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Clearing more land: we all lose

Australia is already clearing land at world-leading rates. Ray Christie/Indigo Skies Photography

Last week the Queensland parliament passed laws relaxing land clearing and opening up national parks to cattle grazing. Victoria has proposed similar clearing changes. It’s no surprise more clearing is bad news for the environment, but it also has negative implications for farmers and the Federal budget.

Queensland’s changes

Widely debated legislation was passed in Queensland on May 21, 2013 allowing farmers to graze starving cattle in five of the state’s national parks and eight reserves until the end of 2013.

And big changes to the Vegetation Management Act 1999 were introduced through the Vegetation Management Framework Amendment Bill 2013.

Despite an election promise by the current Queensland government, farmers can now clear remnant (virgin) vegetation for both dry land and irrigated high-value agriculture. Farmers can also clear high-value regrowth vegetation for routine management, such as fencing, without getting permits.

The Queensland Government argues the changes will restore balance and allow farmers to clear without unnecessary red tape. But restore balance with what exactly?

Over the past 10 years, Australia has been clearing land at rates similar to Brazil and Indonesia, losing over 900,000 hectares of forest a year between 2005 and 2010. Around 75% to 80% of that clearing happened in Queensland. The changes to the Vegetation Management Act mean large parts of the remaining native bush and regrowth in Queensland could also disappear.

Why have vegetation management laws in the first place?

It’s important to understand how the Vegetation Management Act came about in the first place.

From the 1950s, Queensland’s landscape was changed dramatically as the government introduced several schemes and passed The Brigalow and Other Lands Development Act, removing large areas of brigalow forest for pasture improvement and cattle grazing. Most brigalow-dominated ecosystems are now endangered, with fewer than 10% remaining.

Due to growing concerns over the extent of clearing and its impacts on biodiversity, the Queensland government initiated the Vegetation Management Act 1999 to assess clearing on freehold land. Later amendments protected remnant vegetation and high value regrowth vegetation such as brigalow and native regrowth.

Is more land clearing actually good for farmers?

The current Queensland Government argues relaxing land clearing laws is better for farmers and better for their productivity. But what does this mean for a farmer long term?

Native vegetation plays an important role in supporting productive cropping, pasture and grazing land, vital to a farmer’s financial viability. Native vegetation and regrowth provide soil fertility through nutrients, regulate the salt levels of the soil, prevent erosion, and control invasive insects, plants and animals.

By clearing land and removing “carbon stocks”, farmers will also miss out on income opportunities under the Carbon Farming initiative.

Given previous law reversals, farmers may come out swinging under the new laws in fear of these laws being changed yet again. The worst outcome would be that clearing rates return to a rate similar, or greater to those carried out before the Vegetation Management Act was introduced.

How does land clearing affect the rest of us?

Evidence shows land clearing threatens Australia’s environment. It contributes to land degradation, salinity and declining water quality, damage to coastal marine zones, species extinctions and greenhouse emissions.

Land clearing leads to habitat loss and habitat fragmentation, exposing what’s left to fire and invasive pests such as weeds. Native regrowth is important for native animals and for increasing the size of remnant areas of vegetation, essential for preventing extinctions. This habitat loss and fragmentation is especially concerning for native animals such as koalas, which in Queensland have been recently added to the threatened species list.

Land clearing also leads to excess runoff, which has serious negative impacts for the Great Barrier Reef, marine ecosystems, and marine industries such as fisheries and tourism. Making it easier to clear vegetation flies in the face of the Reef Rescue program. This is a program set up by the Federal government to address declining water quality due to sediment, nutrient and pesticide runoff from agricultural land. A further $200 million of extra funding was only just announced this year.

Where is the environmental and carbon accounting?

Governments need to justify their decisions economically. In this case, there has been no mention by the State government of the short and long-term environmental costs to all of the ecosystem services provided by vegetation: water quality, soil salinity, and soil fertility.

The Federal Coalition’s proposed plan to store carbon emissions in soil and trees may blow out by another $500 million a year if the 2 million hectares of land in Queensland is deforested over the next 10 years under these revised laws.

The Queensland government has taken a short-term view of how to increase productivity rather than looking at the long-term impacts this will have on the lands farmers rely on.

Victoria’s relaxed attitude towards land clearing

Victoria will also make changes to their land clearing laws. “Small” projects - such as a farmer removing a handful of native trees, or a home owner getting rid of trees to put in an extension - will no longer need an on-site survey.

For a decade, Victoria’s planning provisions have aimed to achieve a net gain in the quantity and quality of native vegetation in the state. From September, this will change to “no net loss in the contribution made by native vegetation to Victoria’s biodiversity”.

Victorian farmers will be able to buy offsets for the land clearing. While purchasing offsets will help the Federal and Coalitions carbon emissions budgets, it is hard to see how removing native vegetation will not mean losses to Victoria’s biodiversity.

Learning from the past to adapt for the future should be a central part of land management. Yet the changes in land clearing laws in Queensland and Victoria show a disregard for the large body of work and research that has been done on native vegetation clearing and the impacts this has on the land and ecosystems. This is bad for farmers and the environment.

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