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14/9/03 - ABC Background Briefing: Bulldozers, Trees, and Making a Quid

Background Briefing: 14 September 2003 - Bulldozers, Trees, and Making a Quid.

[This is the print version of story]

Stephen Skinner: In north-western New South Wales, on the vast flat lands which ultimately drain into the once mighty Darling River, many farmers are bulldozing trees and other vegetation while they can. A big announcement’s expected any day on new state clearing regulations. It’s estimated that in the past six years -- a period when clearing was supposed to have been brought under control in New South Wales -- more than 100,000 hectares a year have been pushed over. The thing is, no-one really knows.
One of the biggest clearers is also one of the most powerful men in the Australian wheat industry. He’s the biggest wheat grower in the southern hemisphere, Ron Greentree. It’s claimed Mr Greentree has cleared well over 10,000 hectares without government approval.
You’re listening to Background Briefing on ABC Radio National. I’m Stephen Skinner.
The issue of land clearing is a vital part of the formula to prevent salinity, erosion, river degradation, loss of animal and plant species, and the greenhouse effect. Yet the current regulations in New South Wales are full of loopholes which make them virtually unenforceable. That makes bending the rules attractive to many farmers, who are expected to wear most of the costs of conservation on their own.

Woman singing Waltzing Matilda: " Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong, under the shade of a coolibah tree ..."

Stephen Skinner: Coolibah trees are an Australian icon. They’re an attractive eucalypt with gnarled branches that spread out quite widely from the trunk. They can live for hundreds of years. They thrive in clay soils on inland floodplains, and support quite a few threatened animal species like the Skink, the Yellow-bellied Sheathtail Bat, and the Grey Crowned Babbler.
Grey Crowned Babbler noises.

Stephen Skinner: There used to be a lot of Coolibah woodland right across north-western New South Wales, but one study suggests that three-quarters of it has gone. It grows in the same fertile soils that are good for farming, and it continues to be cleared for cropping as well as grazed, with hardly any in protected reserves. Conservationists want it listed as an endangered ecological community. But farmers say much of it is overly thick regrowth from previous clearing which needs to be cleared again.
Ute starting up sound.

Stephen Skinner: On the floodplains north of Moree, Bill Yates runs 11,000 hectares of grazing and cropping country. His grandfather came here in 1899.

Bill Yates: He was one of the first. Prior to that it was part of Sandholme’s Run, which was a selection I gather, but they failed to pay the rent, and it was declared a resumed area and ballotted in April 1899 and Grandfather won the ballot and he had to stock it and clear it, that was part of the deal.

Stephen Skinner: Clear it for grazing, not cropping?
Bill Yates: Yes, because there was not sufficient mechanisation. He cleared 23 acres for his horse paddock, but other than that it was just cleared for grazing. He used to grow crops for horse feed; they had a lot of horses, I think Grandfather had 18 horses and 2,400 acres, well he had to cut hay and put it in a shed to get him through. Pretty hungry things in a drought.

Stephen Skinner: When Bill Yates’ grandfather came to these parts more than 100 years ago, most properties simply ran sheep and cattle. But since the early 1960s there’s been a big push into cropping as well -- mostly wheat, but also cotton. And now massive tractors and ploughs guided by satellites and computers crawl across huge paddocks with maybe a few trees dotted through them. More than half the floodplain land in the Moree district is now cropping country. The rest is scattered woodland, most of it grazed.

Bill Yates: We find sometimes that we farm something and we realise after we’ve farmed it, it’s not really ideal ….

Stephen Skinner: Bill Yates prides himself on the amount of native bush, including Coolibah woodland, that he’s managed to keep on his property. There’s still about 15% of fairly pristine native vegetation, and another 30% of his property has trees with a mixture of native and introduced grasses underneath them, which are grazed by sheep and cattle.

Bill Yates: Here’s a strip that we’re trying to get to grow back. It’s actually an area that’s been protected to some degree by having the bore drain there, so you can’t farm straight across a bore drain, they’re four feet deep of water when they’re running. So there wasn’t enough on this side of the drain to be worth farming, so we’re sort of just widening that strip so it joins over there to the neighbour's clump of Belah in the corner over about 500 metres. And Belah’s starting to come back, young Belah, starting to come back in this strip where it hasn’t been farmed or over-grazed. And as I say, we’ve stopped farming here, and we’re trying to connect it up with a long windbreak in the other direction.

Stephen Skinner: So you’re here for the long haul, obviously, you’re thinking of generations to come.

Bill Yates: I think most farmers are, you know. I think the problem with the vegetation and the big rush has been the ones that are here for the short term and the quick capital gain. Alright, we could all be gone tomorrow but probably there’s someone else going to come on. We’re sort of custodians of the land, we’re not rapists.

Stephen Skinner: In some of the previously cleared areas Mr Yates is allowing trees such as Coolibah, Belah and Myall to grow back. Small native animals are still hard to find -- there’s plenty of ferals -- but there are frogs, bats and birds, including the rare Glossy Black Cockatoo.
Glossy Black Cockatoo noises.

The New South Wales Government set up the Moree Regional Vegetation Committee four years ago, and Bill Yates is a farmer rep on that committee. It’s come up with a plan for managing vegetation in the area, but it’s still waiting for the Government to sign off on it. Much of the vegetation is not in good condition, and the committee was split on just how much of it could be cleared. But it agreed that whatever is cleared has to be offset by properly looking after an equal amount, or planting an equal amount somewhere else.

The Coolibahs are growing on some of the best and deepest alluvial soils in the country. Bill Yates says a farmer could get a dozen crops out of these valuable soils before having to add any nitrogen or fertilizer. He says most farmers would be happy to keep 15% native vegetation in good condition, but any more than that would be a big constraint on them. He says there’s a lot of pressure for further cropping.

Bill Yates: We’re all trying to survive, and the easiest way to increase our scale and increase our turnover is to have more farming. There’s no comparison of the turnover of a farmed acre than a grazing acre. We’re probably talking about four or five times as much turnover. I’m not saying it’s always more profit, but as you know, capital gain occurs, land values go up, so that’s basically probably matched against turnover, rather than net return. So there’s pressure there for us all. Some of us are going to be here in 20 years and some aren’t, it’s just business.
Stephen Skinner: Well is there too much cropping going around in some of this area?

Bill Yates: It’s hard to say. I would say possibly there are some soils that should never have been cropped, like the very light soils, it’ll blow. I suspect that some that are farmed fence to fence -- which I find abhorrent, I just think it’s vandalistic -- but there are some that believe that, and they justify it on their bank account. I don’t know whether the bank would actually say they were wrong. So that’s where some of the pressure comes from, actually, the banks.

Stephen Skinner: Bill Yates believes that in return for conserving some of their native vegetation in good nick, instead of clearing it, farmers should get stewardship payments from the government. But he adds there are some farmers who don’t want any government involvement at all.

Bill Yates: Well some people just believe no-one else has the right to tell them what to do on their farm. Well I just think that’s a heap of rot. I mean we all live in a catchment, we’ve got public facilities in the catchments like dams, rivers that affect people a long way away, and if we’re going to just vandalise our country so that it washes and blows, well of course we’ve got to be regulated to some degree. And the second aspect to that is at different times government, and more so now, are actually doing our risk management or coming up with drought subsidies and so on, so they’ve got the right to have some finger in the pie in controlling how vegetation’s managed. But I can tell you, there’s plenty of people who don’t agree with that. And there’s plenty of people that can see the value of better defining some good conservation areas, and I think you can probably focus on that and you’ll get reasonable agreement. Whether they all say, ‘But not on mine’, is another matter.
Stephen Skinner: But are there farmers around that think they need nought percent well- conserved native vegetation?

Bill Yates: I don’t know whether nought's fair, but I’m sure some would be quite happy with just a few around the house, perhaps along their road in. I can’t see that that serves any biodiversity value or any water or wind eroding effect, or even any aesthetic thing, but yes, there probably are some.

Stephen Skinner: Those sort of recalcitrants he mentions have been frustrated by the current native vegetation laws since they were brought in six years ago, and some have simply ignored them. There’s certainly been a lot more clearing going on than has been officially authorised by departmental officers. For instance, a study of aerial photos of sparse woodland in the northern New South Wales wheatbelt concluded that there was ten times more clearing going on than another government study which only looked at forested areas.

Judy Boyden is the NSW Nature Conservation Council rep on the Moree Vegetation Committee. She agrees with Bill Yates that farmers should be paid for conserving vegetation. But she says that’s no excuse for what’s gone on to date. She says everyone on the Moree committee knew there was a lot of clearing going on that shouldn’t have been.

Judy Boyden: We knew that clearing was going on; we knew that the Department knew about it; but nothing was happening. We kept getting told that 'Yes, there is clearing going on, there will be prosecutions'. People in the Department were trying to get on top of it but there didn’t seem to be any support from government, from the Minister, from the Director-General, for compliance to be able to enforce the law. And after all, this was under the Native Vegetation Conservation Act; it’s legislation, and these were breaches. Why weren’t the compliance officers able to prosecute? I know they were in one or two incidents, but I’ve heard that people in the Department have actually been told to stay away from alleged breaches.

Stephen Skinner: A central issue is that the legislation is full of exemptions, exemptions from having to get approval before farmers clear. There are exemptions for cutting for firewood; for fenceposts. Exemptions for clearing for fencelines; for clearing regrowth less than ten years old, and so on. One of the exemptions, called the minimal clearing rule, allows farmers to clear two hectares a year. You’d think that means two hectares of land, but imaginative farmers are interpreting it to mean two hectares of tree canopy, a calculation which allows them to clear a much larger area. And this extraordinary interpretation of the regulations has never been tested in court.
If you’re clearing trees under any of these exemptions, you don’t even have to tell the Department you’re doing it, let alone get authorisation. So it’s little wonder it’s virtually impossible to tell how much of the clearing in New South Wales is actually illegal, as opposed to just unauthorised.

The New South Wales Government has known for years that you can drive a tractor and plough through the exemptions, but has done nothing. There’ve only been a handful of prosecutions, with very light penalties. Director of the New South Wales Environmental Defender’s Office, Jeff Smith.

Jeff Smith: The Native Vegetation Conservation Act has a raft of exemptions which make it difficult to enforce. Senior crown prosecutors have told us that they believe it’s impossible to obtain a conviction under the current Act if a defendant is properly prepared, and that’s just one example of the fundamental and inherent flaws in the legislation.

Stephen Skinner: Jeff Smith says it’s a matter of political will.

Jeff Smith: One might argue that the area of land clearing is obviously a sensitive one, and the Government really hasn’t been prepared -- at this point -- to wade in and try and reform those laws, where the exemptions have been widely used in a way that one could argue is strongly against the objects of the Act, and also clearly provisions under the Act, such as stopwork orders and so on, have been manifestly inadequate. And there were numerous occasions where the government could have moved in and said, ‘Well these provisions need fine tuning’ and to reform the laws in toto.

Stephen Skinner: Jeff Smith, from the New South Wales Environmental Defender's Office.
Woodchopping contest sounds

Stephen Skinner: One of the most aggressive users of the exemptions to the clearing regulations in New South Wales is champion Moree woodchopper, Ron Greentree.
Everything about Ron Greentree is big. He’s a big man in his early 40s and he’s done well in the woodchop at the Royal Easter Show over the years.
He’s a big donor to the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party, last year contributing $20,000.
Mr Greentree is Chairman of the biggest grain handling company in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland -- Graincorp. He’s also one of Graincorp’s biggest shareholders. Ron Greentree himself crops about 40,000 hectares, making him the biggest wheatgrower in the southern hemisphere.

And Ron Greentree is in big trouble with the authorities. Background Briefing has found that he and associated companies are under investigation or facing court over unauthorised clearing on five different properties, including one which has an internationally protected wetland on it.

Greentree-associated companies have previously been convicted of illegal clearing under civil law in 1998.
Speeding truck sounds.

Stephen Skinner: A truck hurtles along the Gwydir Highway between Moree and Collarenebri in north-western New South Wales. It’s flat, sparse country on the floodplain of the Gwydir River.
Ninety kilometres west of Moree and just a few metres off the bitumen, workers use a tractor’s engine to ram steel fenceposts into the ground.
The workers are building cattle yards. On their eastern side, hundreds of cattle are grazing happily on a failed wheat crop in a massive paddock. On their western side is a ploughed paddock with a telephone tower in one corner near the road.
The men are working on ‘Willalee’, one of Ron Greentree’s properties.
And it was here that Coolibah woodland was illegally bulldozed by two of Mr Greentree’s associated companies almost seven years ago. Since a conviction over the illegal clearing, the companies have failed to comply with a court order to revegetate the area. The New South Wales Government has done nothing about this failure to revegetate. And in March this year a big chunk of the same land was cleared again.
Back in 1996, the companies cleared 650 hectares of Coolibah and Black Box woodland at Willalee, including the so-called ‘western paddock’. The companies were charged with clearing without consent, and the case was heard in the New South Wales Land and Environment Court. In his finding, Justice Talbot said that Ron Greentree –
… readily acknowledged that he was aware consent was probably required, and that he had not obtained it.
Stephen Skinner: There were several complex aspects to the case, but in the final outcome an agreement was drawn up regarding the western part of the property. Ron Greentree’s companies were to restore the Coolibah woodland, and to keep it out of bounds to cattle or cropping.
Justice Talbot wrote glowingly of his vision for the future under the deal.
The property agreement scheme will, in the fullness of time, result in the land being fully restored. It, and other land, will be maintained permanently as a wildlife refuge. The defendants have surrendered all potential for commercial gain, either from capital gain or income. On the other hand, it can be inferred there could be a net gain to the community.

Stephen Skinner: That’s a reading from the New South Wales Land and Environment Court’s judgement against two of Ron Greentree’s associated companies for illegal clearing. The companies were fined $14,000 and had to pay costs.
After the court finding, the Department drafted a property agreement for parts of Willalee. It goes into detail on all sorts of things such as fencing, thinning regrowth, controlling feral pests and weeds, fire control and so on. At one point it even prescribes the mulching and watering of individual Coolibah seedlings in the case of drought.
But no property agreement like this one -- supposed to be signed within six months back in 1998 -- has ever been signed, let alone put into action. Meanwhile the same ground has been bulldozed again, and ploughed. It’s now bare dirt.
What do the authorities have to say about all this? The Director-General of the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources would not be interviewed. But Background Briefing was given a statement. In part, and slightly edited, it reads:
The court orders assumed that there would be a spirit of co-operation, and during the years 1998 to 2001 … the Department continued negotiations as far as they could, but they came to a point where agreement simply could not be reached. The Department sought the advice of Counsel. However the Department decided … to continue to resolve the matter by further negotiation if possible.
Stephen Skinner: When Background Briefing discovered that the site had not only not been regenerated, but had been bulldozed again six months ago, we approached the NSW Nature Conservation Council. They didn’t know about it, and were appalled.
We also sought comment from the Grains Council of Australia, but they didn’t return our calls.
The Department of Natural Resources had not visited the site, and sent this statement saying they are now looking into the situation.
The Department is currently investigating allegations of recent clearing of native vegetation on Willalee.
Ron Greentree himself declined to be interviewed or give any comment. He said this is because of legal proceedings regarding other properties.
There are several legal proceedings and investigations involving Ron Greentree. In the year 2000, Mr Greentree and one of his companies were charged with clearing trees without development consent on two other properties between Moree and Mungindi near the Queensland border. More than 5,000 trees are alleged to have been felled, including eight 200-year-old Coolibahs. After lots of legal debate, a date is yet to be set for a hearing. Mr Greentree’s lawyers have not yet filed a formal defence, but have flagged the defence of exemptions.
Now there are investigations into still more clearing on these same properties. If this and the earlier clearing are found to be fact, the total woodland involved is well over 10,000 hectares.
Background Briefing tried to see some of the cleared areas under prosecution and investigation. They’re visible from a small, unsealed public road, but the road was gated and locked.
There is yet another investigation and prosecution pending over clearing on another property involving Ron Greentree. The property near Moree includes part of the internationally protected Gwydir Wetlands.
The prosecution involves the Federal Government, because the wetlands are protected under the international RAMSAR Convention on water birds.
This is the first clearing case launched under the Federal Government’s three year old Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The Government is seeking pecuniary penalties, which under the Act can amount to half a million dollars for an individual, and five-and-a-half million dollars for a company. The Government is also asking the Federal Court to order remediation of the cleared area. The Court has already imposed an interim injunction against the cleared area being cropped.
While not wanting to pre-judge this case, Jeff Smith, from the Environmental Defender’s Office, welcomes the Government’s move.

Jeff Smith: The taking of action by the Federal Government is an interesting and exciting development. It’s the first time that the Federal Government has used the legislation in this way. The taking of an injunction and then the seeking of further civil penalties goes a long way to ensuring that there’s a strong and effective legislative regime in place. We have had concerns about the enforcement of the federal environmental laws, but the action here clearly demonstrates that the government is prepared to take these issues on, and that it has laws in place to enable them to do that.
Stephen Skinner: There’s one more case involving Ron Greentree. That’s a state investigation of clearing on a property near Coonamble, between Moree and Nyngan.
Car driving sounds.

Stephen Skinner: As I drive from Moree through Walgett to Coonamble, the absolutely flat landscape alternates between scattered woodland, grazing country and enormous wheat paddocks.

Stephen Skinner: In a good season this part of Australia has some of the biggest wheat crops in the country.
The road to Nyngan heads further south-west from Coonamble, and it’s almost 500 lonely kilometres from Moree. On the home stretch into Nyngan at night, the rain starts pounding.
Windscreen wiper and rain noises.

Stephen Skinner: Nyngan isn’t as well-off as Moree. The land is less productive, there’s no irrigation and the town has only two-and-a-half thousand people.
The following day it’s busy in the main street and the locals are excited about the rain.

Woman: I hope it rains for weeks, like this ….
Stephen Skinner: Much of the land around Nyngan was heavily cleared for grazing many generations ago, and for cropping more recently. But the majority of the country is still native woodland. Locals say a lot of this woodland is regrowth that’s come back with a vengeance, in the absence of fire and rabbits. Farmers are as mad as hell at what they see as red tape preventing them from clearing a lot of this regrowth and putting in crops.
In fact, it all boiled over earlier this year into a real confrontation. The Mayor of Nyngan, Ray Donald, was being investigated over alleged clearing breaches on his property a few kilometres out of town. The locals got to hear that officers from the Department of Natural Resources were about to visit the property for the fifth time.
Angry crowd noises.

Stephen Skinner: More than a hundred people blockaded the gate to Mr Donald’s farm and refused to let the Department enter.

Woman: Now who is actually in charge here?

Man: We all are, the whole lot.

Woman: Well there’s no point in my sitting here and actually talking to a mob. So if somebody wants to come and talk to me individually, I’m quite happy.

Man: I think you’re missing the point, actually we’re not a mob.

Man: No, you're not going anywhere, sorry.

Man: She can get in the car if she likes.

Stephen Skinner: The compliance officer retreated to her car. Farmers’ vehicles blocked her exit. So not only could she and a colleague not enter the property, they couldn’t leave either. As you can hear from this home video, the police arrived and tried to reason with the blockaders.

Policeman:...if you believe that they’ve done something that breaches against what their power gives them to do, you have avenues to go to … they’re only going to do an investigation aren’t they?

Man: There are four people there that have got their job to do, there’s about 100 farmers here and we’ve got our job to do, and we think that that’s where we stand and these guys are out of line …

Policeman: Is your standing here getting the job done?

Man: Yes we are. The future of farming’s on the line here.

Stephen Skinner: Departmental officers haven’t been back to the property since then, and in fact the New South Wales Government has ordered compliance officers not to go near the district.
The person at the centre of that blockade was the Mayor of Nyngan, Ray Donald.
Car driving in rain sound.

Stephen Skinner: The dirt track into his property, off the main road between Nyngan and Cobar, was boggy after a downpour.
On the back verandah of his house, Mr Donald, a big, softly-spoken man in his 50s, looks out over some of his 4,000 hectare mixed grazing and cropping property. He says there are too many woody weeds on his property.
Ray Donald: Since the decline of the rabbits there’s been a woody weed problem with Budda come on to a lot of our country. As well as that some wet years have exacerbated the growth of eucalypt, and also Wilga, small Wilga trees, all of which are not valuable vegetation, they’re not part of the natural landscape and detrimental to grazing and farming.

Stephen Skinner: But how are they not natural to the local landscape if they’re native?

Ray Donald: Well they’re natural in the sense that they’re native, but in excess they’re detrimental and they don’t cause any benefit at all.

Stephen Skinner: But how can they actually be detrimental in terms of the biodiversity to the other native plants and animals?

Ray Donald: Well if they’re too thick together, too close together -- which they do grow very, very dense -- then there’s absolutely nothing on the ground to assist any animals that may live there or birds, there’s no grass on the ground, which in the bare ground can lead to erosion where there’s gradient. So they can grow so thick together that they just virtually eliminate anything else, and that’s the detrimental fact of them.

Stephen Skinner: Whereas if they’re cleared it’s native grass that comes back?
Ray Donald: Predominantly native grass that comes back and also if they’re cleared they also assist the longer life of the valuable vegetation which is certainly quite extensive through this area. But it’s valuable, it needs to stay and it needs to be preserved.
Stephen Skinner: What do you define as valuable vegetation?

Ray Donald: Valuable vegetation is sparse vegetation, it’s remnant vegetation, single trees, trees that provide habitat for birds and protection and shade for animals. A lot of the vegetation, valuable vegetation, is in tree lines or corridors, as we more commonly call them now, that whilst they may be a little dense, they have in them a lot of good remnant vegetation, dead timber, valuable habitat, and they make valuable windbreaks and they need to be left alone, which they will be left alone, and certainly provide a valuable part of the landscape.
Stephen Skinner: Ray Donald says farmers have to stand firm in the face of government intrusion, and he feels honoured that so many people turned out to support him at the blockade in March. Ray Donald.

Ray Donald: The district, and that includes not only landholders but business people in the town, could see that we were being targeted and victimised and harassed, and therefore as a community we reacted to that in a perfectly legitimate way, by stopping the extreme aggressive nature of compliance people coming on to properties and virtually trying to tell people how to run their own farms.
Stephen Skinner: But isn’t that their job under the legislation, whether people like the legislation or not?

Ray Donald: It’s a very difficult job to get a balance between doing it reasonably and aggressively. It’s all subject to interpretation of the Act. However nothing’s going to work if there’s not communication, consultation and an understanding of the person’s need to have a viable operation, to earn their living as opposed to a salaried person from outside the district who really gets their wage cheque rain, hail or shine. So it comes down to a question of your own economic survival, and when that’s threatened by excessive regulation carried out by people who don’t live in the district and aren’t part of that need to survive, then it’s a natural reaction to object to that, and as it got to the critical stage, our objection ended up being boycotting the inspectors from the DLWC (Department of land and Water Conservation) coming on to properties to check compliance of plans.

Stephen Skinner:Mr Donald was a member of the government-appointed regional vegetation committee, charged to come up with local plans to manage local land clearing. The Nyngan committee was bitterly divided, with farmers pitted against environmentalists and scientists.
Meanwhile the Nyngan community has also recently formed what they call the Economic Survival Committee. Chair of that group, and a member of the vegetation committee as well, is Doug Menzies. He’s a fourth generation farmer, living in the original 107-year-old house, on a property not far from Ray Donald’s.
To get there you have to drive across the Bogan River, but that’s not very hard because it’s not really a river at all at this point, even with the rain. I was able to park on the blue-metal river crossing and throw stones into the puddles.
Stones landing in water.
A couple of stone throws away, near the machinery sheds, is the old homestead with its original wood-fired stove. Doug Menzies sits near it at the kitchen table.

Doug Menzies: I’m Doug Menzies, married, live here at Summerlea just out of Nyngan. We’ve got four kids aged eleven through to four. My family’s been on this place for 107 years now. My kids are actually the fifth generation that live in this house. We’ve got about seven-and-a-half thousand hectares here. We run a steer operation as well as winter cropping which includes wheat and barley and canola, which is about 4,000 acres a year. It goes down in winter crops. We think we’re finishing up on a pretty long dry spell. We’re still a bit short of water in the tanks and that, but things are starting to look up a bit.

Stephen Skinner: Part of the problem around here is that the government hasn’t finished a study of just what vegetation there is in the Nyngan region. Last year farmers blocked access to the vegetation mappers.
Doug Menzies and the rest of the local majority on the vegetation committee want farmers to be able to clear up to 85 percent of the native vegetation on their properties, leaving 15 percent. They say if you include local stock routes and state forests that means about 34 percent of the district will still be left with native vegetation. The minority committee view is that much more than that is necessary to ensure the survival of species, to avoid salinity, erosion, water degradation and all of the other myriad environmental dangers.
But Doug Menzies insists that 34 percent native vegetation cover is plenty.

Doug Menzies: This draft plan we’ve got guarantees as an absolute minimum that 34 percent of this region is retained under native vegetation. This garbage about total environmental collapse and all this sort of rot that you probably read in the dissenting report, you show me a region anywhere east of here that’s got 34 percent of the native vegetation retained in good condition in the region at no cost to the community, bugger- all cost to the government. You know this is something we’ve agreed to take on ourselves and do under our own bat, you show me a region that’s got 34 percent retention rate that’s in environmental collapse, and it’s just a load of bloody bullshit.

Stephen Skinner: There’s also argument over how you actually define ‘remnant vegetation’ versus ‘regrowth’, and just how much regrowth should be cleared. For example, there’s a lot of Cypress Pine around Nyngan, and while Cypress Pine is a native, it’s invasive and it can become a weed. Farmers say that in some places it’s so thick, grass won’t grow underneath it and the soil erodes. Or as Doug Menzies puts it, it gets so thick a dog can’t open its mouth to bark. He says clearing the pine is doing the environment a favour.

Doug Menzies: The cypress, it’s the one that it just gets as thick as it can stick and it can take over an entire paddock. You get 1,000 acres of pine trees, so thick the grass can’t grow into them. The trees themselves are so thick they’ll never turn into millable timber. The soil moisture is just not adequate and you finish up with whipstick pine, there's examples of it down towards Nymagee. You can find pine trees there two inches thick, 100 years old. They just never come to anything. You finish up with a sterile environment.
Stephen Skinner: What about thinning it rather than knocking it all over?

Doug Menzies: That would be OK Steve, thinning it’s OK, depends how thin you’re talking about. It’s all got to be paid for somehow, and someone comes in and tells me that I’ve got to thin it out, and it costs me $40 or $50 an acre to thin it out -- I can’t get cultivating equipment into it for future woody weed control, so what you’re pretty much asking me to do is spend $40 an acre on it now and then in ten years go back and spend another $40 on it, and then ten years after that go back and do it again, and go back and do it again, with no promise of production in between all these big spends. You can see that in a few decades you’ve basically had to buy all your country again.

Stephen Skinner: Doug Menzies says the only realistic option is to clear it for cropping. He envisages an open, park-like scenario, as he says it was 200 years ago. Just what the vegetation landscape was like back then is a hot topic of debate amongst scientists. But Doug Menzies insists that most of the trees around Nyngan didn’t even exist before Europeans.

Doug Menzies: How is it that all this regrowth is so fantastic now when it hasn’t even been there in the past? I just go back to that 34 percent. What we need is a balance. People who own the land have to be able to earn money off it, they have to. As soon as they walk away from it, it gets to the stage where they can no longer earn a living from it. What will happen to it then, and it’s already happened to a few places to the west of …. there’s one place I can think of particularly, to the west of Coolabah, it’s now in the hands of recreational shooters from Newcastle. There’s 30,000-odd acres out there, it’s just scrub, there’s nothing else on it but scrub, a few old busted buildings, and four or five times a year, there’s a team of blokes come up from Newcastle, shoot everything that moves and go back to Newcastle. They never stand a fence up, they’re horrible people to be neighbours to, they just don’t care about anything, it’s recreation for them.

Stephen Skinner: Where’s Coolabah?
Doug Menzies: Coolabah’s 50 mile up the Bourke Road from Nyngan. But the alternative to this development, when the regrowth is at that sort of scale, is that. You know, it’s use it or lose it. You either make use of it, and make it so somebody can earn a living off it, while doing your best to maintain a balance, or you just let it go. Now find me an environmentalist that thinks it’s a good outcome to let the scrub go so bad that it goes out of the hands of legitimate farmers, and into the hands of recreational shooters.

Stephen Skinner:
Last month a detailed study of clearing in one patch of the Nyngan area was published. It noted that two years ago about 400 hectares of land was approved by the Department to be cleared. But satellite images show that almost three-and-a-half thousand hectares were actually cleared.
I asked Doug Menzies how much illegal clearing was going on around Nyngan. He didn’t think there was any. He said farmers were clearing either under exemptions, or under the draft regional plan.
But the trouble is the draft Nyngan plan is exactly that, a draft. It hasn’t been put into legal force yet. The Department told Background Briefing it’s told the Committee the plan needs a lot more work and amendment yet before it can be legally gazetted.
So we’ve got the situation where for months farmers have been clearing under a plan which isn’t recognised by the Government, but with government inspectors not allowed to visit the area.
Back in Sydney, at Dee Why on the northern beaches, Judy Boyden says the situation is a farce.

Child: How do you get the foxes away?

Judy Boyden: Oh we have ways and means.

Stephen Skinner: Judy Boyden is the Nature Conservation Council rep on both the Moree and Nyngan committees. She’s also on the Nyngan region’s catchment management board. She says farmers can’t think just of their short-term financial situations and turn their back on the very big long-term issues facing agriculture in Australia. She says many of the Nyngan farmers have their ears blocked.

Judy Boyden: Dryland salinity, declining surface water quality, declining health and abundance of native vegetation, degradation of riparian and wetland ecosystems, and deterioration of soil resource. Those are the major concerns for the Catchment Management Board. And our Catchment Management Board rep tried to bring those issues to the table at Nyngan and nobody wanted to listen.
Stephen Skinner: Judy Boyden used to be a farmer at Cowra in New South Wales. Like many other long-established farming regions in Australia, about the only decent vegetation left around there is on soils that are too poor or too steep to farm. And Judy Boyden doesn’t want to see history repeating itself somewhere else.

Judy Boyden: We’ve already reached the limit where we need to put a stop to some of this, or we at least need to plan so that we don’t do what’s happened in other areas, where we’re contemplating spending millions and millions of dollars to revegetate in some areas. This is taxpayers’ dollars, and here we’re still going on doing the damage that we’ve done in other areas where we’re spending millions of dollars, and as a taxpayer, I would think I’m being robbed.

Stephen Skinner: On the specific issue of regrowth, Judy Boyden says there’s no evidence that regrowth is as bad as the farmers at Nyngan are making out.
Judy Boyden: A paper that the Department commissioned on regrowth, an expert panel, and this paper was not given to the Nyngan committee for instance -- well it was, but it wasn’t ever tabled, and the farmers didn’t really want to acknowledge it -- said that regrowth didn’t cause degradation, that regrowth had as much biodiversity as any other community, and it doesn’t cause erosion, and that it has considerable habitat values. The whole argument at Nyngan was that sure, there were production decreases in regrowth areas and the green camp acknowledged that farmers needed to be able to manage it, but not all of it, and in the Nyngan plan the definition of regrowth legally could be the whole of the region.
Stephen Skinner: Judy Boyden from the NSW Nature Conservation Council.

The penalties under the current New South Wales clearing laws are the toughest in the country, on paper at least. The maximum fine for illegal clearing is more than one million dollars and an offence carries a criminal conviction. But Dr Robyn Bartel, from the Australian National University, says it’s all a paper tiger.
Robyn Bartel: New South Wales, with their $1.1-million maximum penalty, looked at least on paper like they were going to be serious about stopping illegal land clearance. But that doesn’t appear to be the case, looking at the administration side; looking at how much land clearance is actually permitted to go ahead; looking at the fact that the exemptions that were supposed to have been reviewed have not been changed since the enactment of the legislation; looking at the fact there were supposed to be regional vegetation committees to administer land clearance, and that has been a disaster. Taking all that into account, the maximum penalty fades into the distance. Comparing that with Queensland, that has a very high rate of land clearance and has often been considered the pariah state because of that, they’ve recently really been starting to crack down on illegal land clearance, systematically looking at compliance by using satellite imagery, matching it with their permit data, trying to identify who has been clearing illegally and taking them to court. Even though the penalties have been quite low, if there is a perception out there that if you’re going to clear without a permit, you will get caught, you will be taken to court, this is not something the ordinary landholder wants to do. Even if the penalty may be quite low, that is going to be a disincentive for the ordinary landholder. It might not be a disincentive for agribusiness, but for the ordinary landholder, that is a concern.

Stephen Skinner: Just when the complexity and enormity of the issues surrounding clearing feels a bit overwhelming, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. Acknowledging what both farmers and conservationists have been saying for years -- that the system just isn’t working -- the New South Wales Government commissioned the Wentworth Group of Scientists to come up with a plan.
Key elements of that plan include making the regulations clearer and simpler; a ban on clearing high conservation value regrowth; and perhaps most crucially, stewardship payments for farmers worth $120-million over four years. The Government’s response to the finer details of the Wentworth Group’s plan is due any week.
Professor of Environmental Law at the University of Wollongong, David Farrier, has just done a nationwide study on the impact of native vegetation laws on grain-growers. He welcomes the moves in New South Wales, but says what’s ultimately needed is an ongoing environmental levy on all taxpayers.

David Farrier: This is really a political issue and it needs to be dealt with at a more general level (rather) than through individual prosecutions. That’s not to say there aren’t some cases which appear to have been quite appropriate for prosecution, but the Government’s reluctant to go in hard in those cases, because it really doesn’t have a strategy for encouraging farmers to keep native vegetation, and that’s the crucial thing. Once you have that strategy in place, once you’re offering farmers stewardship payments or in some cases you’re offering to buy them out of their properties, in other words, once you’re prepared to spend the money, then it’s quite appropriate for you to go in hard and prosecute those who do the wrong thing. But at the moment, the Government’s trying to essentially avoid having to spend significant amounts of money, although we are now told that $120-million is going to be available. So that will go some way towards it, whether it’ll go far enough is another question. But in the end, you come back to the notion of the need for an environmental levy, and I think that people in the cities will be prepared to pay to keep threatened species and threatened communities.

Stephen Skinner: Co-ordinating Producer and Technical Operator for Background Briefing is Michelle Goldsworthy. Research, Paul Bolger. Executive Producer, Kirsten Garrett. I’m Stephen Skinner, you’re listening to ABC Radio National.

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