North West farmers have made it clear that they are sick of wearing the burden of environmental outcomes and want to be compensated for their biodiversity conservation efforts during a native vegetation forum, hosted by NSW Farmers in Moree this week.
More than 150 farmers from across the North West, including the Moree, Garah, Croppa Creek, North Star, Inverell, Narrabri, Wee Waa and Walgett areas, gathered in Moree on Tuesday, July 2 to gain a greater understanding of the Biodiversity Conservation Act, which was introduced in 2017.
They heard from a range of government departments responsible for various parts of the act, including Local Land Services (LLS) and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (formerly the Office of Environment and Heritage), and discussed key issues such as compliance and mapping, however the biggest topic of discussion throughout the day was that farmers deserve compensation.
Farmers have actually carried the burden and cost for society's goals in terms of what they want in environmental outcomes.
"The main issue that was repeated through the day was that if the government is going to lock up environmental land for the community's good, then they need to pay an economic return to the farmers," NSW Farmers Moree branch chair Stuart Gall said.
"We need to make an economic year-on-year return on any land that's locked up, or it's not worth doing and we're sick of wearing the burden for the rest of the community to feel good about environmental outcomes when they're not willing to pay for them."
Under the new legislation, the Biodiversity Conservation Trust (BCT) was established, which does provide landholders with options to get paid for conservation management, however Mr Gall said this is not enough.
"That land is worthless when farmers can't do anything with it," he said.
NSW Farmers conservation and resource management committee chair and Tenterfield branch chair Bronwyn Petrie said farmers are being hit by a "double whammy".
The first is the offsets scheme, which requires farmers to offset up to six hectares of land for every hectare they clear. This is the same for developers, despite the fact that farmers are replanting vegetation, as opposed to developing land for property.
"Farmers are replacing native vegetation with vegetation that still provides habitat and improves soil biota, not concrete or bitumen, as developers are," Ms Petrie said.
The second "whammy" is the fact that native vegetation legislation was introduced to meet Australia's Kyoto Protocol commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which have been achieved "because of the restrictions that have been placed on farmers and their land".
"Otherwise those targets would have to be met by energy or fuel consumption, so energy and fuel companies would have had to massively increase their costs to consumers," Ms Petrie said.
"Instead, a small percentage of Australians - farmers - took on the whole burden at no compensation. And so farmers have actually carried the burden and cost for society's goals in terms of what they want in environmental outcomes. And economically that's not feasible but it's also not fair.
"If society wants these carbon emissions and these targets then they should be paying for it if they want the farmers to wear the burden of it."
Another contentious issue is the integrity of the satellite mapping under the new legislation, which is used to monitor and regulate land clearing.
"The mapping has got a long way to go," Mr Gall said.
"[Jeremy Black from the OEH who spoke about mapping] told us they could not distinguish between an introduced weed or a native. I was very surprised at how little they can tell from it. From what he was saying, I was not filled with confidence at all."
One positive to come from Tuesday's forum was reassurance from NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall for those farmers facing prosecution and/or compliance action for activity which they undertook under the old native vegetation act, which would be legal if it was undertaken today under the new, more flexible, land management framework.
"As the Minister for Agriculture, but also as a local member and a farmer's son, I'm firmly of the view that prosecution and compliance action should be halted if the activity undertaken by a landholder would now be permissible under the new land management laws, that is the new Biodiversity Conservation Act and the new Land Management Code," he said in a video address to the forum.
"I've been working pretty hard over the last few months to stand up for these affected farmers and I've had a number of frank conversations with my counterpart, Environment Minister Matt Kean, about a fairer and more reasonable way forward.
"I'm hoping, in the next few weeks, to make some announcements to bring this whole sorry saga completely to a close. And any reference or any action under the discredited native vegetation act, end it immediately and instead focus on a much fairer system going forward under the new laws and the new code."
NSW Farmers president James Jackson said that news is a win.
"There is a lot of people distressed at the moment because they have got compliance notices and that certainly is a problem, but hopefully we'll see more negotiation and settlements and less prosecutions," he said.
"We welcome any improvement in the outcome for the people out here in the North West because goodness gracious they're under enough stress as it is."
Another positive to come from the forum is that farmers now know that the LLS is there to help them navigate the framework and advise on what they can and can't do under the new act.
"I would encourage people to avail themselves to that service before you go out and do stuff in the native vegetation space," Mr Jackson said.
"They're not compliance people, they are there to navigate the act, which is something that wasn't there originally. There appears to be a change in the culture of the compliance and the culture of interfacing with these acts because the old laws were not creating outcomes, they were just creating impediments for people to work within them."
NSW Farmers will be providing a full report on the forum to Ministers Marshall and Kean.
Mr Gall said while the day was positive and provided people with a greater understanding of the legislation, there's still a long way to go.
The event was hosted by the Moree and Garah NSW Farmers branches, while the Narrabri, Wee Waa, Walgett, Inverell, Croppa Creek and North Star branches contributed financially and WFI provided sponsorship.