Questions over land clearing in North Queensland where vulnerable species are thought to live

The mass clearing of North Queensland habitat likely to contain threatened animal and plant species has raised further questions about the effectiveness of state and federal environmental protection laws.

“There’s loopholes and there’s exemptions in the state that don’t protect from the endangered species,” Dave Copeman Queensland Conservation Council (QCC) said.

“There’s no proper assessment.”

The QCC the Wilderness Society has documented and a new clearing of at least 3,700 hectares on land owned by the Consolidated Pastoral Company at its Wrotham Park station.

The company has confirmed the area, which included some sparse vegetation as well as more heavily-vegetated regrowth, was cleared in June last year.

“The re-cleared land was first cleared in 1972 and represents less than 1 percent of our land at Wrotham Park,” Consolidated Pastoral’s CEO Troy Setter told 7.30 in a written statement.

A man wearing a blue collared shirt.
Dave Copeman says Queensland laws “don’t protect threatened species”.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

“The land management work at Wrotham Park complies with government regulations and is consistent with our need to manage noxious weeds on the property, as well as our longer-term goal of improving soil quality, improving biodiversity, and increasing vegetation cover.

“We are not aware of any impact on our land management at Wrotham Park has had on threatened species.”

According to the Federal Environment Department’s database, Wrotham Park is the likely habitat of at least four vulnerable species — the ghost bat, the red goshawk, the Cooktown orchid and black-footed tree rat, and it may be the habitat of the endangered Gouldian finch .

“We know … this is habitat that could have grown and sustained a population of Gouldian finch — that possibility has gone now,” Mr Copeman said.

onus on landholder

A ghost bat in mid-flight at night
The ghost bat is thought to live on Wrotham Park.(Supplied: Department of Environment)

Under Queensland’s vegetation laws, the regrowth is classified as so called “Category X” and does not require a permit from the state government before clearing.

The state’s Resources Minister Scott Stewart defended Queensland’s laws.

“The Palaszczuk government legislated strengthened land clearing laws in 2018 to protect our valuable environment, habitats and Great Barrier Reef — laws which the LNP opposed,” he told 7.30 in a written statement.

Threatened species are also regulated under the Federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, but the burden is on the landholder to refer the matter for assessment.

“It is the proponent’s responsibility to refer an activity under national environment law if they think it could cause a significant impact on a nationally protected matter,” a departmental spokesperson told 7.30.

Consolidated Pastoral did not refer the matter for federal assessment, and Fiona Simson, president of the National Farmers’ Federation, said that’s understandable.

An aerial image of land, some of which is cleared and some of which contains trees.
Cleared land at Wrotham Park.(Supplied: Queensland Conservation Council and the Wilderness Society)

“The Queensland government has actually looked at all of that area and categorised it as safe to clear,” she told 7.30.

“So it’s not the landowner making the decision on their own – they’re supported by state government departments as well.”

CSIRO environmental scientist Dr Ian Cresswell says the lack of a referral is not unusual.

“Across Australia very few clearing applications are referred,” he said.

“There’s a problem. We’re not monitoring what we’re losing.”

Dr Cresswell was one of the authors of the federal government’s recent State of the Environment Report, which found Australia has one of the highest rates of species decline among developed countries, and sounded the alarm about the continued rate of habitat loss.

“In Australia land clearing is most prevalent in Queensland and NSW — Queensland is by far the latest contributor to land clearing,” he said.

“We do know that the continuing fragmentation of habitat and clearing of habitat has a major impact on the loss of species in any area.”

While agriculture is responsible for clearing more land, the impact on threatened species is even greater on Australia’s urban fringes.

‘There’s no going back’

A woman stands with anti-land clearing signs.
Anne Page has been campaigning to save koala habitat.(ABC News: Alex Brewster)

Anne Page from the Logan and Albert Conservation Association has been campaigning to stop the clearing of koala habitat to make way for a new industrial estate at North Maclean, south of Brisbane.

“There’s no magic fairy land out there. You clear trees [and] wildlife, fauna, biodiversity dies, eco-system dies. It’s a one-way street, there’s no going back.”

Land clearing for new buildings generally has to be assessed under federal threatened species law, and in the case of the North Maclean development, the loss of 63 hectares of habitat for threatened species was offset by the planting of 265 hectares in the Ipswich region.

The developer Charter Hall said the offset would “create one the largest areas of intact suitable swift parrot foraging habitat in south-east Queensland, and will also have a significant benefit to the koala and grey-headed flying fox”.

A Woman Speaks at a Lecturer
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has begun a review of the federal environment protection act.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

The company managing the offsets, Cherish the Environment Foundation, said “there will also be significant additional environmental benefits such as presentation of high value wetlands”.

But Dr Cresswell says offsets are not always a guaranteed success.

“It’s a mixed bag. Some of them have been useful, but in fact the studies that had looked at offsets in detail have found that many have not lived up to their intended purpose.”

The Queensland government has commissioned an independent panel of experts to review the factors behind the state’s land clearing rates.

And federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has begun the review of the EPBC Act with the aim of introducing new legislation next year.

“There’s almost universal consensus that change is needed,” she told the National Press Club in July.

A middle aged woman with blonde hair and a blue collared shirt stands in a field with cattle in the background.
Fiona Simson wants to see land owners rewarded for “good environmental management”.(Supplied: Fiona Simson)

Fiona Simson agrees things we need to change, but argues punitive laws are not the answer.

“We believe that any regulatory system is best when it goes hand-in-hand with a positive system as well as rewards land holders for the good land management and good environmental management,” she said.

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