Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Scientists condemn Queensland Land Clearing changes, warn of biodiversity loss

Leading Queensland environmental scientists are up in arms over changes to Queensland's Vegetation Management Act and the Water Act which will enhance land clearing and destruction of native vegetation important for preserving biodiversity values, ecological services such as clean water and flood mitigation, and carbon sink potential.

"Queensland is the most biodiverse state in Australia," said Dr Martine Maron of The University of Queensland, a spokesperson for the group. "Sadly, it has also seen 30 extinctions, with hundreds more on the threatened list. Ongoing habitat clearing is a major threat to our endangered wildlife."

Land clearing is seen by the scientists as the greatest threat to species biodiversity and also contributes to removing carbon sink capacity. Their concerns are backed up by a peer reviewed scientific report prepared for WWF-Australia - Bushland at risk of renewed clearing in Queensland.

According to this WWF-Australia report the four major changes proposed by the Queensland Government are:

  • new category of broadscale clearing of mature bushland for 'high value agriculture'
  • Removal of protections of high conservation value regrowth bushland
  • Removal of permit requirement for clearing native vegetation in watercourses
  • Changed provisions for enforcement of illegal clearing

The report says the changes, despite Government assurances, "would constitute a significant reduction in the current level of statutory vegetation protection."

These changes to land clearing follows a leaked document in February 2013 revealing the Newman Government was opening up logging destruction in Queensland native forests.

"About 80,000 hectares of Queensland's native vegetation are still cleared each year, a third of which is mature remnant bushland," said Dr. Maron. "Queensland already clears far more native bushland annually than any other state in Australia".

The WWF-Australia report found that up to 66 species listed as threatened under the Commonwealth EPBC act and a further 19 species listed under Queensland's Nature Conservation Act may be located in or near at-risk mature bushland. Clearing of vegetation along watercourses and rivers would also affect water quality and aquatic species of fish, frogs and turtles. Notable species which may be affected in at-risk regrowth include koalas, powerful owl, cassowary, spotted-tailed quoll, and wild macadamias (Qld's only endemic native crop plant).

"It has been estimated that for every 100 hectares of native woodlands cleared, roughly 2000 birds, 15,000 reptiles and 500 native mammals will die," said Professor Hugh Possingham of The University of Queensland. "Such losses increase the chance that species will become locally or even globally extinct."

The scientists say protection of high-value regrowth is the most cost-effective way to restore habitat. Tens of millions of dollars are spent annually trying to recover and restore lost ecosystems in Australia. "Restoration can cost more than $20,000 per hectare, so avoiding the loss in the first place is far more cost-effective", said Professor Carla Catterall of Griffith University.

"And biodiversity isn't the only casualty of land clearing," said Professor Catterall. "Land clearing also reduces water quality for rivers, increases dryland salinity, and is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions."

Indeed. The WWF-Australia report estimated the potential carbon sink capacity based upon the potential biomass layer using the Department of Climate Change's National Carbon Accounting System (NCAS). "We estimated about 184 million tonnes of carbon dioxide could be stored in at-risk mature bushland." said the report. At-risk regrowth bushland was estimated to hold about 46 million tonnes of CO2 in 2010, but with the potential to store an additional 139 million tonnes of CO2 with a total potential carbon sink potential of 185 million tonnes.

The changes to compliance measures appear to also make it mush more difficult to identify and prosecute illegal land clearing. There is already substantial unexplained land clearing - in 2009/2010 it was estimated at 12.5 per cent of all clearing. "While it is not possible to know how much more illegal clearing might occur as a result of the proposed VMA amendments, the proposed reduction in scope for successful enforcement has the potential to result in increased illegal land clearing." says the report.

Changes to the Queensland Water Act enacted on 2 May 2013, to remove restrictions on clearing riverine regrowth vegetation places at risk very conservatively some 84,827km of cumulative stream length, not including vegetation around wetlands, lakes or springs.

"The proposed changes are neither balanced nor sustainable", said Professor Catterall. "In our statement, we urge the Premier to reconsider these changes."

Minister for Natural Resources and Mines Andrew Cripps issued a statement in reply to the WWF report on 30 April accusing the organisation of "spruiking ill-informed and alarmist rhetoric in an attempt to stay relevant and grab media headlines", that the amendments would "restore a long-overdue balance to Queensland's vegetation management framework, while retaining key environmental protections".

The WWF report is a scientific analysis that was peer reviewed by two eminent academic ecologists before publication. To accuse the WWF of being alarmist is the pot calling the kettle black. Report author, WWF conservation scientist Dr Martin Taylor, said the amendments would be a substantial rolback which would have a staggering impact on Queensland's native animals and plants. "Two million hectares of bushland put at risk due to this proposed change is home to at least 163 species of endangered and vulnerable native plants and animals - including koalas, wallabies, cockatoos, cassowaries and quolls," Dr Taylor said. "New loopholes would mean the Minister could allow broadscale landclearing of as much as 1.3 million hectares of mature bushland."

One of those who peer reviewed the paper, Distinguished Research Professor & Australian Laureate Dr William F. Laurance, who researches in Conservation Biology at James Cook University said the leglislative amendments were a rollback of Queensland landclearing laws and amendments of 2006 and 2009. "Queensland's landmark tree-clearing laws drastically curbed bushland destruction, which was previously on a par with forest clearing rates in the Amazon. It's terrible to think that in 2013 we would even consider reopening these areas to bulldozers," Professor Laurance said.

It seems the rape of the environment, biodiversity and climate is continuing at a rapid pace in Queensland under the Newman Liberal National Party Government. The numerous natural ecological services native and regrowth bushland provides such as filtering our water supply and playing a flood mitigation role is being ignored for short term purposes. Queensland already experiences exceptional floods and some of this land clearing will further exacerbate flooding. The rich biodiversity from the tropical and temperate forests to the Great Barrier reef is increasingly thretened by short term policies that values business profits over long term sustainability.

WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O'Gorman said that the Newman Government by passing these amendments would break an election commitment to retain the current level of statutory vegetation protection. "If these laws are passed, broad-scale bulldozing of bushland will lead to an increased extinction risk for wildlife, cause soil erosion, water pollution and release millions of tonnes of CO2," Mr O'Gorman said.


Public Statement of Concern from Queensland Scientists

As scientists with expertise in biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, we wish to express grave concerns about the future impacts of proposed changes to Queensland's Vegetation Management Act and the Water Act.

They include allowing a new category of broadscale native vegetation clearing for some types of agriculture, and removing the protections which previously prevented clearing of mature regrowth of threatened plant communities, and of vegetation along many watercourses. These changes appear set to increase, not decrease, the rate of land clearing.

Land clearing is the greatest current threat to Australia's biodiversity, and is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, degradation and reduced water quality in waterways and estuaries, and dryland salinity.

Queensland is the most biodiverse state in Australia, but has already seen too many species becoming extinct or threatened. Ongoing losses caused by vegetation clearing increase the chance that more species will disappear from particular regions or become globally extinct. And the effects of clearing now will continue to increase long into the future, because habitat loss that occurs now can lead to extinctions many years down the track.

Regrowth of threatened vegetation types must be allowed to mature to enable recovery and eventual removal from the threatened list. This regrowth is also important habitat for many species, and plays an important role in carbon uptake, soil protection, and the maintenance of water quality. There is significant public investment in planting trees to restore habitat, but these efforts are negated if native vegetation is simultaneously being cleared.

We understand the need for multiple uses of land, and for a balanced approach to land use conflicts. However, a continuing loss of native vegetation with no end point planned is neither balanced nor sustainable. We urge the government to consider the irreversible and pervasive environmental consequences of the proposed changes, and avoid reducing protection of our State's native bushland.

The statement is signed by the following scientists and academics:
    Dr Greg Baxter, Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland Associate Professor Yvonne Buckley, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland Professor Carla P. Catteral,l Professor, Griffith University Dr Diana Fisher, ARC Future Fellow, The University of Queensland Professor David Gillieson, Adjunct Professor, The University of Queensland Professor Jean-Marc Hero, Professor, Griffith University Professor Marc Hockings, Professor, The University of Queensland Dr Alan House, Principal Ecologist, Ecosure Professor Roger Kitching AM, Professor, Griffith University Dr Frederieke Kroon, Adjunct Lecturer , James Cook University Professor William F. Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor & Australian Laureate, James Cook University Dr Susan Laurance, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University Dr Andrew Le Brocque, Senior Lecturer, University of Southern Queensland Dr Simon Linke, Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University Dr Martine Maron, Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland Dr Tara Martin, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland Professor Hamish McCallum, Professor, Griffith University Professor Richard G. Pearson, Emeritus Professor, James Cook University Professor Hugh P. Possingham FAA, Professor, The University of Queensland Professor Bob Pressey FAA, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University Dr Jonathan R. Rhodes, Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland Dr Cynthia Riginos, Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland Mr Phil Shaw, Managing Director, Ecosure; Avisure Professor Steve Turton, Professor, James Cook University Associate Professor Peter Valentine, Adjunct Associate Professor, James Cook University Dr David Westcott, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, James Cook University Dr Kerrie Wilson, ARC Future Fellow, The University of Queensland

Sources: