New data shows a significant rise in land clearing across New South Wales, with three-quarters of it “unexplained”, but farmers say the figures are misleading.
- New land clearing figures show a big increase over the past three years
- Critics have taken aim at farmers and inadequate land clearing regulations
- Farmers say there’s not enough information to properly understand what is happening
According to a state government report, 54,500 hectares of woody vegetation was lost in 2019, slightly less than the previous year, but well above the longer-term average (2009-17) of 38,800 hectares.
Loss due to forestry and infrastructure activities was relatively consistent with 2018 figures.
Independent MP Justin Field said land clearing and deforestation was “out of control in NSW”.
He said he was deeply worried about ongoing land clearing given the significant loss of biodiversity in the Black Summer fires.
“Despite the massive ecological damage of the 2019-20 fires and the clear imperative to protect what is left, the Berejiklian government is allowing ongoing deforestation and habitat destruction at record levels.
Figures discredited by farm group
Mr Field highlighted the amount of unexplained clearing listed in the report and blamed changes made to land clearing laws in 2015.
“Some farmers are gaming the system and using loopholes in so-called self-assessable codes to try to hide what is likely in many instances to be illegal clearing,” he said.
“We just don’t know the justification for that kind of clearing and the concern is that it may be unlawful.”
But the NSW Farmers Association criticised the data, saying there was not enough information to properly understand what was happening on farm.
President James Jackson said a lot of the land cleared was covered by the thinning codes, which were set up to allow farmers to manage the regrowth of native vegetation that was taking over many grazing properties in the west of the state.
He said the report’s figures were “misleading” because while 54,500ha had been cleared, about 150,000ha of woody regrowth had occurred during the period, meaning there was more vegetation, not less.
‘Clearing saved koalas during fires’
Mr Jackson said farmers had actually saved koalas during the Black Summer fires because of their land management practices and that had not happened on public land.
“The thinning codes stopped the koalas on private land from being killed [because] there wasn’t the canopy cover to create canopy fires that killed the koalas in the public estate.”
Mr Jackson rejected the claim that there was a problem with a large amount of “unexplained” clearing, saying it was due to departments not talking to each other.
He called on groups like the Nature Conservation Council to move with farmers to a model in which farmers play a key role in protecting biodiversity.
‘Better legislation needed’
Ecologist Lesley Hughes from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists said as long as the modelling was done in the same way every year, the trend it showed could be trusted.
“It’s always good to get actual facts and figures to sort the hyperbole from reality,” Professor Hughes said.
“The facts are looking fairly grim. If we’ve lost 54,500ha from land clearing in 2019, what that actually translates into is more than 50 million trees.
She said there needed to be stronger laws for compliance and to support farmers doing the right thing.
“We had fairly good legislation to protect from illegal land clearing, but when the new Biodiversity Conservation Act came in in 2016-17, the rate of land clearing nearly doubled and it has remained high ever since.
“What we need in NSW is far stronger laws to protect biodiversity and to reverse that decline.
“If we’re losing 50 million trees every year, we don’t have programs that are replacing those trees and our biodiversity continues to decline.”