Alaine Anderson feeds a koala rescued after mother killed on the roads. Alaine has been intimidated by neighbours after speaking up about land clearing. Pic Nick Moir 24 aug 2017 Cleared trees and crops near Croppa Creek. Pic Nick Moir 24 aug 2017
Landclearing on Beefwood farm along the Newell Hwy north of Moree. Pic Nick Moir 24 aug 2017
It’s the day before new NSW land-clearing codes were due for release and here, as semi-trailers roar along the busy Newell Highway in the state’s far north, a large front-end loader is busy piling native vegetation.
If the surrounding scorched earth and nearby fires are any guide, this clump too will soon be torched.
“Oh my god, look at that,” Alaine Anderson, a local farmer and wildlife rescuer, exclaims, pointing out stands of threatened myall, boxes and other trees possibly earmaked for destruction.
“This was pretty thick stuff … it was a beautiful, beautiful line of trees.”
The property’s owner copped fines of about $340,000, including court costs, for illegally clearing part of the block in 2011 and 2012. Fairfax Media asked the Office of Environment Heritage whether permission had been sought for the latest work.
Reached on Friday, Glenn Coughran, the manager of Beefwood Farm, declined to say whether the property had a clearing permit. “I can’t comment.” he said, before hanging up.
The reality is that amid the biggest overhaul of the state’s native vegetation laws in more than two decades, neither farmers who want to clear more land nor those trying to save dwindling wildlife habitat on private property are certain about what can be legally cleared. Vegetation maps that are supposed to guide farmers aren’t ready – and may not be for months, if not years – even as the new codes came into effect on Friday.
Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton is adamant the biodiversity conservation package – replacing native vegetation and threatened species acts – will deliver on promises to give farmers more flexibility while better preserving the most precious landscapes.
“The land classifications for farmers and landholders are already set out in the new Local Land Services Act,” she says. “It is mischievous to represent otherwise.” “The maps will be an additional guide. Local Land Services (LLS) staff will also be on the ground to assist farmers and landholders.” ‘Extreme concerns’
That confidence is not shared within her own department, though.
One Office of Environment Heritage staffer, who requested anonymity for fear of losing employment, this week told Fairfax Media of “extreme concerns about the compliance”, adding that the codes and their implementation were “not at all finalised”.
“By the time we wake up to it, it’s going to be too late,” the staffer said, of the risk land clearing may be about to accelerate.
Wendy Hawes, an ecologist, worries the change overhaul will “not protect biodiversity – if anything it will run biodiversity into the ground”.
“Within the first three years of enactment, a landholder can clear up to 625 hectares of Category 2 land [which has high conservation value] providing they don’t reduce the area of category 2 land on their property below 10 per cent,” she said, adding there is no science supporting 10 per cent as a minimum threshold for biodiversity.
Cleared trees and crops near Croppa Creek. Photo: Nick Moir
“They are required to have this clearing certified by LLS and it will allow the reclassification of this land to Category 1 [effectively unregulated land],” leaving it to the farmer to manage, she said.
At risk, for instance, are the old paddock trees that are often an important stepping-stone habitat across the fragmented landscapes. While farmers will have to plant new trees, it could take many decades in some cases for the nesting holes to return.
Not that the bulldozers have been idling until the legal niceties are sorted. A range of sites owned by big developers further west of the Newell, beyond Garah, are under investigation by Office of Environment Heritage, while one serial deforester was busy with five dozers on his spread south of Moree according to farmer scuttlebutt.
“There will not be an amnesty for potentially unlawful clearing that has taken place before the start date of the new laws,” Ms Upton warns.
Even groups such as NSW Farmers that pushed to have the old controls scrapped almost from their start in 1995 aren’t certain what they’ve won. ‘Nowhere near’ what’s needed
Oscar Pearse, a sixth-generation farmer north-east of Moree and a member of NSW Farmers’ native vegetation taskforce, had hoped the changes would allow him to remove 400 paddock trees, giving him the incentive to invest in bigger, more efficient equipment. He has his sights on a $470,000, 36 metre-wide sprayer that would pay for itself it in five years by cutting weedicide use by 80 per cent and labour.
Under the codes as seen so far, though, Pearse might be limited to one paddock tree per 50 hectares a year, or “nowhere near enough to what I need to do”.
The well-spoken and amicable Pearse declares he’s “no redneck”. Sporting a fashionable if early-season top knot of hair under his soft bush hat, he volunteers a comparison of his property’s state to that of “pre-invasion times”, rather than the euphemistic “European settlement” more commonly heard.
Pearse’s concerns are keeping his farm viable enough to compete with swelling operations of those around him, and planning for the day he has to buy out his sister to keep the property in the family.
He’s acutely aware land in his area would soar in value – from $300 to $2200 an acre – if cleared for cropping. His family’s readiness to follow the law more carefully than others meant he was regularly “blown out of the water” at land auctions. “I’m not in the ‘nuke everything’ camp.”
Early indications suggest the maps are inaccurate both ways, with some areas wrongly stating excessive category-two vegetation, such as in Monaro in the state’s south. In the Walgett region, relatively threatened native grasses are shown as category one, Pearse says.
“The maps in the grazing country are so inaccurate,” he adds. “They’ll start to turn all of it to cropping country from day one.” ‘Pittance’
For Nicky Kirkby, whose family plants dry-land cotton near Bellata to the south, the new codes leave her “horrified” by ambiguities and the lack of maps that could see farmers take a clear first, contest later approach.
Her family love their wildlife including glossy black cockatoos. These gather in flocks of 50 or more – rare for a bird listed as vulnerable in NSW and Queensland – in the old-growth trees they hope to preserve.
About one-tenth of the Kirkby’s 20,000-acre (8090 hectares) farm has been left uncleared. But with crop land prices continuing to rise about 10 per cent a year, pressure to realise the farm’s full untapped value only mounts. Kirkby lists two possible sales triggers: “If there’s a squeeze, such as two dry years or commodity prices fall.”
She is also wary that if they were forced to sell uncleared land, “whoever buys it off you will clear it straight away”.
Both Pearse and Kirkby say the $240 million Biodiversity Conservation Trust over five years – and more later – to pay farmers to conserve vegetation won’t make much difference.
“The $240 million is really a pittance,” Pearse says. “It’s farcical … you need a couple of zeros added to it.”
He notes the trust only recognises changed land-use, and currently runs only 10 years. “After that I’ll have a stranded asset,” he says. “If the community wants, the government wants it, then give us an incentive.” ‘Ecocide’
Penny Sharpe, Labor’s environment spokeswoman, echoes the concerns of ecologists: “The new laws are a mess that endangers wildlife and native vegetation while destroying the best tools we have to keep our soils productive and our air and water clean.”
“Under a Labor government, the current laws will not stand. Labor will return environmental protection to land clearing and biodiversity laws,” she says. “We will do this with scientists, farmers and environmentalists.”
Greens’ environment spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi says the blame for further loss of endangered species will sit “squarely at the feet of Premier Gladys Berejiklian”.
“There is no question that these ecocidal laws must be repealed in their entirety and I have legislation in the parliament ready to do this,” she said. ‘The thing that won’t work is self-assessment’
Brian Tomalin has an unusual perspective. As a beef farmer near Tamworth for 36 years, he also served as part of the NSW Farmers negotiation team during the 2004 Native Vegetation Act talks, trying to hammer out a deal with environmental groups.
“I’m nervous about the outcome [of the new laws], and I don’t think it will be good,” he says.
The issue of greater recognition of farmers’ need to clear invasive native vegetation had poisoned relations between the two groups then, and finding a fix “would have solved 75 per cent” of the problem, removing the need to repeal the old laws, Tomalin says.
“The thing that won’t work is self-assessment,” he says. “Eco-systems and agriculture management are complex. I haven’t seen anyone put those together without technical assistance.”
One reason for the rejection by many farmers of the native vegetation rules “was a philosophical objection to the government telling them what to do,” he says, an approach that extended to other areas of environmental law, including water.
“There’s nothing unique about farming that you don’t have to abide by community standards,” Tomalin says. Compliance ‘backed off’
The previous laws had deliberately tried to limit the type of broadscale clearing that had denuded huge areas of inland Queensland and NSW – with many of the same players – up until the 1990s.
Apart from preserving important wildlife remnants, the restrictions brought in by both states have been a major reason why Australia has met its global carbon emission goals – and why the resumption of clearing in recent years on both sides of the border is likely to put future targets further out of reach.
Tomalin says Liberal-Nationals governments since 2011 have “backed right off compliance”.
“I’m pretty cranky about that – it led to a murder,” he said, referring to the slaying of Office of Environment Heritage compliance officer Glen Turner in July 2014 by farmer Ian Turnbull about 10 kilometres from the Beefwood Farm.
Mr Turner’s widow Alison McKenzie last week appealed to Berejiklian to delay the introduction of the new codes, fearing a sharp increase in clearing. They apparently would even make legal what the family of the late murderer – Turnbull died in March, less than a year into his 35-year jail term – had been doing on his land.
McKenzie and Turner’s sister Fran Pearce said the codes would give farmers “the opportunity of a lifetime … to clear what they like and get away with it”, said in the letter to the Premier.
“I really thought it would be the opposite,” McKenzie said. about the failure to preserve her husband’s legacy. “I don’t know how farmers with integrity are going to work with [the new codes].”
For their part, Anderson and her husband Lionel have had to call in the police after multiple threats – slashed car tyres, expensive machinery damage, and even a dangerous electrical cord left in a shed – by those apparently seeking to intimidate them for their outspoken opposition to illegal land clearing of fast-dwindling koala habitat.
“The clearing has never abated since Glen Turner died,” she says. “It’s almost as if no one gives a stuff.”
Alaine Anderson feeds a rescued koala. Photo: Nick Moir