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25/10/03... Earthbeat legal interview shows Carr land clearing laws are quite bogus

Broadcast on Saturday 25/10/2003

Land clearing Lawyer


Earthbeat seeks some legal advice on the NSW
Government's recent ban on land clearing.



Mark Horstman: In New South Wales earlier this year, bushland was being cleared at the rate of more than 500 football fields every day. Now there’s an old joke that the solution’s obvious: ban football. But the State government has gone further recently, and announced a ban on landclearing from early next year.
Open up last week’s edition of The Land newspaper and you’ll find an intriguing photograph: the head honchos from the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Total Environment Centre and the New South Wales Farmers’ Association mugging it up for the camera, grinning from ear to ear with their thumbs stuck in the air. Kind of all for one, and one for all on land clearing.
New South Wales Premier Bob Carr proudly calls the deal an historic agreement.

Bob Carr: It’s an agreement that brings together environmentalists and farmers. It ends broadscale land clearing. In the long run a healthier environment means more productive farming, and Australia is the winner.

Mark Horstman: Now I’m sure you’re wondering what farmers on the ground might think about it, and if there’s any devils in the detail.
Well I thought I’d get myself a lawyer, as you do, and went to see Elisa Nichols for advice. She’s a solicitor with the Environmental Defenders Office in New South Wales.
Elisa, let’s say I’m a farmer who wants to clear 450 hectares of coolibah scrub west of Moree for cotton. Is there a new law now that’s going to stop me?

Elisa Nichols: Not really. At present, if you wanted to clear that much, you would need to get permission from the government to do the clearing anyway. So in those terms there are no real changes.
At present the Native Vegetation Conservation Act regulates land clearing in New South Wales. However there have been some problems with it, so what this is is a reform package to try and make it easier for farmers on the ground to manage their native vegetation as well as to improve environmental outcomes.

Mark Horstman: So who’s been involved with putting this package together?

Elisa Nichols: First of all it started as a group of scientists, the Wentworth Group, who are known from the name of the pub that they actually met in.

Mark Horstman: Lucky they’re not called the Country Comfort.


Elisa Nichols: Exactly, or the Travelodge or something. They came together and worked out a reform idea, a very simple kind of blueprint really for reform. After that was done, the Premier announced that he was going to ask for a vegetation group to get together, the Native Vegetation Reform Implementation Group they were called, which was conservationists, farmers, government, all getting together to recommend a package for land clearing reforms in New South Wales.

Mark Horstman: So if I wanted to clear my 450 hectares of coolibah now, what do I need to do?

Elisa Nichols: Right now you would need to make an application. The reason you would need to make an application is that it falls out of the exemptions that currently exist.

Mark Horstman: OK. So with the exemptions that are possible under the current legislation, what can I clear under those exemptions?

Elisa Nichols: On rural land the biggest one is the 2-hectare per year on your allotment, so over a 10 year period you can easily clear quite a lot of land. There’s been arguments in court about that one too, which suggests that the 2 hectares isn’t just limited to 2 hectares on the ground, but to canopy cover, which can actually lead to clearing of a lot bigger space than your 2 hectares. There’s also routine farm management kind of things, and farm infrastructure which has been defined as including a dam which was 1 kilometre x 500 metres. So no permission was needed for that, so that’s a huge amount of land there. Lots of firebreak things, collecting firewood for personal use, not commercial use.

Mark Horstman: On the other hand though, what can I clear under consent?

Elisa Nichols: Under consent essentially you can clear anything, as long as you’ve got permission, and you’ve gone through the correct processes.

Mark Horstman: So what chance have I got of getting a permit to clear my land?

Elisa Nichols: At the moment, pretty good. My understanding is that something around 79%, 80% of permits do get through.

Mark Horstman: So what’s going to change in January?

Elisa Nichols: There’s a few key elements to it. The first change that will happen before the end of this year, is actually institutional change. What’s going to happen is there’s going to be catchment management authorities set up which will roll into place the current Regional Vegetation Management Committees and Catchment Boards that exist. They’re going to be locally based and they are going to be able to help farmers with applications and as well as looking at the general environmental needs for the region. In January, there probably won’t be too much immediate change. But the important changes, the introduction of property vegetation plans, PVPs, they’re calling them, they’ll take a while to roll out, but the idea is to get farmers to actually put together plans on how they’ll manage their vegetation on their property.

Mark Horstman: So there’s around about $400-million that’s been announced; what’s that going to be used for?

Elisa Nichols: Mostly for the Catchment Management Authorities setting those up, the planning phase, there’s a lot of in-kind support from the Catchment Management Authority, so a lot of the technical support, things like aerial photos, cadastral data, all that sort of thing will be provided through the Catchment Management Authority, and there’s a lot of funding being provided to support that. There is an incentive component there that will encourage farmers to do things like revegetation and replanting on their property, and farmers who want to do that kind of thing will have to put into place a property vegetation plan to access those incentive schemes.

Mark Horstman: If I was a farmer, would I be able to apply to the government to get some money to help me and my neighbours put together a property vegetation plan?

Elisa Nichols: The detail isn’t totally released yet. My understanding is that’s not quite how it will work. Really property veg plans are supposed to be a plan for the farmer, a strategic planning kind of exercise, identifying the good vegetation on their property they want to keep, where they want to do work, where they have cropping cycles and things like that, which is an important thing, because regrowth vegetation is protected under the new scheme.

Mark Horstman: So can I still apply for a permit to clear land now?

Elisa Nichols: Yes, yes you can.

Mark Horstman: And there’s a cut-off date for that?

Elisa Nichols: No. The permit system will continue to operate and it will operate under the new system as well.

Mark Horstman: But if I get my permit in now, if I’m a farmer who applies for a permit now, does that mean my permit will be processed under the old system?

Elisa Nichols: Yes.

Mark Horstman: And are there more advantages for me? If I want to clear a lot of land are there more advantages for me under the old system?

Elisa Nichols: That remains to be seen. It will depend on how the legislation comes out, and at the moment we’ve got the new approach documents have been released by the government but the actual draft legislation hasn’t. So until we see that, we’re not going to be able to identify how many advantages there would be for farmers now. Hopefully not too many to encourage people to go out and do extra clearing.

Mark Horstman: If I’ve got some leasehold land that I want to clear, does this mean I’ll be losing my property rights?

Elisa Nichols: No. Essentially regulation of property is not a loss of property rights. That still exists. If your land is going to be completely frozen in terms of commercial value, then there are laws that allow for just acquisition of that property and the government does have funding in this package to compensate farmers who genuinely cannot get a commercial cropping or grazing or whatever they do on their land, because of the changes. One of the ongoing problems, and it will still probably be a problem under this new system, is that a lot of this clearing goes on out in the middle of nowhere on huge properties and people don’t find out about it. What this system is trying to do is to actually encourage farmers and give them incentives to comply with the laws. My understanding is that they’re going to be using the Catchment Management Authorities to play a really good monitoring and compliance role, because they’re a locally based authority that hopefully will create a better feeling in the community about how that works.

Mark Horstman: So with a new system coming in, should I be applying for more land to clear than I actually want? With the expectation that I might get knocked back a bit.

Elisa Nichols: Probably not. What you would want to do is start thinking about the property veg plan system which is really going to give you as a landholder, the best amount of control on your land. Start identifying which land you’re going to need in the future, which land is subject to rotational cropping, which land you think is good land that should be protected, and that you want to protect, or has value to you because there’s salinity issues in the area, or it’s riparian vegetation, or say you’ve got mulga on your property, you want to keep a hold of that for drought time because a lot of farmers, as you would know, rip up the mulga in drought time to feed stock. So now’s the time to really start thinking about those things, rather than just trying to knock down trees to try and get around the exemptions. The reality is the current laws still exist. If you breach those laws, you’ll still be in trouble. So farmers who want to try and get around the new system by going ahead and clearing, aren’t going to be in a good position.

Mark Horstman: Elisa Nichols from the Environmental Defenders Office of New South Wales. And meanwhile, the Queensland government wants Federal dollars so it can finalise a similar decision on land clearing within the next few months.

Guests on this program:
Elisa Nichols Environmental Defenders Office of NSW

Further information:
NSW Natural Resource Management Reform

Mark Horstman

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