Bushland destruction escalates in Queensland, Australia

Martin Taylor is a conservation scientist with WWF-Australia who has published ground-breaking analyses of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, threats to whale habitats, and the effectiveness of conservation actions in Australia.  Here he tells us about an alarming rebound in destruction of native forests and woodlands in Queensland.

Many ecologists may be surprised to learn that Australia is among the global list of top deforestation offenders

In the vast state of Queensland, nearly 500,000 hectares of native woodland was being cleared each year before a 2006 ban on broad-scale clearing.  In relative terms, this was on par with the worst levels of Amazon deforestation.

Forests falling fast in Queensland  (photo by Kerry Trapnell)

Forests falling fast in Queensland (photo by Kerry Trapnell)

Queensland’s 2006 ban is considered to be the primary means by which Australia was able to meet it’s emissions target under the Kyoto Protocol.  Land clearing rates fell dramatically after the ban.

Rates of Queensland bushland clearing fell after 2006 but are now on the rebound  (adapted from WWF’s  Bushland Destruction  report).

Rates of Queensland bushland clearing fell after 2006 but are now on the rebound (adapted from WWF’s Bushland Destruction report).

But the respite from rampant clearing changed when a conservative, pro-development government took power in Queensland in early 2012 -- although that new government had promised to retain the existing vegetation protections.

In 2013, they broke that promise.  Among other things, they:

- Reversed the 2006 ban on broad-scale clearing of primary forests, for a new class of “high-value agriculture” -- which turned out to be anything but high value.  They allowed massive clearing of primary forest in Cape York, which was only recently suspended when it was pointed out that nationally endangered species were being harmed.

- Removed protection from 700,000 hectares of high-conservation-value secondary forests.

- Allowed massive broad-scale clearing under unscientific, self-assessed codes that proceeded under the guise of forest “thinning”.

- Made it harder for the government to prosecute illegal clearing, by raising the burden of proof.

As a result of these attacks on land clearing laws in Queensland and elsewhere, eastern Australia earned a dubious place among 11 global deforestation fronts identified by WWF International.

And remarkably, despite the fact that a much more progressive government was elected in Queensland in February 2015, nothing has yet been done to restore land-clearing controls.

Sadly, this means that landholders are rapidly clearing as much land as they can out of fear that the laws will tighten again -- engaging in so-called “panic” clearing.

Lots of wildlife being harmed -- a Pied Monarch from Queensland.

Lots of wildlife being harmed -- a Pied Monarch from Queensland.

A recent WWF analysis and “map of shame” shows just how bad things have become, with Queensland land-clearing rates very much on the rebound.

Leading Queensland ecologists have expressed great alarm at the rebound and called for urgent restoration of the land-clearing laws. 

Will Queensland's new government do the right thing?  Or are we looking at a return to the 'bad old days' -- in which Queensland was among the most egregious forest and woodland destroyers on the planet?

Australian government favors coal mines over environmental protection

Things are getting hot Down Under.  Australian researcher Dr April Reside tells us about the Australian government's scheme to gut key provisions of a vital environmental protections law.  And as if the planet weren't warm enough already, it's all about digging up and selling more coal. 

Abbott fiddles while the world burns

Abbott fiddles while the world burns

The conservative Tony Abbott government in Australia is proposing alarming changes to the country's Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 -- a remarkable move that would prevent environment groups from challenging many damaging development projects.

This has all come to a head over the Carmichael Coal Mine -- a plan to build a massive mine in central Queensland in order to export 60 million of tons of coal to India each year. 

Coal, of course, is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and India's plan to burn it by the shipload for electricity is bad news for the planet.

The Abbott government is in a tizzy after after a community organization, the Mackay Conservation Group, challenged the approval of the Carmichael Mine in Australia's Federal Court. 

The community group says Environment Minister Greg Hunt didn’t properly consider the impact the mine would have on two threatened species, the yakka skink and ornamental snake.

The mine site also sustains the largest population of the southern subspecies of the Black-throated Finch, which is endangered. 

The implications of the mega-mine go well beyond a few imperiled species.  If the mine goes ahead, it will be one of the biggest in the world -- and the emissions from burning its mountains of coal would cancel out all gains made from Australia’s current emissions-reduction strategy.

On top of the frightening precedent it would set, the Abbott government appears to be double-dealing. 

There was an agreement among the Environment Minister, the mine's proponent (the Adani Group from India), and the Mackay Conservation Group that the mine's approval should be set aside temporarily, until the conservation issues could be properly considered by the Minister.  The parties agreed that the decision would be reconsidered in six to eight weeks.

But the federal government responded by attacking environmental groups opposed to the mine, calling them “vigilantes”. 

And now, the government wants to wipe out the right of environmental groups to challenge decisions that violate the EPBC law -- despite the fact that less than 0.4% of all resource-development projects have been halted under the EPBC Act. 

All this comes amid increasing calls by Australia's neighboring nations for a moratorium on new coal mines to prevent dangerous climate change.

The mine continues to attract heated controversy.  Building it would require a major upgrade to existing port facilities on the Queensland coast and could have negative impacts on critical wetlands, culturally important indigenous lands, and even the Great Barrier Reef

And despite all the fuss, many believe that the mine won't even be financially viable in the long term because of declining coal prices and India's pledge to halt coal imports in the next few years.

This isn't the first time the Abbott government has attacked environmental groups, and it may not be the last.  It's time to turn up the heat on the coal-loving Abbott government -- by signing this petition -- before it makes the world hotter for all of the rest of us.

Fears about continued large-scale land clearing in Queensland, Australia

Assoc. Professor Martine Maron at the University of Queensland and Professor Carla Catterall at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, are very concerned about large-scale land clearing Down Under.  Here they offers their views on current happenings in the vast state of Queensland:

A relaxation of environmental protection laws by the former conservative government in Queensland has spurred an alarming increase in rates of land clearing in this Australian state.

Forests and woodlands are still falling fast in Queensland.

Forests and woodlands are still falling fast in Queensland.

Despite a new, progressive government being elected early this year amid promises to reinstate direly-needed habitat protections, nothing has changed.

And growing concerns voiced by senior environmental scientists from across Queensland are being ignored.

In 2013, over twenty scientists spoke publicly of their fears that changes to legal protection of native vegetation would lead to a rise land clearing -- possibly even returning to previous record levels from 2000 to 2005, when Queensland had among the highest rates of vegetation clearing of any region on the planet.

The changes formerly introduced by conservatives removed vital safeguards for riparian vegetation and mature regrowth of endangered ecosystems, and reversed a ban on broad-scale vegetation clearing for agriculture.

At the time, the scientists’ concerns were dismissed.  But leaked figures this year show a dramatic spike in land clearing -- a tripling of the rate since 2010.

It seems likely that this recently reported surge in deforestation is connected with the relaxed safeguards and a cessation of prosecutions for illegal clearing.

Hundreds of thousands more hectares of native vegetation have now been approved by the Queensland government for conversion to agriculture in Australia’s north.  There are also worrying suggestions of ‘panic clearing’ of old-growth habitat.

Earlier this year, the group of concerned scientists again wrote to the newly-elected Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Paluszczuk, urgently seeking to discuss the situation.

In addition to their concerns about the many serious ecological impacts of reduced vegetation protection, the scientists are asking why there has been no release of 2012-2014 data from the government's vegetation-monitoring program.

Previously, these data were released publicly each year, enabling independent analyses of land clearing rates and causes.

Four months later, there has still been no response from the Premier’s office. 

Queensland's Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection agreed to discuss these issues with the scientists, but his office has little say in matters of regulating native vegetation clearing (which, somewhat paradoxically, is controlled by the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines).

Whether the new government in Queensland keeps its promise to reinstate habitat protection remains to be seen. 

But in the meantime, the alarming damage to Queensland's native ecosystems continues apace.

Big risks for the world's biggest coal mine

Nandini Velho, an outstanding young Indian researcher who is currently studying for her doctorate in Australia, is worried that Australians might be making a big mistake by launching what could eventually become the world's biggest coal mine.  Here's her take on things:

Anything for coal...

Anything for coal...

In 2012, the Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, visited Mundra, a port and special economic zone located in the state of Gujarat in western India.  His trip to India promised “huge benefits.”

But here in India, Mundra usually reminds us of the poor track-record of the Adani Group, an Indian conglomerate that focuses on big energy and agribusiness projects. 

That's a serious worry because the Australian government has now given clearances for a truly massive coal mine in Queensland, known as the Carmichael Coal Mine -- to none other than Adani.

The projected carbon emissions from this mine -- most of its coal would likely be burned in China and India -- would exceed that of 52 different nations.  For instance, its resulting emissions would be four times that produced each year by the entire nation of New Zealand.

The poor track record of Adani is facilitated by well-oiled crony alliances with the Gujarat state government.  This is where Narendra Modi, India’s newly elected and scandal-tainted prime minister, formerly governed.

Political scandals in Gujarat state have become legend in India.  India’s Comptroller and Auditor General recently revealed the state exchequer (finance minister) has lost more than $20 million in just the first phase of the Adani-owned Mundra port.

In addition to such financial scandals, the Mundra port project has had serious environmental costs -- including large-scale destruction of mangroves, degradation of creeks, saltwater incursions, and encroachment of pastoral lands.  

In its pro-development zeal, the Queensland government evidently learned little about environmental risks, corruption, and predatory alliances during its visit to India.  And Australia's staunchly pro-development federal government seems just as oblivious.

Both might be in for some hard lessons if they choose to deal with Adani.

Deadly isolation: Tree-clearing may doom flying mammals

Isolation is a silent killer.  That's the conclusion of a study that assessed the effects of woodland clearing on squirrel gliders--the Australian equivalent of the flying squirrel.

Save a few trees for me...

Save a few trees for me...

Writing in the journal PLoS One, Ross Goldingay and colleagues found evidence of intense inbreeding in squirrel gliders in forest patches in Queensland that had been isolated by roads and other clearings around 30 years ago.

Although the squirrel gliders persisted in some forest patches, their genetic signatures indicated they were completely inbred.  Inbred animals often suffer a loss of vigor, health and breeding success, rendering their populations much more prone to local extinction.

Movements of squirrel gliders are evidently impeded once clearings exceed 50 meters in width, the study suggests. 

The findings underscore the importance of maintaining habitat connectivity for wildlife.  A failure to heed such lessons will doom many species to eventual extinction, the study concludes.



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