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Landclearing next to Boondandilla State Forest in Queensland © Martin Taylor / WWF-Aus

Landclearing next to Boondandilla State Forest in Queensland © Martin Taylor / WWF-Aus

Queensland tree-clearing: WWF busts myths spread by industry lobbyists

23 Jun 2016

Keywords
  • queensland
  • tree-clearing

A blizzard of false claims have been made in a sustained campaign by agricultural industry lobbyists on the proposed restoration of laws regulating landclearing in Queensland.

The Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill is currently before the state parliament.

“The measures in this Bill are sensible and balanced and should rein in the rampant destruction of threatened species habitat that followed the weakening of landclearing controls by the former Newman government,” said WWF-Australia conservation scientist Dr Martin Taylor.

“There is a tremendous amount of misinformation being spread by opponents of the Bill, which is whipping up panic and fear.”

To correct the record, WWF-Australia today released a fully scientifically supported and referenced list of key landclearing facts to dispel the worst of these myths.


 
Key Fact 1: Tree-clearing has more than tripled in recent years.
  • Claims that tree cover has increased are incorrect
  • 296,324 hectares was cleared in 2013-14 – an area larger than the ACT – up from 78,378 hectares cleared in 2009-10.[i]
  • This Queensland Government report is corroborated by a recent report from the Australian National University finding that “some of the estimated 530,000 hectare [Australia-wide] reduction in forest area in 2015 was due to clearing, particularly in southern Queensland.”[ii]
  • The Department of Natural Resources and Mines recently discredited an industry claim that tree cover has increased because that claim used data known to be inaccurate. The department stated: “The limited accuracy of the wooded extent and FPC [Foliage Projective Cover] data means that it cannot be used to compare year to year, or to estimate increases or decreases in vegetation across the state.” [iii] 

Key Fact 2: Tree-clearing is bad for biodiversity, and drives native wildlife to extinction
  • Claims that landclearing can benefit biodiversity run counter to science.
  • Dr April Reside, University of Queensland, said: “We have nearly 400 threatened species in Queensland, and over 90 per cent of those are at threat from landclearing”[iv]
  • Professor Hugh Possingham, University of Queensland, said: “The fact is that we are losing species at 100 to 1,000 times the normal historical rates”[v] 

Key Fact 3: Tree-clearing makes runoff and erosion worse, harming the Reef
  • Claims that landclearing can improve water quality and benefit the Great Barrier Reef run counter to science.
  • Hydrologist Prof Stuart Bunn, Griffith University, testified that: “when you clear vegetation you increase the amount of surface run-off that gets concentrated down into the channel network and increase the power of the stream to cause erosion. That is exacerbated when the vegetation clearing goes into those gully networks and the riparian zones as well.”[vi]

Key Fact 4: Expansion or thickening of woodlands is natural and beneficial for wildlife
  • Claims of widespread unnatural thickening that needs to be cleared not supported by evidence.
  • Ecologist Prof Carla Catterall, Griffith University, testified that thickening is natural: “when you have a series of wet years you get more trees coming into the system, but then when you have a series of drought years more trees die. Really it is just a long-term cycle of thickening and thinning that we are looking at over time.”[vii]
  • Ecologist Dr April Reside, University of Queensland, testified that thickening is beneficial for biodiversity: “The studies in Queensland’s savannah landscapes, the wooded landscapes, generally show that the thicker the vegetation the more bird species you get, the more mammals and reptiles. If you take it to the extreme, you end up with a rainforest. Rainforests are the most highly biodiverse systems we have.”[viii]
  • In any case, thinning under self-assessable codes is retained in the Reinstatement Bill.

Key Fact 5: Tree-clearing laws have had no discernible impact on the value of agricultural production in Queensland
  • Claims that agricultural production will suffer due to the Reinstatement Bill not supported by evidence.
  • The total value of agricultural production (corrected for inflation) has remained relatively constant despite large fluctuations in tree-clearing rates and changes in policy over the last 15 years.[ix]
  • There is extensive, underexploited opportunity for agriculture already with 22 million hectares of Queensland available for clearing under approved property maps, only roughly half of which has been converted so far to sown pastures, crops and built infrastructure.[x] 

Key Fact 6: Ag industry lobbyists reject negotiation and compromise
  • Claims by the ag industry that conservation groups refused to compromise turn reality on its head.
  • A stakeholder roundtable was held in July 2015 which conservation groups attended in good faith. Industry lobbyists also attended but they categorically rejected the government’s promise to restore laws, leaving little scope for negotiation.
  • A consultant was later engaged to attempt to bring stakeholders to a consensus. This proved futile as explained in testimony of the Department of Natural Resources and Mines: “In late 2015, it became clear to the government that the process … was not going to meet consensus and that urgent action was required to deliver on the government’s election commitments”.[xi]
  • AgForce recently reaffirmed its longstanding rejection of compromise on the Reinstatement Bill in an ABC report: Agforce said it wanted the proposed law thrown out and was not prepared to compromise. "There's no compromise here, just throw them clean out and start again," Mr Maudsley said.[xii] 

Key Fact 7: Alleged offences by landholders still have to be proven by the state
  • Claims that landholders are guilty until proven innocent are incorrect.
  • The landholder is presumed responsible for an alleged clearing offence unless they can show someone else did it, but as the Department of Natural Resources and Mines testified: “the state remains responsible for establishing and proving that a vegetation clearing offence has actually occurred”.[xiii]
  • This provision of presumed responsibility was in place for a decade without controversy, and was justified “Because of the high costs of clearing, it is extremely unlikely that an unknown third party would undertake clearing without the occupier’s invitation or approval“, among other reasons.[xiv]
  • Several other Acts in Queensland have similar presumptions, despite entailing criminal convictions.[xv]
  • In several Commonwealth Acts, including the criminal code, tax and copyright laws, the accused likewise carries some legal burden of proof.[xvi] 

Key Fact 8: Any mistakes in maps are corrected progressively as landholders report them
  • There are occasional mistakes, but fixing them is ongoing and routine.
  • Mistakes are corrected progressively as landholders report them, usually through property maps of assessable vegetation. The regulatory map is updated monthly taking such changes into account.[xvii] It would be prohibitively expensive to ground-truth every single property.
  • The Department of Natural Resources and Mines has advised that: “… obvious errors will be fixed free of charge.”[xviii]

Key Fact 9: Genuine rights to clear are preserved by the Bill
  • Claims that landholders rights are being taken away are incorrect.
  • The 2004 ban on broadscale clearing came with a generous $150 million assistance package as well as distributing 500,000 ha of broadscale clearing rights free of charge. Any rights to clear as may have existed at that time were settled.
  • Residual rights to clear vegetation are secured through exemptions recorded on property maps of assessable vegetation. The Reinstatement Bill makes no changes to the 22 million hectares locked in as exempt on such maps, nor does it change the ability of landholders to apply to lock in exemptions.[xix] 
 
WWF-Australia Media Contact:
Daniel Rockett, National Media Manager, 0432 206 592, drockett@wwf.org.au
 

[i] https://publications.qld.gov.au/dataset/land-cover-change-in-qld-2012-13-2013-14/resource/db43b755-0a44-4b50-8d76-51c5c55da357
[ii] https://theconversation.com/environmental-score-card-shows-australia-is-once-again-in-decline-58583
[iii] Answer to Question on Notice 2 by the Department of Natural Resources and Mines, http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/AEC/2016/11-VegetationMangt/11-que-22Mar2016.pdf
[iv] Dr April Reside, Testimony to the Agriculture and Environment Committee, 3 June 2016, page 37, http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/AEC/2016/11-VegetationMangt/11-trns-ph3June2016-Brisbane.pdf
[v] Professor Hugh Possingham, Testimony to the Agriculture and Environment Committee, 3 June 2016, page 38, http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/AEC/2016/11-VegetationMangt/11-trns-ph3June2016-Brisbane.pdf
[vi] Prof Stuart Bunn, Testimony to the Agriculture and Environment Committee, 3 June 2016, page 37, http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/AEC/2016/11-VegetationMangt/11-trns-ph3June2016-Brisbane.pdf
[vii] Professor Carla Catterall, testimony to the Agriculture and Environment Committee, 3 June 2016, page 37, http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/AEC/2016/11-VegetationMangt/11-trns-ph3June2016-Brisbane.pdf
[viii] Dr April Reside, Testimony to the Agriculture and Environment Committee, 3 June 2016, page 37, http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/AEC/2016/11-VegetationMangt/11-trns-ph3June2016-Brisbane.pdf
[ix] WWF submission to the inquiry into the Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016, Figure 3, http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/AEC/2016/11-VegetationMangt/submissions/568.pdf
[x] Ibid, Figure 5.
[xi] Testimony of Dep Dir General of NRM Sue Ryan to the Agriculture and Environment Committee 22 March 2016, page 10, http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/AEC/2016/11-VegetationMangt/11-trns-pb22Mar2016.pdf
[xii] ABC Rural News, 16/6/2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-16/agforce-campaign-against-tree-clearing-laws/7517286
[xiii] Dep Dir General of NRM Sue Ryan, Testimony to the Agriculture and Environment Committee, 3 June 2016, page 53, http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/AEC/2016/11-VegetationMangt/11-trns-ph3June2016-Brisbane.pdf
[xiv] Section 67A was first inserted in 2003 with the Natural Resources and other Legislation Amendment Act and removed in 2013 with the Vegetation Management Framework Amendment Act and is proposed to be restored in the current Reinstatement Bill. Quote from Explanatory Notes for NROLA in 2003 https://www.legislation.qld.gov.au/Bills/50PDF/2003/NatResLegAB03Exp.pdf
[xv] Office of the Queensland Parliamentary Counsel, Principles of good legislation, Reversal of onus of proof,  Version 1—19 June 2013, http://www.legislation.qld.gov.au/Publications/OQPC/FLP_Reversal_of_Onus1.pdf
For offences recorded in red light cameras, the vehicle owner is deemed liable unless they can show another driver was in possession of the vehicle. The Drugs Misuse Act 1986 (Qld) places the onus on a defendant to prove that drugs found on their premises were there without the defendant’s knowledge.
[xvi] Australian Law Reform Commission, Laws that reverse the legal burden, https://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/laws-reverse-legal-burden
[xvii] Queensland Government website, Correct a vegetation map, https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/land/vegetation/map-correction/
ABC Rural, Farmers concerned that map-makers are making mistakes, 5 May 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-05/qld-farmers-concerned-vegetation-maps-inaccurate/7386702
[xviii] Dep Dir General of NRM Sue Ryan, Testimony to the Agriculture and Environment Committee, 3 June 2016, page 53, http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/AEC/2016/11-VegetationMangt/11-trns-ph3June2016-Brisbane.pdf
[xix] WWF submission, Figure 5, http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/committees/AEC/2016/11-VegetationMangt/submissions/568.pdf

 

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