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9/2007 - Ongoing scandal of land clearing in NSW and Australia likely affecting climate

Great Australian land clearing Hoax

Compiled by David Paull [Sept 2007]

02 68424940

        Land clearing laws have not stopped Australian land clearing as all efforts at compliance have been ineffective.

        Official satellite monitoring figures are suspect, as monitoring systems underestimate all vegetation clearing.

        Official clearing approvals continue at rates similar to that before the introduction of new Native Vegetation legislation

        Any real decrease in deforestation are more likely due to the fact that natural vegetation systems are fast disappearing and are becoming more endangered

        This is all in the context of global warming.

 

Every year since 2002, the Federal Environment Minister has put out a press release to accompany the publication of the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory stating that Australia is “on track” to meet the target set under the Kyoto Protocol of an average of 108 per cent of 1990 emission levels over the period 2008-12.

Because of good agricultural conditions, the late 1980s and early 1990s happened to be bumper years for land clearing, particularly in Queensland. This raised Australia’s emissions in the Kyoto base year of 1990 by about 30 per cent, making the 108 per cent target far cheaper and easier to achieve. Due to the Australia clause, any reduction in land clearing could offset emission increases from burning fossil fuels.

This is precisely what has occurred. Between 1990 and 2004, emissions from most sectors have sky-rocketed. For example, stationary energy and transport emissions increased by 43 per cent and 23 per cent respectively. However, these increases have been offset by a 73 per cent decline in emissions from land use change, providing an apparently respectable 2.3 per cent increase in overall emissions.

But has land clearing really stopped?

Latest Figures

Queensland

Natural Resources Minister Craig Wallace said yesterday the latest satellite figures indicated a 27 per cent cut on 2003-04 when 482,000ha was cleared and 54 per cent lower than when clearing peaked in 1999-2000, when a whopping 758,000ha was bulldozed.

 

Queensland has achieved only half of its 1990 target when a million hectres were cleared.

 

 

New South Wales

 

DNR estimates that 30,000 hectares of native vegetation was cleared illegally in 2005. This was 40 percent of total clearing.  Last year (2006), government figures have shown there has been no decrease in these levels of total land clearing.

DLWC/DIPNR (now DNR) were unable to deter illegal clearing because their prosecutions under the previous NVC Act 1997 were unsuccessful when contested. This was because of problems with meeting the evidence requirements in the NVC Act 1997 and because they were unable to accurately detect and measure illegal clearing. DNR has only measured illegal clearing accurately for 2005, ten years after regulation was introduced.

Approximately 74,000 hectares of native vegetation were cleared in 2005, made up of 44,000 hectares approved clearing and 30,000 hectares illegal clearing. Most of the illegal clearing was on the previously uncleared western edge of farmland in the State.

DLWC/DIPNR (now DNR) undertook only a small number of prosecutions in the period 1998 to 2005. No prosecutions were successful when contested in court.

An improved satellite system is supplying high resolution images to monitor compliance and to support prosecutions. But there has not yet been sufficient funding to provide adequate coverage of all areas of interest in NSW.

The Stern Review estimated the global social cost from global warming through carbon dioxide emissions at $110 per tonne of carbon dioxide today. At this price landclearing in NSW alone is costing the globe $1.2 billion every year. Nationally Australian land clearing inflicts global costs of $ 6.4 billion annually.

 

Land clearing laws in NSW were activated at the end of 2005. The major gap was a compliance policy and it was only some months later that the Minister and Department promulgated one. To date the laws have significantly limited broadscale clearing of remnant vegetation and many millions of dollars have been disbursed to farmers for environmental restoration works.

 

New South Wales has only achieved a 30% reduction of its 1990 levels.  This occurred after the 1997 legislation.  There has been no decrease since the new Native Vegetation legislation of 2005.

 

Tasmania

 

It’s official. Over 50,000 hectares of Tasmania’s native forests were approved for clearing in the last three years. 75% of Forestry Tasmania’s logging consists of clearfelling and burning. And last year, over 13,000 hectares of native forest were converted to plantations.

 

The damning figures are contained in the 1999-2000 Annual Report of the Forest Practices Board, tabled in Parliament on Tuesday by Forests Minister Paul Lennon.

 

The Wilderness Society’s Campaign Coordinator, Geoff Law, said the Board’s report backs Wilderness Society warnings about the extent of forest destruction in Tasmania, and on several key points, it contradicts Forestry Tasmania’s false reassurances.

 

“The official figures prove that Tasmania’s forests are being destroyed and replaced by plantations at a horrific rate,” Mr Law said. “In three years, the Government approved the destruction of 25,000 football fields of native forest.”

 

“This does not count other forests that have been clearfelled, burnt and supposedly grown back again.”

 

Area of forest cleared for plantation or agriculture since 1996 (clearfelling followed by regeneration not counted)

50,831 ha

Area of native forest replaced by plantations in 1999-2000

13,400 ha

Total area logged in 1999-2000 (including selective logging)

35,100 ha

Area of public native forest logged in 1999-2000

14,300

Area of private native forest logged in 1999-2000

20,800

Percentage of Forestry Tasmania’s logging that is clearfelling

75%

Total area of new plantations 1999-2000 (includes farmland)

23,700 ha

 

First published in Australian R&D Review on February 28, 2007. It is republished in collaboration with ScienceAlert, the only news website dedicated to Australasian science.

Given the importance of land clearing in Australia’s greenhouse accounts, it is vital that there is an accurate and transparent system for accounting for land use change emissions. To perform this task, the Federal Government established the National Carbon Accounting System (NCAS), which relies on satellite data to track trends in land clearing.

In order to evaluate the reliability of NCAS outputs, the Australia Institute recently attempted a comparison between NCAS land clearing data and the data generated by the Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) run by the Queensland Government. Like NCAS, SLATS tracks land clearing in Queensland using satellite data.

Despite the similarities between the projects, we found significant differences in the estimates of land clearing in Queensland. The SLATS estimate of clearing between 1990 and 2001 is approximately 50 per cent higher than the NCAS estimate. In individual years the SLATS estimates are up to 164 per cent higher. Most alarmingly, there are significant differences in the trends, with NCAS showing a steady decline in clearing, while SLATS suggests clearing was high in the early 1990s, fell in the mid-1990s and then spiked again in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

We investigated whether the variation in results could be explained by legitimate differences in method. The most important issue appears to be that NCAS and SLATS have different definitions of what constitutes land clearing.

NCAS only counts clearing of so-called “Kyoto forests” - roughly vegetation covering at least 0.2 hectares with greater than 20 per cent crown cover and the potential to reach two or more metres in height.

In contrast, SLATS defines land clearing more broadly as the removal of any perennial woody vegetation that can be identified by satellite, which roughly equates to vegetation with 16 per cent crown cover.

Using adjusted SLATS data, we sought to account for these definitional issues, but found that large differences remained. The SLATS clearing estimates were still significantly higher than the NCAS estimates and SLATS continued to show a spike in clearing in the late 1990s and early 2000s that was not evident in the NCAS data.

Not only were we unable to explain the differences between the Federal and Queensland land clearing estimates, but when we looked at the NCAS outputs since 2002 we found large fluctuations in its own data. For example, the estimated rate of clearing in 1990 that was published in 2005 was 46 per cent higher than the estimate published in 2002. Of course, the upward adjustment of the 1990 clearing estimate has made it easier for Australia to meet its Kyoto target.

The Government dismissed the Institute’s report, claiming we don’t understand the Kyoto accounting rules and didn’t make adjustments for differences in methods.

These claims are false (and are addressed in a paper available on the Institute’s website). Even if they were correct, the fact remains that NCAS is a black box: its data are not available to members of the public and are not subject to regular, independent scrutiny.

To ensure the integrity of Australia’s greenhouse accounts, there needs to be an independent review of NCAS and the entire system must be made more transparent. If this doesn’t occur, doubts will continue to linger over Australia’s claims about its superior greenhouse performance.

 

New data reveal Australian Landclearing rates 22% worse than officially recognised

 

New research from NSW and Queensland has found that Australia’s landclearing rates are much higher than previously estimated.

 

The independent research, completed by the Queensland Herbarium, the NSW Royal

Botanic Gardens and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, finds the true rates of clearing are much higher than previous estimates in Queensland and New South Wales.

 

Queensland and New South Wales account for more than 80% of the native bush

cleared in Australia.

 

The research indicates that Australia is clearing 687,800 hectares (6,878 square

kilometres) of native vegetation every year. Approximately two thirds of this is virgin

bushland. This is higher by 22% than the earlier estimates of 564,800 hectares being

cleared annually. This means that over 50 “football fields” of Australian native trees,

wildflowers and wildlife habitat are destroyed every hour.

 

The new studies in both states used more accurate measures of bushland loss by

assessing the loss of trees and understorey plants such as wildflowers and shrubs. The

previous assessments had only measured loss of trees from satellite images. That

method greatly underestimates the true loss of native vegetation which includes

sparsely treed open woodlands, native grasslands, herb-fields and wetlands.

On these figures, A ustralia now ranks number five in the world in land clearing rates,

behind the developing nations of Brazil, Indonesia, Sudan and Zambia.

Previously Australia was ranked sixth behind Mexico.

 

The new studies also found that many of the bushland vegetation communities that are being cleared are already amongst the most rare and threatened types of bush within NSW and Queensland.

 

 

Details of New Data

 

Queensland

Previous estimates of land clearing in Queensland were created by satellite surveys.

The “Statewide Landcover and Trees Study” (SLATS) estimated change in native tree

cover (woody vegetation) at 425,000 hectares per annum between 1997 and 19991. Of

this, two thirds (283,000 hectares) was estimated to be remnant (“virgin” or previously uncleared bushland) and one third was “regrowth” bushland (142,000 hectares).

 

The new research by the Queensland Herbarium used field observations, site data,

aerial photography and satellite imagery to determine the real clearing rate of all types

of native vegetation, not just tree cover, of 446,000ha/year of remnant vegetation2.

Regrowth vegetation was not assessed in the new study. If the conservative figure of

142,000 hectares of regrowth native vegetation from previous satellite work is added,

this indicates an annual clearing rate in Queensland for the 1997-99 period of

588,000 hectares annually.

 

 

 

New South Wales

New studies by the Royal Botanic Gardens 3 and the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service 4,5  indicate that the NSW land clearing rate is far greater than the previous estimates

reported by the State Government.3

 

Previous official estimates of landclearing have been made by the Government

consultants Environmental Research and Information Consortium Pty Ltd (ERIC), using satellite remote sensing. The ERIC report in 2001 estimated a relatively low annual clearing rate for 1997-2000 of 14,000 hectares6. This assessment was widely criticized by scientists and conservationists as greatly under-estimating clearing because it only assessed more densely treed areas that had more than 20% tree cover.

 

Clearing of native grasslands and open woodlands was not included. However, more thorough assessments of the real clearing rate were not available until now.

 

Recent studies by the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service, measured the loss of all types

of native vegetation using field work, aerial photography and satellite imagery 4,5. The

research particularly focused on clearing in the central and northern wheatbelt areas

where most NSW clearing occurs. John Benson, Senior Ecologist with the Royal

Botanic Gardens used the new data to more accurately assess the statewide clearing

Rates.

 

This work conservatively estimated that 60,000 hectares is being cleared per annum in

NSW. This is more than a four-fold increase on the official NSW Government figure of14,000 hectares per annum.

 

 

 

Post script - Clearing still continues without any restraint

Some farmers across eastern Australia are chopping down trees to protest against land clearing laws.

The Australian Beef Association says the action involves about 2,000 farmers from Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

Chairman Brad Bellinger says they will keep felling trees until governments meet their demands.

"First day, Sunday we chopped down one tree, second day Monday, we chopped down two trees and so on until we get some action from either Premier Beattie or Morris Iemma to do something about this ridiculous native vegetation act.

"We know the Australian Government is benefiting from collecting carbon credits, now we want payment for what we're doing for the country or we want the native vegetation act removed."

Mr Bellinger says they need compensation or the vegetation laws must change.

 

Latest official figures


 

NB. These figures ignore the CO2 emissions from logging.

 

References

 

1 Department of Natural Resources (2000) "Land Cover Change in Queensland 1997-1999" A Statewide Landcover

and Trees Study Report Issued September 2000, Indooroopilly, Qld.

2 Queensland Herbarium (2001) Remnant Vegetation in Queensland, Analysis of Pre-clearing Remnant 1997-1999

Regional Ecosystem Information,Toowong Queensland.

3 Benson, J.S. (2001) Clearing rates in NSW - the full picture. Hunter Flora 6: 4-5 Hunter Catchment Management

Trust: Paterson NSW

4 Cox, S, Sivertsen, D, & Bedward, M. (2001). Clearing in the NSW northern wheatbelt. Cunninghamia 7(1):101-

154.

5. Bedward, M. Sivertsen, D, Metcalfe, L, Cox, S & Simpson, C. (2001). Monitoring the rate of native woody

vegetation change in the NSW wheatbelt. Final Project Report to the Natural Heritage Trust/Environment Australia

(NPWS Sydney).

6. Environmental Research and Information Consortium Pty. Ltd. (2001) Rates of Clearing of Native Woody

Vegetation 1997-2000. Report for the NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation (ERIC: Canberra).

7. Australian Conservation Foundation (2001). Australian land clearing, a global perspective, latest facts and figures.

ACF, Fitzroy, Victoria.

 

 

CLEARING OF NATIVE WOODY VEGETATION
IN THE NEW SOUTH WALES NORTHERN WHEATBELT: EXTENT, RATE OF LOSS AND IMPLICATIONS FOR BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION

Stephen J. Cox, Dominic P. Silvertsen and Michael Bedward*

Cunninghamia 7 (1): 101-155

* NSW NPWS Hurstville

 

From the Abstract: (bold emphasis added)

Clearing of native woody vegetation between 1985 and 2000 in the northern wheatbelt of NSW has been mapped in detail.  Intensive visual interpretation of Landsat imagery, not automatic computer interpretation, was combined with very detailed aerial photo interpretation and ground surveys.

“Comparisons with previously published mapping…showed that our intensive visual interpretation detected substantially more clearing.  Average annual clearing rates were 8 times higher than those derived from the previous mapping.” 

“Over 110,000 hectares of native woody vegetation were cleared between 1985 and 2000.  Clearing rates were highest in the four year monitoring period that preceded the introduction of the Native Vegetation Conservation Act.”

Introduction

Most of the original temperate woodlands in the wheatbelt of central NSW have been cleared for agriculture over the last 200 years.  SEPP 46 on the protection and management of native vegetation was replaced by the Native Vegetation Conservation Act which began operation in 1998.  Clearing and fragmentation of native vegetation was listed on a preliminary basis in 2001 as a Key Threatening Process under the NSW Threatened Species Act.  Considering all of the above, it is alarming that there is little reliable, fine scale information available on the distribution and extent of clearing in central NSW. 

Automated classification and interpretation of satellite data covering the period 1991-1995 has been used nationally to assess clearing this national study was confined to areas with a tree canopy cover of at least 20% which excluded large areas of woodland and shrubland.  A second study for the NSW Department of Land & Water Conservation in 1998 claimed to detect changes to areas with at a 12 – 15% canopy cover.  This study detected more clearing than the totally automated study.  Ideally clearing studies should consider areas with more than 5% canopy cover.

This study considers areas with more than 5% tree cover in the NSW northern wheatbelt.  The area is north of Narrabri, and extends from Walgett to the Queensland border including the towns of Moree and Collarenebri.  The total area is about 2.4 million hectares, and includes parts of the MacIntyre-Barwon and Gwydir river systems.  Most of the land is privately owned.  Crown Land accounts for only 5% of the area, and five small nature reserves occupy 0.05% of the area.  There are no State Forests in the area.  The Moree area had the highest wheat yield per hectare in NSW for the 1997-98 crop.

The area was once part of the continuous belt of temperate woodlands that extended from Queensland to Victoria.  Woodlands included River Red Gum, Coolabah, Black Box and Brigalow. Other woodlands included Poplar Box, White Cypress Pine, Belah, Myall, and Ironbark.  There were also extensive lignum shrublands, wetlands and native grasslands. 

Results

The extent of native woodland vegetation in 1994, 1998 and 2000 was compared with baseline data from 1985 aerial photographs.  Checking the 1996 satellite imagery against detailed aerial photographs showed that the detailed manual interpretation of the satellite data 56 out of 60 randomly selected cleared areas, and 99 out of 100 randomly selected unaffected areas. 

Over 110,000 hectares of native woody vegetation were cleared between 1985 and 2000, or 16% of the vegetation remaining in 1985.  The highest rate, over 100,000 ha/year was in the period ending 1998.  The vegetation has become increasingly fragmented.  The number of vegetation patches rose from 535 to 684 and the average size dropped from 141 ha to 95 ha.  Particularly large areas were cleared east of Collarenebri and Mungindi.  Northeast of Moree, where native woody vegetation was already highly depleted in 1985, further clearing resulted in losses of over 40%. 

Discussion

Native vegetation clearance is the single greatest threat to terrestrial biodiversity in NSW according to the NSW EPA State of the Environment report.  Future agricultural production and incomes are also affected by the resultant soil erosion, salinity, loss of insect pollinators etc. 

Mapping in 1998 (the ERIC study) identified an average annual clearing rate of 1357 ha from 1995 to 1997.  This study found an average clearing rate of 10,694 ha from 1994 to 1998.  This is about eight times the rate quoted by the ERIC study.  Given the demonstrated accuracy of our visual interpretation methods, the extent, and hence the rate of clearing reported by ERIC is clearly a significant underestimate for the study area.”

In the most highly depleted bioregion, the “Northern Outwash”, the clearing rate steadily increased over the study period despite the province having only 8% native woody vegetation cover in 1985

These results are alarming, but we stress that they are conservative and the actual magnitude of loss and degradation of native vegetation in the study area is certainly greater than that presented here for a number if reasons.”

Accurate data on vegetation change are essential for landuse planning.  The use of methods that seriously underestimate the rate of clearing in sparse vegetation, such as the open woodlands of the study area, risks inappropriate decision making and unforeseen negative consequences, both for nature conservation and for sustainable agricultural production.  Though it is possible that future advances in digital analysis of satellite data will make automated methods feasible, this does not appear to be the case at present.”

Coolabah dominated woodlands were particularly heavily cleared during the study period.  Large stands of Coolabah had been cleared prior to this study and others were apparently killed by altered flooding regimes in the Gwydir valley.  The present rates of decline are thus of serious concern and, if maintained, would be expected to lead to population decline in a wide range of species.”

 

Thus far, the Native Vegetation Conservation Act, as well as State Environmental Planning Policy No. 46 that preceded it, appear to have failed to prevent further decline in this very extensively cleared province.”

 

Compliance in New South Wales

One successful prosecutions since 1997 as all were dropped or successfully challenged.

Native Vegetation Conservation Act 1997 compliance statistics

 

Table 1 – Total number of cases for each region with a ‘Compliance Action’ outcome during the period 1 July 2002 until 29 June 2004 – NVC Act cases only

 

Compliance Action Outcome

Barwon

Central West

Far West

Hunter

Murray/

Murrum’gee

North Coast

Syd South Coast

Totals

Warning Letter

38

32

2

97

29

9

17

224

Stop Work Order

9

1

-

2

3

1

-

16

Remediation Agreement

-

4

2

8

7

-

10

31

Remediation Notice

10

1

1

14

6

8

2

42

Prosecution

4

2

-

1

1

2

-

10

Prosecution commenced

1

-

-

1

-

-

-

2

Remediation (Pt 5A NVCA)

1

2

-

1

2

-

-

6

Totals

63

42

5

124

48

20

29

331

Note: there can be more than 1 compliance action for a case

 

 

Table 2 – Total number of cases for each region with a ‘No Compliance Action’ outcome during the period 1 July 2002 until 29 June 2004 – NVC Act cases only

 

Non Compliance Action Outcome

Barwon

Central West

Far West

Hunter

Murray/

Murrum’gee

North Coast

Syd South Coast

Totals

Advisory letter

10

14

2

61

9

4

13

113

Authorised

4

-

3

4

1

4

5

21

Decided not to pursue

59

15

7

29

18

2

20

150

Exclusion

6

-

1

10

3

3

10

33

Exemption

87

26

6

133

30

42

90

414

No Clearing/Works

26

1

-

6

6

5

3

47

Not under Act

5

2

10

10

6

-

7

40

Actioned by other Agency

1

-

-

3

1

1

7

13

Totals

198

58

29

256

74

61

155

831


Explanatory notes

prepared by Scott King, EDO

 

Table 1

Warning letter

Non-statutory letter sent to landholders for breaches considered to be of a minor or “technical nature”. Such breaches typically include clearing just beyond what is allowed by the exemptions, or what might be allowed by creative interpretations of the exemptions.

 

Warning letters are also used as a case-management prioritisation tool — that is, if a region has a heavy case load, less serious breaches may be dealt with by a warning letter (for some regions such “less serious” cases might be clearing up to about 10 ha, or even more).

 

The letter advises the recipient that they have breached the NVC Act but the Dept has chosen not to take further action, and to contact DIPNR before undertaking any further clearing.

 

Stop work order

The use of section 46 stop work orders was halted by many regions when a judgement was received for one of the Greentree matters, ruling that a stop work order could not stop a landholder clearing if they claimed to be using the exemptions, whether they actually were or not.

 

Remediation agreement

A non-statutory agreement with a landholder to remediate land they have cleared. These were initially quite popular in the Dept as they were seen to be less heavy-handed than a section 47 remedial direction. However, most regions stopped using them because of their lack of power — if a landholder reneged on the agreement, no action could be taken, and a section 47 direction would then have to be prepared and issued. It is more efficient to just issue a s 47 direction.

 

Remediation notice

This is a section 47 remedial direction. Many of the older notices contain conditions that are unenforceable, and many that were issued last year have been appealed.

 

Prosecution

One successful prosecutions since 1997 as all were dropped or successfully challenged.

 

Prosecution commenced

I assume these are new prosecutions that have been launched within the period July 2002 to June 2004.

 

Remediation (Pt 5A NVCA)

These are property agreements. The use of these as a compliance action has been stopped, because it was thought they should be used for  voluntary agreements, and the landholders under investigation for illegal clearing would be acting under duress. It was also thought they should be used if incentive payments were available, and such a use would be inappropriate if a landholder had cleared illegally.

 

 

 

Table 2

Table 2 shows the outcomes for investigations where it was decided not to take any compliance action.

 

Advisory letter

These are issued if it is determined on a site inspection that the clearing is within the exemptions. It is a courtesy letter that describes the findings of the visit and reminds the landholders of the need to obtain consent for clearing beyond the exemptions.

 

Authorised

There was a valid development consent for the clearing.

 

Decided not to pursue

There can be a number of reasons for deciding not to pursue: the clearing occurred too long ago; the regions case-load is too great; adequate evidence cannot be collected; political pressure etc.

 

Exclusion

Case not pursued because either the land was excluded from the NVC Act (section 9) or the type of clearing was excluded (section 12).

 

Exemption

Clearing found to be within the exemptions.

 

No clearing/works

No clearing was found on the property during the site inspection.

 

Not under Act

This would be such things as clearing non-native vegetation on non-State protected land.

 

Actioned by other agency

This would normally be a local council.

 

Endangered Ecological communities in New South Wales (all have reached levels of <10% of pre-European extent in the last 20 years

        White Box-Yellow Box-Red Gum woodland

        Grey Box woodland

        Coolibah - Black Box Woodland

        Grassy Bull Oak woodland

 

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