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?

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.