Removing trees from private land is a hard narrative for farmers to sell.
But leading ag voices say the debate suffers when regrowth, replanting, and rural stewardship projects are left out of the conversation.
With internal tensions high over state government’s environmental-agricultural direction, and with a Land and Environment Court challenge looming for its newly-minted native vegetation codes, NSW land clearing and biodiversity is back in the headlines.
Despite news that the first $37 million of the $240m Biodiversity Conservation Trust has been unlocked, big agribusiness is in the firing line: Nominated by nature groups as the true beneficiary of the new rules, and not small landholdings or family farms.
I continually remain surprised that this is ignored
With accompanying clearing stats tabled as a gross figure of what has been, and what could be, knocked down by farmers, Australian Farm Institute executive director Mick Keogh said he’d like to see a net figure - or at least recognition of Landcare and Emmissions Reduction Fund work, areas that have been replanted, land that has been set-aside, or the amount of clearing that is re-growth or invasive native species.
“Clearing land is a very difficult story to tell, and it has remained a challenge since Bob Carr initiated SEPP 46 in 1995,” Mr Keogh said.
“Those with old enough memories will remember headline stories in city media in 1995 about massive land clearing operations underway in Western NSW. Any groups now know there is an easy story there if they take the same line.
“But few people in urban areas understand re-vegetation, re-clearing, invasive scrub, or the fact that some land is privately owned by individuals and they bear the cost.
“I continually remain surprised that this is ignored.”
Mr Keogh’s words come during a week where the new native vegetation regime in NSW copped a hammering from conservation groups.
A Nature Conservation Council Freedom of Information request revealed the Office of Environment and Heritage told Minister Gabrielle Upton the new codes would see annual clearing jump from 9000ha to 15,000ha between 2017 and 2020.
The department also warned a further annual increase in clearing was on the cards, between 8 per cent and 45 per cent, with koala habitat at risk.
“The briefing prepared for the Environment Minister shows the laws will profit big agribusinesses, not farmers on small holdings, which the government claimed were the focus of these changes,” Council chief executive Kate Smolski said.
“The government has used public sympathy for small-area farmers to justify land clearing laws that benefit the National Party’s big agribusiness mates.
The Council pointed out that some clearing was allowed without having to provide native vegetation set-asides and offsets.
“It is quite possible set-asides and offsets will not increase in line with the potential 45% spike in clearing,” Ms Smolski said.
Does the veg code account for set-asides?
There are indeed sections of the contentious Native Vegetation code that do not require set-asides.
Under the code, category 1 land is considered less biodiverse and no set-asides are required.
It’s the same for standard allowable activities, or if one paddock tree is cleared per 50 hectares per year.
Set asides are also not necessary for clearing invasive native species on Category 2 land, or for uniform and mosaic thinning, or continuing use – though LLS is required to be notified in each of these cases.
Set asides kick in for clearing small areas (1 hectare in the coast, 4 hectares in the west) or when planning to clear larger tracts of rural regulated land.
In short, set asides for Category 2 land start at 1:1 (eg. one hectare set aside for one hectare cleared) and range to 8:1 for endangered communities where there is less than 20pc of the vegetation type left on a property.
Set-aside responsibilities increase depending on the rate and scale a landholder wants to clear, as well as the amount of the vegetation left on their land, and how ecologically valuable it is.
Critically endangered ecological community, coastal wetlands, old growth forests, littoral rainforests, and core koala habitat can’t be cleared under this code.
Clearing is also not permitted under this code if it means a remnant vegetation type drops below 10 per cent on your property.
For small areas under the Equity Part of the code:
- Set aside ratios range from 1:1 for regulated land and 2:1 for endangered ecological communities.
- For larger regulated rural areas under the equity code (capped over three years at 100ha or 25% of your property’s remnant vegetation, up to 650ha) the ratios range from 2:1 to 4:1 for regulated land, 3:1 and 6:1, for vulnerable communities and 4:1 to 8:1 for endangered communities, depending on how much of the vegetation you’ve got left on your property.
For a greater rate and scale of clearing, there’s the Farm Plan route, where set-asides also involve the concept of improving previously exempt areas as well as conserving regulated land.
- For paddock trees under the farm plan route set-asides are 0.25ha for each paddock tree cleared on non-vulnerable land, or 0.375ha for each paddock tree cleared on vulnerable land.
- For larger regulated rural areas under farm plan the ratios range from 1:1 to 3:1 for regulated land and 1.5:1 to 4.5:1 for vulnerable communities, depending on how much of the vegetation you’ve got left on your property.
Outside the code sits the biodiversity offsets scheme.
It’s for projects that are likely to significantly affect threatened species or trigger the Biodiversity Offsets Scheme threshold: a test used to determine when is necessary to engage an accredited assessor to apply the Biodiversity Assessment Method (the BAM) to assess the impacts of a proposal. This is generally associated with extensive agriculture.
This is relevant for landholders who intend to clear native vegetation on rural land but do not meet the requirements of Allowable Activities or the Land Management (Native Vegetation) code, though development consent is not required.
Push to include offset areas in reporting
NSW Farmers native vegetation working group spokesman Mitchell Clapham said the Association called on the Government to improve its yearly reporting.
“We are hopeful that the biodiversity reforms could trigger that - and we will start to see things like offsets and conservation areas included,” he said.
“The OEH’s annual reporting about native vegetation to date hasn’t been the full picture: re-planting, biodiversity improvement, or offset/conservation areas are never included and nor is biodiversity quality reported on.
“Also things like bushfires or clearing trees for safety reasons are included as ‘unexplained clearing’ which unfairly paints a bad picture for farmers.”
There was also news this week north-west based ecologists had reported more than a dozen cases of possible illegal land clearing to the OEH since the new rules came into effect in August.
When contacted by The Land, OEH did not say how many complaints of illegal land clearing in NSW it had received since August, or how many compliance investigations had commenced.
Nor did it indicate whether compliance investigations had increased or which areas of the state had been the subject of the most complaints.
Biodiversity Conservation Trust potential
Meanwhile the Nature Conservation Council said it encouraged landholders with quality wildlife habitat to engage positively with the $240 million Biodiversity Conservation Trust because it has the potential to deliver wins for the environment and landholders.
“However, it is still our view that the new land clearing laws as a whole are bad for wildlife, bushland, soils and water, especially as the effects of climate change start to bite,” Ms Smolski said.
Many farmers said they were taking a ‘suck and see’ approach until they get more detail on how the stewardship-style projects will be rolled out.
“Whether (the Trust) is offering enough money, it’s a bit like asking how long is a piece of string,” Mr Clapham said last week.
A total $37m was made available last week and a further $60m will be unlocked in the next financial year.