There has been a 13 fold increase in land clearing approvals in NSW since controversial land clearing law changes were introduced in 2016, according to a secret report obtained by Independent NSW MP Justin Field who has labeled it as evidence of a “catastrophic failure” of land management under the NSW Nationals.
The report, undertaken by the NSW Natural Resources Commission, was commissioned by the NSW Premier in January 2019, just before the last NSW State Election, and was handed to the Government in July 2019.
The report found that:
- In 2018/19, over 37,000 hectares were approved to be cleared. This is almost 13 times the annual average rate of approval in the ten years prior to 2016/17 of approx 2,700 hectares (p6).
- Land clearing approvals almost doubled between Q4 2018 (25,247 hectares) and Q1 2019 (43,553 hectares) just after the most controversial element of the land clearing reform, the Codes, commenced in March 2018 (p4).
- There was 7,100 hectares of ‘unexplained’ clearing over 6 months (August 2017 - January 2018) representing almost 60% of all land clearing. (pp4,5)
- Nine of eleven regions in NSW are setting aside significantly less than the area approved for clearing (between 6 and 69 percent of the area approved to be cleared). When the reforms were introduced it was intended that two to four times the area approved for clearing would be set aside (p6)
- 9 of 11 regions are considered a “high biodiversity risk” with high rates of clearing being undertaken under provisions to allow for “thinning for pasture expansion”. The report describes clearing under this rule as presenting a “state-wide risk to biodiversity” and that the “policy intent of the reforms is not being achieved” (pp4,6)
- The Government has failed to finalise key elements of the 2016 reform including the Native Vegetation Regulatory Map and a coordinated Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting program (p4).
See table below of key findings assessed against proposed evaluation targets recommended in the report.
Independent NSW MP Justin Field, who has been pursuing this report through the Parliament since its existence was confirmed in September 2019, said:
“This report makes clear that the management of natural resources under the NSW Nationals have been a catastrophic failure that has led to seemingly unrestrained land clearing approvals and an increase in unexplained clearing across the majority of the state.
“It is unacceptable and unforgivable that the Government has been sitting on findings for nine months that show their own laws present a “state-wide risk to biodiversity” while land clearing has been allowed to continue at record levels.
“Our wildlife and the native forests, woodlands and grasslands they rely on have been savaged by the drought and fires and the Government has known its land clearing laws were making that worse.
“This sends a terrible message to landholders who are trying to do the right thing, and who understand the value of protecting biodiversity on the land, when they see the Government allow rampant clearing across the state.
“We know that protecting native vegetation reduces the impacts of erosion and salinity, improves water retention and soil health on farms. Clearing can benefit one farm but on a large scale it degrades the land and costs our agricultural industries.
“New approvals for land clearing and the “pasture expansion thinning” rules should be paused until the NRC’s recommendations are implemented in full.
“I’m concerned that in the current COVID-19 crisis unacceptable rates of land clearing are going to continue unabated and without enforcement.
"I’m calling for the statute of limitations on prosecutions for illegal land clearing to be suspended until the public can be reassured that investigations and enforcement is able to proceed unhindered. It would be too easy for those landholders who have done the wrong thing to try to drag out the investigation process to avoid prosecution.