Australia is making a bid to become a great deforester. In NSW alone, the clearing of native vegetation has escalated by 800 per cent, while measures to conserve native vegetation have plummeted. Across the nation, landclearing has wiped out a billion dollars worth of taxpayer funded emission gains, releasing more than 160m tonnes of carbon dioxide since 2015.
As far back as 2001 the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) rated only the burning of fossil fuels as a greater contributor. Forests, particularly those in the tropics, store a significant amount of carbon – 19 per cent of that in the earth’s biosphere.
Carbon pools such as forests have, until relatively recently, helped to keep the net atmosphere increase of carbon down, but globally, deforestation has increased along with human populations and the demand for more arable land to offset yield losses from drought.
The measure of the impact of deforestation can be taken in a report by The Guardian, quoting Professor Tom Crowther at ETH Zürich university; “Forest restoration isn’t just one of our climate change solutions, it is overwhelmingly the top one.”
Citing the probable increase of global temperatures by 1.5° C by 2030 from anthropogenic causes, the 2018 IPCC report found that planting a billion ha of forest would remove two thirds of the carbon added by anthropogenic causes since the 1800s.
But in defiance and ignorance of these facts, industrial deforestation is alarmingly on the increase across the world.
The biggest land clearing offenders are Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia, with the US expected to make America great again in that field, as the US president issued an executive order last December to increase forest logging by 31 per cent.
Brazil’s president Jair Bolsanaro has ramped up logging of the Amazon to the highest level since modern records began, annihilating half a billion trees, or 500,000 soccer fields in the past year alone. He is said to be working on a bill to repeal the legal requirement for farmers to maintain canopy cover over 50-80 per cent of their lands. Fuelled by China’s voracious demand for soybeans and palm oil among other agricultural products, more and more native vegetation is being sacrificed for industrial farming.
Australia is also making a bid to become a great deforester. In NSW alone, the clearing of native vegetation has escalated by 800 per cent, while measures to conserve native vegetation have plummeted. Across the nation, land-clearing has wiped out a billion dollars worth of taxpayer funded emission gains, releasing more than 160m tonnes of carbon dioxide since 2015.
The CSIRO’s Chief Scientist observes that Australia currently has 149 million hectares of forest, 147 million ha being native forest and 1.82 million ha in plantations. While grassland accounts for 440 million ha of land, forests are 10 times more efficient for carbon storage than grasslands.
These surviving forests store about 38.5 billion tonnes of gaseous carbon dioxide, or 70 times Australia’s annual net greenhouse gas emission.
Land clearing is soaring in defiance of already lax legislation
Government regulation of these forests is crucially failing to manage our carbon budget. Whether by omission or design, state by state, land clearing is soaring almost encouraged by lax legislation.
In NSW farmers have tripled the area of land cleared after the Berejiklian government relaxed its state planning laws in 2017-18. For the first time since 2004-5, clearing of agricultural lands exceeded that for forestry.
The Office of Environment and Heritage has admitted that the inability to collect exact information from remote properties, as well as the lack of adequate enforcement of those laws still surviving, mean these figures could well run short of the total amount of land cleared.
Farmers are still unhappy with what remains of the State Environmental Planning Policy No 46, that severely restricts the removal of regrowth that was more than 10 years old. Current satellite imagery shows rampant clearing in excess of the requirements of the remaining legislation.
“They should be applauded. That [clearing] is rehabilitation of the land,” says Bronwyn Petrie, chair of NSW Farmers’ Conservation & Resource Management Committee.
A NSW Farmers publication cited a Moree farmer who claims he has been victimised by restrictions on land clearing. “I, and many others, have been asked to give biodiversity a free run on my property at my own expense, and that’s been going on for years,” the farmer said.
That kind of defiance of scientific environmental mitigation measures was writ large in the 2014 murder of Office of Environment and Heritage officer Glen Turner by Moree farmer Ian Turnbull, after Turnbull was charged with illegal land clearing which he refused to stop.
Refusal to abide by already lax land clearing laws has also become a feature of corporations involved in major land clearing projects.
The NSW Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) has designated an area near Wilton, NSW as the Wilton Priority Growth Area under its Western City District Plan. It’s part of the NSW government’s vote-winning solution to Sydney’s congestion and housing problem. But it’s coming at a high cost.
Relentless semi-trailer and car traffic through busy Picton road near Wilton goes through core koala habitat and has resulted in at least 12 koala deaths over the past two years. But that’s nothing compared to what they’re facing when an anticipated 17,000-lot residential development engulfs this rural area.
OEH the Rural Fire Service (RFS), an independent scientist and the local Wollondilly Council have all weighed in against the existing proposal, saying it goes against long-standing scientific advice, ignores state planning laws and threatens the survival of the largest chlamydia-free koala population in NSW.
But the development planned by DPE favours a corridor bisecting 23 ha of land, illegally cleared by the Walker Corporation in 2005. According to Land and Environment Court transcripts it was fined $200,000 for that transgression, at that time one of the largest fines for illegal clearing of vegetation in NSW.
In 2011 Walker was fined an additional $80,000 for illegal clearing at Appin, where their current rezoning proposal is. Court transcripts indicate that the same land clearing contractor was used for both jobs and that the contractor understood the clearing was in anticipation of a future land rezoning – six years before the DPE’s exhibition period in 2017.
The DPE not only ignored their own environmental office’s advice, but appear to be flouting State Environmental Planning Proposal 44 (SEPP 44). Under that law the DPE is obliged to do a site-specific koala plan and the rezoning of the land should not have happened until a biocertification and vegetation mapping process had been completed.
That kind of dereliction of responsibility has been slammed by the NSW Auditor General, in her annual assessment of the state agencies in charge of forestry in NSW. She wrote a damning assessment, concluding that:
“The clearing of native vegetation on rural land is not effectively regulated and managed because the processes in place to support the regulatory framework are weak. There is no evidence-based assurance that clearing of native vegetation is being carried out in accordance with approvals. Responses to incidents of unlawful clearing are slow, with few tangible outcomes. Enforcement action is rarely taken against landholders who unlawfully clear native vegetation.”
Dailan Pugh has been involved in forestry defence since the Terania Creek blockades in 1979. He was awarded an Order of Australia medal in 2003 for his services to the environment and the Peter Rawlinson Conservation Award by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) in 2001.
He helped formulate the national criteria for the Comprehensive Adequate Reserve systems (CAR), was part of the first Threatened Species Recovery Team and the Harvest Advisory Panels assessing the Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). He brought a number of proceedings to court for Marine Parks and Marine Protection on NSW Coastal waters. A renowned artist whose works are sold internationally, Pugh has also had a frog, Philoria pughii, named after him.
He regularly conducts forestry surveys in northern NSW and observes;
“In the North Coast of NSW, which is recognised internationally as a biodiversity stronghold, most of the clearing that goes on is due to logging.
“On public land it’s all approved by the Environmental Protection Authority under a licence system, but we regularly find major breaches of those licences. We often find the [conditions] not being implemented, for example with koalas they’re meant to thoroughly search for koala scats ahead of logging and protect koala high use areas but in practice we find they rarely search with the thoroughness required.
“The fact that we’ve only had about 200 ha protected in the last 15 years is testimony to that, because there are a lot more koala high use areas that are legally required to be protected that are in fact being logged.
“We also find numerous other examples of endangered ecosystems being logged and eroded illegally, we found extensive areas of endangered ecological communities being logged when they’re meant to be protected. So across the board there are numerous cases of what we consider to be illegal logging, taking timber within approved operations on public land.”
On private land it’s generally approved under the Private Native Forestry Code, which has very weak requirements for protecting environmental values, so it’s approved without any meaningful environmental conditions or constraints, and in contravention of the Threatened Species requirements and other obligations.”
Victoria too, has an abysmal track record of excessive logging, particularly in catchments and ecologically sensitive areas. The state government’s forestry agency, Vicforests, is facing allegations of illegally harvesting timber in 42 forest coupes that are outside their allocation areas, according to the ABC.
Data obtained by the public broadcaster has found that one in 20 trees currently being harvested by Vicforests is logged illegally.
Meanwhile it is intensively logging the forests around Kinglake in Victoria, site of the 2009 Black Saturday wildfires.
Sue McKinnon of the Kinglake Friends of the Forest community group says that Vicforest’s logging of high conservation value forest around Kinglake is endangering the immediate community as well as contributing to very high carbon emissions, by turning most of its logged product into pulp.
“Vicforests have admitted that 85 per cent of its logged wood goes to make paper, so any carbon stored there disappears quickly into the atmosphere – and by the time they’re set to log again which is a 60-80 year cycle, it only gets to about half of the carbon retention it had before.
“This is a forest of mature trees, some 120 years old with lots of habitat hollows, that have already survived three major fires in living memory. Since the 2009 fires theres been 100 ha logged and there’s still 100 ha to go including the 22 ha being logged currently.
“A number of research papers show that regrowth forest is more of a fire risk and burns with greater intensity over the several decades of tree growth and this adds to the fire threat for wildlife and the rest of the forest.”
McKinnon said the health of the forest can be gauged by the population of the threatened Greater Glider, which has decreased by 80 per cent over the past 20 years.
“When the forest grows back after logging, the foresters mechanically till or burn the area, that provides a germination bed for eucalypts and destroys all the rhizome plants such as ferns and sedges that were there before, so it changes the composition of the forest dramatically, to make monoculture eucalypts for further logging in the future.
“The seed trees they’ve kept are all messmates, so they’re destroying the mix of trees, which is currently 70 percent messmates, 20 per cent narrow leaved peppermint and 10 per cent mountain grey gum.
“Climate change is already making this a drier area and there’s a growing pest population including deer, which feed on young trees, so there’s no guarantee this germination will be successful and a high likelihood that the forest will never be the same again.
Vicforests say they have a quota to fill for the paper company and the government has given them directions to log here.
“There’s an area close by that was logged in 2014 and replanted, but has no eucalyptus on it at all, it’s basically now a bracken paddock. Vicforests say it’s not their responsibility so we can only assume that the young trees were eaten by deer, as wallabies aren’t much on eating eucalypts.
“But Vicforests say they have a quota to fill for the paper company and the government has given them directions to log here.”
Queensland is on a par with Brazil in land cleared
Queensland alone is responsible for half of the total losses of Australian native forest, putting it on par with Brazil in terms of total ha of land cleared of native bush and forest over the last four years.
Its Vegetation Management Act of 1999 has been continually weakened and undermined by successive governments. In 2015-16, 35 per cent of total vegetation clearing was of remnant woody vegetation that has never previously been touched. Significantly greater swathes were cleared in the catchment of the Great Barrier Reef, adding layers of complexity to the issue by assisting in the killing off of another great carbon sink.
Native vegetation protection weakened by the Campbell Newman government has massively contributed to carbon output and exacerbates drought, topsoil loss and water quality decline.
The controversial Adani mine project has begun land clearing operations on 450 ha of bushland, after the Labor state government and the federal coalition fast-tracked approval deadlines for its own agencies, even as Adani demanded the names of CSIRO scientists working on its submissions.
Adani’s poor track record of environmental compliance in India and abroad has already raised questions about its fitness to operate in Australia, while its financial status has also been brought into doubt.
The AFR reports that Professor Sandra van der Laan, a financial analyst from the University of Sydney has described Adani as a “a corporate collapse waiting to happen,” with a gap between assets and liabilities of more than half a billion dollars, which effectively makes the company insolvent.
Though Adani has dismissed these claims as “false and misleading”, it has been forced to self fund from the parent company Adani Global after international banks and wealth funds refused to invest.
Adani has already been charged with illegal operations in Australia, including discharging coal laden water exceeding approved levels by more than 800 per cent, into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
In 2019 it admitted to exceeding its licence to pollute by almost double, releasing toxic waters into into the sensitive Caley Valley wetlands under cover of a storm. Despite these actions, both the Queensland and Federal governments continue to support the company’s land clearing activities in its bid to conduct a coal mining operation expected to massively increase Australia’s carbon emissions.
In Western Australia the Shanghai Zenith (Australia) Investment Holding is accused of illegally clearing land at the 190,000-hectare property Yakka Munga Station, north-east of Broome. The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation has told the ABC that it has not received an application to clear native vegetation.
In Tasmania the Tarkine forest has been gutted by fires, 85,000 ha of rare callidendrous forest destroyed forever after logging dried out these temperate rainforests to such an extent that they have became vulnerable to fire.
Australia is one of six countries, among Russia, the US, Canada, Brazil and China that bear half of the world’s forest restoration potential, according to the 2018 IPCC report.
While the Australian Government’s Department of Environment and Energy has claimed it will plant 20 million trees by 2020 to offset carbon emissions, but environmentalists point out these are generally saplings that may or may not survive, even if all the plantings go ahead. The track record of government environmental agencies in this country demonstrates that close scrutiny will be vital to keep them to that promise.