A North-West NSW farmer near Walgett who cleared almost 70 per cent of his property has been fined $248,000, with $48,000 in court costs, for illegal clearing, but told the NSW Land and Environment Court he believed he had the green light from a state politician.
The farmer now faces remediation orders that could lock up part of his land for 20 years, although the NSW Government promised such issues would not exist beyond August.
In a very damning judgment, after the farmer pleaded guilty, the Land and Environment Court imposed a huge fine on the man who runs the property with his young wife, who thought he had the green light for clearing after talking to a state politician.
The judgment by Preston, CJ, said: "I find that the clearing has caused actual environmental harm. The clearing removed all of the native vegetation in the cleared areas except for a few isolated clumps of trees and a thin line of vegetation along a dry drainage line.
"The clearing was of the nature and had the effect of broadscale clearing. The native vegetation cleared was of value in itself but also provided habitat for other species of fauna and flora, some of which are threatened species. The removal of habitat of numerous species of fauna and flora has caused impacts on ecological functioning and biodiversity.
"The harm caused to the environment by commission of the offence is of medium significance and can be categorised as "substantial" under s 21A(2)(g) of the Sentencing Act. I agree with and adopt the prosecutor's submissions that the clearing has caused substantial environmental harm by reason of: first, the scale of the clearing (423ha of native vegetation were cleared, at least 25 species of native vegetation were removed, and 58 species of endangered fauna and flora were potentially affected)."
The farmer who pleaded guilty said: "I accept that I did not look into the legality of clearing the vegetation from the property prior to the work being completed. It was my understanding that the law in NSW was being changed and that vegetation removal was once again allowed. The only enquiries that I made in this regard was to the local member of State Parliament and I recall that at a meeting of farmers he said words to the effect as follows: He said: 'We're going to get rid of the native vegetation laws and we're going to fix that area so farmers can again undertake farming and develop country'.
The farmer later said "In hindsight I accept that I should not have relied on these comments from a politician and that I should have obtained either legal advice or advice from the LLS [Local Land Services] before the work was undertaken."
The NSW Government has just issued a new directive ordering reviews of 164 violations of the old Native Vegetation Act of 2003.
The judgment found that there was of native vegetation cleared 423ha on the 606ha property, and "at least 25 species of native vegetation were removed, affecting 58 identified fauna and flora species listed as threatened that were associated with the habitat. The lost habitat was important and mature. The clearing removed a large majority of the pre-1990 woody vegetation from the cleared area."
"I find that the clearing has caused actual environmental harm. The clearing removed all of the native vegetation in the cleared areas except for a few isolated clumps of trees and a thin line of vegetation along a dry drainage line. The clearing was of the nature and had the effect of broadscale clearing," the judgment found.
Last week the NSW Government promised no farmer would have to face prosecution if illegal clearing under the old Native Vegetation Act was actually legal under new 2017 legislation reforming land clearing and establishing set-asides, after a review by a triage of committees.
The Government also promised there would be no more remediation orders that would lock up land from August as this was no good for the environment or farmers.