In Queensland and northern NSW, there is an area called the brigalow belt that is dominated by, you guessed it, brigalow. This same area is also hugely popular with landowners for running livestock, typically cattle, as well as growing crops like wheat, cotton and sorghum.

Over the past 50 years, much of the brigalow coverage in the area has been reduced by over 90%. In the 1950s, large areas of brigalow forest were removed for pasture improvement and cattle grazing. Heavy machinery tore open fields, with burning another favoured way for clearing.

Uncleared brigalow grows quickly into a dense forest, which is why a lot of farmers don’t like it. RGC Communicators

In the 1990s, concerns grew over the extent of the clearing. The Queensland government introduced the Vegetation Management Act in 1999 (amended later by the long winded Vegetation Management and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2009). The aim was to protect “high value regrowth” for trees like brigalow to prevent landowners clearing them.

What is high value regrowth? Well the Department of Environment and Resource Management has created a map showing all of the regrowth areas. If you are a landowner and you have trees that appear on this map, then you’ll need a permit to clear them. There are of course ways to get around this.

With less than 10% of many brigalow-dominated ecological communities remaining, brigalow-dominated and co-dominated ecological communities are now classed as “endangered” under the main federal environmental legislation for Australia, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act (EPBC Act 1999). Endangered means that particular animal or plant is “facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future”.

Convincing cattle or crop farmers to keep brigalow is a tough argument. It is root suckering and very hardy, so you can chop it off at the base and it will quickly grow back (which is why blade ploughing, aerial spraying and burning are the favoured techniques). Cattle don’t like the taste of brigalow, and if you leave brigalow to grow in one spot of a paddock, it will slowly spread out into dense forests that are difficult for even a dirt-bike to get through.

Yet there are so many arguments why farmers in this area should maintain good sized brigalow forests on their properties.

The first one is soil health. There’s a reason why brigalow grows in these areas of Australia. The brigalow belt is renowned for its deep cracking clay soils which brigalow trees love, and they add a heap of good stuff to the soil in the area. The trees are nitrogen fixing via a bacteria in their root systems, and they provide calcium to the soil through their leaf foliage. Brigalow trees can withstand high levels of salinity and keep salinity levels in the soils stable. Clearing these trees has led to less crop production as well as less pasture grasses, meaning smaller cattle.

Brigalow supports soil health, which means better pasture and fatter cattle. Kat Grigg

Land clearing encourages exotic and invasive plants, animals and insects to make a new home. These invasive species include weeds like lantana (Lantana camara) and the rubber vine (Cryptostegia grandiflora), which are a nightmare for farmers.

And brigalow holds the soil together and helps water seep down into the ground. Clearing brigalow has meant more erosion problems for farmers, increased runoff for water, and higher salinity levels in the groundwater.

Finally, these trees provide shade and shelter for not only stock but for many other animals, plants and insects. If you ever walk through a cattle paddock with stands of brigalow dotted around the place, you’ll notice the paths worn out by cattle hoofs that lead from the trees, to water, and to more trees. At noon on a hot summer’s day, you won’t find any cattle sunning themselves in the middle of the paddock. They’ll be swishing their tails in the shade of any tree they can find.

Whether you’re growing crops or pasture for cattle, if you want to have good soil, brigalow is an extremely important tree to have around. Too often, the health of the soil on a property is not valued enough. Farmers have been found to favour clearing these types of vegetation from the most fertile areas on their properties.

Putting at-risk brigalow-dominated ecosystems on the endangered list helps bring attention to this tree, but it isn’t enough. There has to be a change in attitudes and land management practices by property owners in this area.

Education is definitely one way. Financial incentives such as the Carbon Farming Initiative may be another way to encourage famers to keep existing brigalow trees on their properties. Until this happens, legislation like the Vegetation Management Act 1999 provide an important way to protect brigalow from being cleared. The proposed changes by the state government are a step backwards for the Brigalow Belt.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. Bruce Moon

    Bystander!

    Kat & Jason

    Thanks for a well reasoned article.

    Sadly, the changes articulated by the LNP were always expected; the farmer is a dominant supporter of the LNP.

    My take is that for some finance stressed farmers, quick gains will outweigh long term pain.

    Allowing the act to be self assessable is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank and telling him to be 'responsible'.

    Cheers

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  2. Peter Honnef

    Property Advisor / Valuer

    Did you know that in its natural state, Brigalow woodland is virtually useless for agricultural, cropping, pasture whatever. The thing is that it grows normally on heavy soil types (clays) which have good nutrient and water holding capacity for plants to access and therefore are sort after by farmers for growing crops and pastures.

    Brigalow is an Acacia, or in laymans terms a Wattle. It re-grows, suckers and seeds its-self prolifically. On lighter textured soils its not even worth while clearing…

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    1. Kat Grigg

      PhD Candidate, GPEM at University of Queensland

      In reply to Peter Honnef

      Thanks for your comments Peter.

      The intention of the article was not as a beatup for farmers. It is in support of sustainable farming practices. I come from a farming background so understand the need for certain amounts of cleared land for cropping and/or pasture.

      There are certainly farmers who realise the benefits of not completely clearing their land of native vegetation, however there are many others that may not be aware of the importance of the relationship between native vegetation, healthy soils and good pasture and crops.

      While brigalow is good at reproducing it is very slow growing. With the majority of clearing occurring in the 70s and 80s as you mentioned, the change of policy direction in the mid 90s was aimed at protecting what little is left. Even with this legislation, there has been further declines through clearing for activities like fence lines, firebreaks as well as illegal clearing.

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    2. Nev Norton

      Farmer

      In reply to Kat Grigg

      I can't believe someone gave Peter's comment an
      not Insightfull. Is there an agenda here that some
      don't want to know the real story. Is this typical
      envoromentalist behaviour at work, if you don't like
      the truth, we will belittle the author?

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  3. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    I love that the state with the most clearing going on is trying to make it easier for clearing to go on.

    There always has to be a balance between farming land and non-farming reserves of land. Good quality soils are not common in Australia, agriculture needs to utilise those soils, but within reason. Conservation tillage practices, use of cropping/pasture rotations (legumes), biomass returns, are all relatively common farming practices that do much of what the article describes as benefits of these trees.

    To me, this sounds like a balance has to be found between land uses. I also don't think the CFI will provide much in the way of answers. Carbon offsets and "positive activities" are not really going to benefit on high value production lands, and I'd question how valuable they will be on low value land as well (given the lack of figures and the long term contractual obligations).

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    http://www.seran.com.au/about-us. Seran pty ltd, an environmental consultancy firm based in melbourne, is helping melbourne
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  5. Nev Norton

    Farmer

    On a positive note, Thanks for this article Kat. It is articles like this that allow those of different view points to share and hopefully gain a better insight into the raft of views. I know you didn't want to deliberately bash farmers, but it is inevitable that some will use that.

    I would like to start by saying that Peter is absolutely correct about the insidious nature of arcacia, On our farm I have seen paddocks turn to forest in as little as 15 years, this is because there was such a large…

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Nev Norton

      Yes, conservation can't be forced upon farmers. They will want sustainability, but revegetation and the like is a society demand. I don't know of too many businesses that would appreciate being told that they have can't use (e.g.) all of their retail space and have to pay to fence off and manage that retail space so that they deliberately spend money on a loss of resources. Compensation only makes sense.

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    2. Peter Gerard

      Retired medical practitioner

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Urban retail space and its usage cannot be compared to farming and forested land. Overall we are, due to major clearing since settlement, tree-poor.
      The category of freehold ownership[ of broad acreage rural land] and the implication that this gives the owner the right to do what he wishes in the pursuit of making a living, is one of the drawbacks of the freehold system.
      Forests and farming land are precious resources and any one owner really only has temporary stewardship of the land…

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    3. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Peter Gerard

      Peter, you haven't quite understood the point I was making.

      When land was originally allocated to farming is was done so under the provision that land was cleared and fenced (i.e. developed) otherwise the land holder had to forfeit their ownership and the state would sell it to someone who would farm the land. I don't know when this policy stopped, but I'm pretty sure it was only after the realisation of the salinity issue and the rise of the Landcare program out of WA.

      This context feeds into…

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    4. Peter Gerard

      Retired medical practitioner

      In reply to Peter Gerard

      Tim,
      When land for farming was first released [ this would have been many decades ago, possibly after the WW1 and WW2, but I'm unsure] there would have been a need to develop land for cropping as rapidly as possible to supply grain to domestic and world markets. In those days, especially in Queensland, native vegetation cover would have been in many areas virtually untouched. This is not the case to day and the push to clear more land is driven by commercial interests.
      I'm not confusing freehold…

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  6. Michael Gioiello

    High school music teacher/ freelance Opera singer

    I think that there are some sections of the farming community who are quite un-educated. They do not care about anything past their bottom dollar. They come from a generation where soil conservation was not even talked about. Instead of trying to educate some of these simple people, the LNP has seen an opportunity to use their ignorance to get into power. These rougue politicians really dont care about the burden that they are putting on soil bio-systems, nor do they probably understand them. They are only interested about getting into power, so they use the ignorance of some silly people as a tool for their own evil means. Tony Abbott is an expert in this

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  7. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    I would like to be able to trust the good intentions of farmers but the reality is, that when it comes to extending a farming enterprise to make more money, commercial interests will always prevail over considerations for the environment. The present laws controlling the clearing of native vegetation where enacted because of this fact. This is the tragedy of conservative governments; they may be more responsible managers of the economy but they are barbarians when it comes to the natural environment…

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  8. Deborah Bird Rose

    Profossor, Social inclusion, Macquarie University

    In talking about the future of woodlands in Queensland and throughout Australia, let's not forget the crucial role of flying foxes as pollinators. I am still reeling from the fact that the Queensland government decided to re-introduce licensed shooting of flying foxes. This decision has been taken gainst all expert advice, and in disregard of the role of flying foxes as pollinators, in disregard of their status as threatened species (the Grey-headed Flying-fox and the Spectacled Flying-fox are listed…

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