My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for Tuesday 14 August 2018

by ray goodlass

Time to end rampant native vegetation clearing

Last week I was alerted to alarming news that “clearing of native vegetation in NSW jumps 800% in three years” courtesy of an exclusive story by Anne Davies based on figures released after an eight-month battle between Guardian Australia and the state tribunal

I learnt that NSW gave permission to clear over 7,000 hectares of native vegetation in 2015-16, the second highest rate of clearing in a decade, while the creation of new conservation areas and restoration of bushland correspondingly slumped under the Berejiklian government. Both are indications that something is seriously going very wrong.

In 2013-14, 900 hectares was cleared in total. In 2014-15 this jumped to 2,730 hectares and by 2015-16 it had increased to 7,390 hectares.

At the same time measures to conserve native vegetation, such as new conservation measures and restoration, slumped to the lowest level in a decade. Restoration of native vegetation areas fell to 116,170 hectares in 2015-16, less than half the decade average.

Weed removal programs also went into reverse, with just a tiny fraction of the areas being managed for weeds – 29,970 hectares compared to the decade average of 182,200 hectares.

The most recent report from 2016-17 has still not been released, with the department claiming it is still not complete.

Because the data had not been released for three years, Guardian Australia attempted to use freedom of information laws to make it public.

The data is particularly important because during that time, the Berejiklian government replaced the Native Vegetation Act, with a much more liberal regime –the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2017 – which allows farms and landholders to self-assess whether they need to make a formal application to clear land using satellite maps.

We should all be concerned, as environmental groups and the government’s own Office of Environment and Heritage have warned, that the new regime will lead to a major increase in loss of habitat, on a scale only seen in Queensland, which is the nation’s worst state for land clearing.

A document obtained by the Nature Conservation Council (NCC) under freedom of information revealed the new land-clearing laws would cause extensive harm to wildlife habitat but pressed ahead with the changes anyway.

“This is damning evidence that the environment minister approved these new laws knowing they would expose 99%of identified koala habitat on private land to clearing” NCC boss, Kate Smolski, said at the time. The department also warned of a 45% spike in land clearing.

“Clearing of native vegetation in NSW jumps 800% in three years. It’s a disgrace this information was hidden. Congratulations to Anne Davies for forcing the release of this material. Now to change the law” said Greens MP David Shoebridge. Spot on, David.

If the knowledge that koalas and other indigenous fauna and flora are seriously at risk isn’t enough to indicate that we are in serious trouble perhaps the knowledge that increased land clearing by a University of Queensland scientist has led ground-breaking research, which shows that clearing of native vegetation has made recent Australian droughts hotter, will convince.

Dr Clive McAlpine of UQ’s Centre for Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Science and Mr Jozef Syktus, principal scientist in the Queensland Natural Resources and Water Department (DNRW), headed a study which will be published later this year in Geophysical Research Letters, the journal of the American Geophysical Union.

In an Australian first, they showed that 150 years of land clearing added significantly to the warming and drying of eastern Australia.

The researchers found that mean summer rainfall decreased by between four percent and twelve percent in eastern Australia, and by four percent and eight percent in southwest Western Australia. These were the regions of most extensive historical clearing.

“Based on this research, it would be fair to say that the current drought has been made worse by past clearing of native vegetation.

“Our findings highlight that it is too simplistic to attribute climate change purely to greenhouse gases.

“Protection and restoration of Australia’s native vegetation needs to be a critical consideration in mitigating climate change” they said.

So, as the drought tightens its grip the knowledge that it is in large part human induced, and that part of that is land clearing, is food for thought.