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Land Clearing in Queensland

Huge bulldozers using chains to drag down swathes of native bushland were a common sight in western Queensland for many years - but thanks to pressure from the community the State Government has acted to phase out broadscale land clearing by December 2006.

A Huge Win for the Environment

January 2007 began a new era for Queensland’s bushland, wildlife and rivers. After decades of relentless government endorsed broadscale landclearing, a phase out was completed and a ban on most clearing came into effect.

This silencing of the bulldozers was the culmination of a 15 year campaign of public pressure, which resulted in the Queensland State Government passing laws to phase out broadscale land clearing in May 2004. This was the biggest single step ever taken to protect Queensland's natural environment. The laws protect almost 20 million hectares of native bushland that would otherwise be open to land clearing.

That's an area larger than the state of Victoria, and three times as big as all Queensland's National Parks combined. The laws have also had the effect of significantly reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Because there is so much carbon in forests and bushland) in both the wood and the soil), an estimated 5-10% of Australia’s carbon emissions was coming from land clearing.

It's All Thanks to You!

This outcome is due to the concern, generosity, and hard work of thousands of Wilderness Society staff, members, and volunteers. It is a tribute to everyone who made a donation, sent a postcard, attended a rally, stuck up a poster, or lobbied a politician, calling for an end to the destruction.

During the campaign we also worked in close cooperation with our fellow environment groups - especially the Queensland Conservation Council, the Australian Conservation Foundation, and WWF Australia.

Most other states only halted broadscale clearing of native bushlands only when the majority of it had been cleared, and widespread land degradation had already set in. In Queensland, many important areas of bush were still intact and will be protected for the long term.

Some of the places that have received improved protection include:

* Cape York Peninsula — the tall eucalypt forests, tropical savannah, rainforests, and heathlands that intertwine from one horizon to the other, to make Cape York a global treasure. 

* Gulf of Carpentaria — the low woodlands of wattle, tea tree and eucalypt that stretch out across the undulating plains of the Gulf Country, feeding the region's famous floodplain wetlands.

* Northern Uplands the raised tablelands and plateaus of Queensland's Great Dividing Range are cloaked in sub-tropical eucalypt woodlands rich in wildlife.

* Brigalow Belt the remaining mixed brigalow and eucalypt woodlands of Central Queensland and the Carnarvon Range still host an astonishing range of plants and animals, with biodiversity to rival our World Heritage rainforests.

This step gives Queensland a chance to avoid many of the environmental problems now confronting southern states, and develop a new, more sustainable way to manage our bushland, and make a living from the land. Future generations will recognise this decison as an historic turning point in how Australians relate to their harsh but beautiful environment.

Decades of Destruction — A Short History

Land clearing in Queensland followed the spread of white settlers, however in the latter half of the 20th Century, clearing rates were increasing, not slowing down. More land was cleared in the 50 years after World War Two than in the 150 years before. 

In the early days, new arrivals sweated to clear their block with not much more than an axe, but after WWII, landholders had access to bulldozers and other machines so they could clear the bush faster than ever before. In the 1950s a young Joh Bjelke-Petersen came up with the idea of using an enormous chain strung between two tractors to drag down great swathes of bushland. He later went on to become Premier of Queensland.

Farmers were seeking to establish new districts for agriculture, and they took their bulldozers and chains further north and west, into the heart of Queensland. The first patches of bushland to be cleared were those growing on the most fertile and productive soils.  Then over the years, as new land became more scarce, and farming techniques changed, less fertile soils were cleared.

For many decades farmers who held a lease to graze cattle or sheep on state-owned land were required to clear the property as a condition of their lease. This was a Government policy to encourage economic development.

In 1960 the State Government and Commonwealth Governments set up the Brigalow Scheme to help soldiers returning from WWII start new lives in Central Queensland's Brigalow country. Ex-soldiers were given a block of bushland, and expected to clear it and establish a farm. Over the next 15 years around 3 million hectares of native bushland were lost.

The 1960s also saw the first signs of concern over the environmental impacts of land clearing in Queensland. A handful of local residents and scientists began investigating the issue and questioning the Governments 'develop at all costs' approach.

By the 1980s the cost of over-clearing in southern states was becoming clear. Scientists realised the links between land clearing and soil erosion, salinity and water pollution. Locals noticed that birds and animals that were once a familiar sight, had disappeared from cleared landscapes.

From the 1990s onwards, the vast majority of land clearing in Queensland was to establish new paddocks for grazing cattle, to feed growing markets overseas for Australian beef.

In the early 1990s there was a concerted campaign by environmentalists in Queensland calling for some kind of legal controls to limit land clearing — especially on state-owned leasehold land.

As a result of this campaign, in 1991 the State Government passed laws to protect endangered and threatened types of bushland on leasehold land. For the first time leaseholders had to get a permit to clear native bushland. However, clearing continued unchecked on privately owned land.

Environmentalists continued their campaign, this time highlighting the escalating rates of clearing on private (or freehold) land.  In 1999 the State again introduced new laws — this time to prevent the clearing of endangered bushland on private land. Initially the laws were intended to be much stronger and protect larger areas of bushland, but opposition from the cattle industry forced a delay, and eventually the laws were watered down.

During 1999 the Queensland Government and the Federal Government had a heated public debate about who would pay to compensate landholders for the new land clearing controls. While the politicians argued, over 1 million hectares of bushland was cleared by landholders seeking to beat the new laws. This was when The Wilderness Society first became involved in the campaign.

The watered down laws were failing to reign-in Queensland's record rates of land clearing. By 2000, Queensland had the sixth highest rate of land clearing in the world, and Governments were once again under pressure to act to stop the bulldozers.

Over the next four years, thousands of people were involved in letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations, public meetings and awareness raising about the damage being caused by land clearing.

In 2003 the State and Federal Governments reached an historic agreement to phase out broadscale clearing of remnant bushland and provide $150 million dollars to help landholders adjust to the changes, and manage their land more sustainably. Six months later, under pressure from the cattle industry, the Federal Liberal Government withdrew its support for the agreement, and refused to provide any money towards the deal. Thankfully a moratorium had been put in place to prevent a repeat of the 'panic clearing' seen in 1999.

At the State Election in February 2004 the Labor Party decided to go it alone, and promised to provide the full $150 million to bring an end to broadscale clearing. This policy won strong support at the polls, and when Labor won Government they amended the Vegetation Management Act to immediately protect threatened types of bushland, and phase out broadscale clearing of remnant bushland in rural Queensland by December 2006.

Rates of Land Clearing - Then and Now

Between 1995 and 2005 Queensland cleared an average of 450,000 hectares of native bushland every year. That's more than 10 suburban house blocks every minute. In those years, more than three quarters of all land clearing in Australia was happening in Queensland.

This map shows where most broadscale land clearing took place during its last decade - in central western Queensland, the Murray Darling Basin and at certain 'hot spots' along the coast. Over 90% of land clearing in Queensland is to make way for new cattle grazing paddocks. The rest is for sugarcane and other crops, as well as houses, roads, factories and tourist developments.

  

Land Clearing was phased out to allow large numbers of land clearing permits given out before the new laws were introduced in 2004, to be used, and to allow an additional last issue of 500,000 hectares of clearing permits. The Wilderness Society campaigned for a faster reduction in clearing rates, without success.

Queensland's New Land Clearing Laws

The Vegetation Management Act (1999) controls the clearing of mature (or 'remnant') native bushland on freehold and leasehold land outside of urban areas in Queensland. Clearing of regrowth bushland is not regulated, and clearing in urban areas is controlled by local councils.

The purpose of the Vegetation Management Act (VMA) is to protect remnant native vegetation; prevent land degradation; protect biodiversity and ecological processes; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Act was amended in 2004, setting out the process to phase out broadscale clearing of remnant bushland until December 2006, when clearing permits expired. Only certain kinds of smaller scale "ongoing" clearing activities are now allowed.

Some necessary day-to-day tree clearing activities are exempt from the regulations, such as clearing to build a single house, a fence, or prevent bushfires. For all other kinds of clearing, the land holder must apply to the Department of Natural Resources and Mines for a non-broadscale land clearing permit. A permit will only be granted if the clearing is for one of the ten "ongoing" purposes listed in the VMA.

These include: thinning over-grown bushland; clearing for major state projects or necessary infrastructure; harvesting feed for livestock during a drought; weed control; and quarries. Each land clearing application must meet certain standards, to minimise the environmental impacts. These standards are set out in a Regional Code for the local area. Each Regional Code has provisions which are designed to protect threatened species, prevent dryland salinity, minimise soil erosion, protect waterways, and so on.

The Financial Adjustment Package

At the time of the new laws, landholders who were adversely affected by the laws could apply for financial assistance through the Queensland Rural Adjustment Authority. $120 million was made available to help farmers increase their productivity, or develop new enterprises to maintain or improve their income, without having to clear more bushland. 

Another $12 million was allocated to voluntary programs for protecting regrowth bushland, and $8 million was made available to help land owners develop property vegetation management plans. TWS and other environment groups were proactive in calling for these funds to help landholders adjust to the new laws.

Illegal Clearing, Urban Clearing...

 Having laws is one thing, making them work is another. The Wilderness Society is keen to see strong ongoing public outreach programs to promote the benefits of retaining native vegetation, and educate landholders about the controls on clearing.

At the same time there must be adequate resources to detect and prosecute cases of illegal land clearing.  Illegal clearing remains a problem in Queensland.  The great majority of landholders are doing the right thing and aren't clearing.  It is vital that illegal landclearing is vigorously pursued by the law.

Important areas of native bushland are also still being cleared in urban areas in Queensland, particularly on the urban fringe as suburbs expand. Tighter state-wide laws and Government funds are needed to protect the most important patches of remnant bushland that still survive close to our cities and towns.