OPINION: DEBATES in Australia about land clearing are seemingly unending, in part due to the failure of many involved to recognise some basic truths, and in part due to the very significant divide between media reports about the issue, and what the available statistics actually say about land clearing rates.
Starting with the statistics that are published about land clearing, and the divide between that and what the media actually reports, the latest official report released by the NSW Government on land clearing rates in the state are a classic example.
According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the latest available NSW Report on Native Vegetation reveals that “23,000 hectares had been cleared of woody vegetation (for crops and pastures) in the three years to June 2013.” Note the use of the sum of three years of data, rather than a single year of figures, to make the number sound bigger.
The article continues, “unexplained clearing amounted to 13,579 hectares, or 59 per cent.” – again, a reference to three years rather than a single year. The article then reported a quote from the Chief Executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW stating "This report shows that the Baird government is soft on illegal land clearing."
This despite the fact that the report clearly explained that a change in the use of satellite technology for the most recent report had introduced some potential variations compared with past reports, and that the higher resolution imagery used may have resulted in variations from previous reports that need to be treated with some caution.
This means that the area of land on which native vegetation was removed was just 0.07% of the new areas of land on which native vegetation was either permanently conserved or placed under protective management
But even leaving that issue aside, the SMH article and the response from the Nature Conservation Council are an extreme example of the distortions and mistruths associated with this issue.
Starting with the very basic facts, Geoscience Australia reports that the mainland area of the State of NSW is 80,062,800 hectares. This means that the amount of native vegetation reportedly cleared by farmers over the three years amounted to 0.029% of the total land area of the state.
Reading the NSW Government report a little more closely, however, some other important additional information emerges. First, the figures included in the report as areas cleared are areas that were previously areas of native vegetation (presumably on 1 January, 1990) which have since had trees removed. However, (as the NSW Government report states) “the report does not identify gains in woody vegetation due to planting or natural regrowth”, meaning that reporting the aforementioned figures in isolation is the equivalent of reporting a football game but only providing one side’s score.
Interestingly, another section of the NSW Government report does provide information that is of use in gaining some understanding of the ‘plus’ side of the native vegetation scorecard, but curiously, this seems to have been overlooked in the SMH article. The information is summarised in the following graph, taken from that report.
The same NSW Government report identifies that some 71,360 hectares of new native vegetation conservation areas were created in the three years referred to above, and that on average over the past nine years 144,030 hectares of new conservation areas have been created annually.
The same report also identified that 711,850 hectares of land was converted into new or revegetated areas of native vegetation over the past three years, and 2,475,120 hectares of land was included in native vegetation management agreements designed to improve biodiversity through weed control and grazing management.
So, in summary, the NSW Native Vegetation report for 2013-14 identified that 23,000 hectares of land had been cleared by farmers over the last three years, and 3,258,330 hectares of land had been converted into native vegetation conservation areas or placed under management agreements to improve native vegetation, with much of this being land owned by farmers.
This means that the area of land on which native vegetation was removed was just 0.07% of the new areas of land on which native vegetation was either permanently conserved or placed under protective management, yet the author of the SMH article chose to report the 0.07%, and completely ignore what is a very good news story for those interested in native vegetation and biodiversity conservation in NSW.
Strangely, the article quoted a series of spokespersons all expressing grave concern about the implications of the reported clearing rates. For example, "We in NSW are in the middle of an extinction crisis - we cannot afford to keep losing wildlife habitat at this rate or we will lose species like the koala forever," said Kate Smolski, chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council.
Either the people quoted in the article did not read the report and were contacted by the reporter in the knowledge that they would provide supportive quotes to a story already written, or the responses confirm that even with the addition of 3.24 million hectares of new areas of native vegetation conservation, environmental campaigners will never be satisfied.
For more on the Australian Farm Institute visit http://www.farminstitute.org.au/