Land clearing on the rise as legal ‘thinning’ proves far from clear-cut

April Reside, The University of Queensland; Anita J Cosgrove, The University of Queensland; Jennifer Lesley Silcock, The University of Queensland; Leonie Seabrook, The University of Queensland, and Megan C Evans, The University of Queensland

Land clearing is accelerating across eastern Australia, despite our new research providing a clear warning of its impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, regional and global climate, and threatened native wildlife.

Policies in place to control land clearing have been wound back across all Australian states, with major consequences for our natural environment.

One of the recent policy changes made in Queensland and New South Wales has been the introduction of self-assessable codes that allow landholders to clear native vegetation without a permit. These codes are meant to allow small amounts of “low-risk” clearing, so that landholders save time and money and government can focus on regulating activities that have bigger potential impacts on the environment.

However, substantial areas of native forest are set to be cleared in Queensland under the guise of vegetation “thinning”, which is allowed by these self-assessable codes. How did this happen?

Thin on the ground

Thinning involves the selective removal of native trees and shrubs, and is widely used in the grazing industry to improve pasture quality. It has been argued that thinning returns the environment back to its “natural state” and provides better habitat for native wildlife. However, the science supporting this practice is not as clear-cut as it seems.

Vegetation “thickening” is part of a natural, dynamic ecological cycle. Australia’s climate is highly variable, so vegetation tends to grow more in wetter years and then dies off during drought years. These natural cycles of thickening and thinning can span 50 years or more. In most areas of inland eastern Australia, there is little evidence for ongoing vegetation thickening since pastoral settlement.

Thinning of vegetation using tractors, blades and other machinery interrupts this natural cycle, which can make post-drought recovery of native vegetation more difficult. Loss of tree and shrub cover puts native wildlife at much greater risk from introduced predators like cats, and aggressive, “despotic” native birds. Thinning reduces the diversity of wildlife by favouring a few highly dominant species that prefer open vegetation, and reduces the availability of old trees with hollows.

Many native birds and animals can only survive in vegetation that hasn’t been cleared for at least 30 years. So although vegetation of course grows back after clearing, for native wildlife it’s a matter of quality, not just quantity.

Land clearing by stealth?

Thinning codes in Queensland and New South Wales allow landholders to clear vegetation that has thickened beyond its “natural state”. Yet there is little agreement on what the “natural state” is for many native vegetation communities.

Under the Queensland codes, up to 75% of vegetation in an area can be removed without a permit, and in New South Wales thinning can reduce tree density to a level that is too low to support natural ecosystems.

All of this thinning adds up. Since August 2016, the Queensland government has received self-assessable vegetation clearing code notifications totalling more than 260,000 hectares. These areas include habitat for threatened species, and ecosystems that have already been extensively cleared.

It may be that the actual amount of vegetation cleared under thinning codes is less than the notifications suggest. But we will only know for sure when the next report on land clearing is released, and by then it will be too late.

Getting the balance right

Vegetation policy needs to strike a balance between protecting the environment and enabling landholders to manage their businesses efficiently and sustainably. While self-regulation makes sense for some small-scale activities, the current thinning codes allow large areas of vegetation to be removed from high-risk areas without government oversight.

Thinning codes should only allow vegetation to be cleared in areas that are not mapped as habitat for threatened species or ecosystems, and not to an extent where only scattered trees are left standing in a landscape. Stronger regulation is still needed to reduce the rate of land clearing, which in Queensland is now the highest in a decade.

Protecting native vegetation on private land reduces soil erosion and soil salinity, improves water quality, regulates climate, and allows Australia’s unique plants and animals to survive. Landholders who preserve native vegetation alongside farming provide essential services to the Australian community, and should be rewarded. We need long-term incentives to allow landholders to profit from protecting vegetation instead of clearing it.

Our research has shown that Australian governments spend billions of dollars trying to achieve the benefits already provided by native vegetation, through programs such as the Emissions Reduction Fund, the 20 Million Trees program and Reef Rescue. Yet far more damage is inflicted by under-regulated clearing than is “fixed” by these programs.

The ConversationImagine what could be achieved if we spent that money more effectively.

April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Anita J Cosgrove, Research Assistant in the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Jennifer Lesley Silcock, Post-doctoral research fellow, The University of Queensland; Leonie Seabrook, Landscape Ecologist, The University of Queensland, and Megan C Evans, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Environmental Policy, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Scientists unite against accelerated habitat loss in Australia

This article was first published on the ALERT blog, and describes the recent actions by leading scientists to slow the loss of Australia’s native ecosystems.

Hundreds of senior scientists from across Australia and the world, along with four leading scientific societies, have united to express alarm at Australia’s increasing rate of destruction of native vegetation.

Earlier this month, over 500 scientists met in Brisbane for the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania Section meeting.  Unsurprisingly, one of the hottest topics was habitat destruction.

Declaration Against Habitat Destruction

The delegates of the conference voted to support a scientists’ declaration on land clearing in Australia.  Additional signatories included internationally renowned scientists, including several ALERT members, and ecologists and environmental scientists from across Australia.

“Our native vegetation is crucial to our wildlife, our climate, and the Great Barrier Reef,” said President of the Oceania Section of the Society for Conservation Biology, Professor Richard Kingsford.

“If we continue down this path, the cost to society and the economy will be enormous — and largely irreversible.  We will face higher temperatures, more severe droughts, and see iconic species pushed to extinction”.

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Habitat loss threatens most of Australia’s over 1,700 threatened species and ecological communities.

In Queensland, deforestation is returning to globally-significant levels. The scale of the problem has tripled in just three years, with woodland and forest loss at nearly 300,000 hectares per year, according to the government’s latest figures. Continue reading “Scientists unite against accelerated habitat loss in Australia”

Submission to the NSW Biodiversity legislation review

Megan Evans and Martine Maron recently made a submission to the New South Wales biodiversity legislation review. You can read our full submission here, and key points are summarised below.

We support efforts to reform native vegetation laws to improve outcomes for biodiversity, reduce regulatory burden where possible, and to create new incentives and opportunities for landholders to engage in private land conservation.

However, we are extremely concerned with particular components of the biodiversity legislation package, which will seriously undermine the object of the Act itself, and run directly counter to the recommendations of the independent review of the Native Vegetation Act 2003.

New South Wales has a significant opportunity to reform its biodiversity and native vegetation laws to enhance positive social, economic and environmental outcomes. The draft Biodiversity Conservation Act in its current form is unlikely to deliver these outcomes. Indeed, in absence of rigorous policy monitoring, evaluation and compliance enforcement, it is not likely we will know what, if any, outcomes the new Act will achieve. Crucially, the many exemptions provided for under the Act will very likely facilitate an increase broad-scale clearing in New South Wales, which would be a significant backward step for environmental policy in Australia.

Continue reading “Submission to the NSW Biodiversity legislation review”

Better offsets for threatened species

Below is a summary of our NESP-TSR project which Martine Maron, Megan Evans and Fleur Maseyk are involved with.

When species are threatened by development such as urban growth or mining, environmental offsets are often used to help counterbalance the impact.

The idea is to generate an environmental benefit equal to the loss – achieving a neutral net outcome, says Associate Professor Martine Maron from The University of Queensland, who leads the TSR Hub’s ‘Better offsets for threatened species’ Project (5.1).

“Some of the traditional area-based offsets, which may involve creating new habitat and putting protection around it, or restoring the condition of vegetation on other land, can be very expensive but not as effective as we’d hoped,” says Associate Professor Maron.

Flickr_Swift Parrot_heatherw
Image credit: Swift Parrot, courtesy of Heather W (Flickr).

Project 5.1 will explore alternative strategies for providing offset benefits, particularly for threatened species often affected by unavoidable development, such as the Swift Parrot, Regent Honeyeater, Growling Grass Frog and cave-dwelling microbats.

Continue reading “Better offsets for threatened species”