On May 3, 2018, Queensland’s Parliament finally voted in support of reinstating controls on land clearing. These new laws are not perfect, but they will help reduce the soaring rates of land clearing that have returned to the state over the past six years. The voice of scientists has been prominent in this debate, and the 2016 Scientists’ Declaration on Accelerating Forest, Woodland and Grassland Destruction in Australia shows the strength of the scientific consensus on the damage that broadscale land clearing has done, and continues to do, to Australia’s environment and biodiversity. The message of the Declaration remains important, as other states followed Queensland in relaxing protection of native vegetation. Habitat loss remains a key threat to Australia’s biodiversity, but at least our most biodiverse state has now taken concrete steps to safeguard its native vegetation – and the Great Barrier Reef, inland waterways, soils and species that depend upon it.
Continuing land clearing and related habitat loss is one of greatest threats to Australia’s native biodiversity. Land clearing also contributes to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, and leads to higher regional temperatures, less rainfall and more severe droughts. Land clearing during much of Queensland’s European settlement history for food production, mining, infrastructure and settlements has resulted in the loss of 30% of native vegetation since the mid-1800s. In the prime agricultural and pastoral regions of the Brigalow Belt in central Queensland, many native ecosystems are now endangered with less than 10% remaining. In the river catchments draining into the Great Barrier Reef, sediment from land clearing is threatening corals and seagrass habitats in this World Heritage site.
From 1994 Queensland introduced a string of progressively more wide-ranging vegetation management controls. Vacillation around the introduction of the Vegetation Management Act (VMA) in 1999 led to a surge in clearing, peaking that year at around 770,000 ha. Most of this clearing was in the Brigalow Belt, and led to the release of the 2003 Brigalow Declaration signed by over 400 scientists.
However, the introduction of the Vegetation and Other Legislation Amendment Act in 2004 ended broadscale clearing, protecting most remnant vegetation and high value regrowth where endangered ecosystems such as Brigalow were naturally recovering after clearing. Annual tree clearing fell from an average of 440,000 ha per year from 1995–2006, to around 70,000 ha per year in 2009. However, in 2013 many of these controls were removed by the Liberal National Party government under amendments to the VMA , and by 2013-14 clearing had risen to nearly 300,000 ha per year.
In April 2016, the Queensland Parliament called for submissions regarding reintroduction of stronger vegetation management controls through Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016. A group of 28 of the most senior environmental scientists from across Queensland prepared a submission supporting the proposed amendments and suggesting even stronger controls may needed; several of the scientists appeared before the Parliamentary Inquiry. The submission can be downloaded here, and an earlier statement by the group at the time the previous vegetation management controls were wound back can be viewed here. In July 2016, nearly 500 scientists and four scientific societies signed the Scientists’ Declaration on Accelerating forest, woodland and grassland destruction in Australia.
Despite the scientific consensus, the 2016 Bill was voted down by one vote.
Data continued to emerge charting land clearing rates that continued to increase, year on year. The data for 2015-16 revealed almost 400,000 hectares were cleared in 12 months – the highest rate of clearing since 2003-04.
In late 2017, a State election returned a Labor government who campaigned on an election promise to reinstate protections of native vegetation. The newly-elected government introduced a new Bill, which was stronger than the 2016 one: the Vegetation Management and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2018. A Parliamentary Committee Inquiry received 777 submissions – overwhelmingly in favour of the Bill.
After three days of debate in Parliament, the Bill passed late on the evening of 3 May, 2018.