Vegetation clearing regulations weakened

Legislative changes recently introduced by the State Government will leave clearing of native vegetation unregulated or poorly regulated in some areas of the state, exposing even the most endangered vegetation communities to destruction.

This weakening of protection of threatened native vegetation communities (‘listed’ on Schedule 3A of the Nature Conservation Act 2002) constitutes a contravention by the State Government of the Supplementary Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement (STRFA). Clause 48 of the STRFA required the Tasmanian Government to implement ‘statutory mechanisms…to prevent the clearing and conversion of rare, vulnerable and endangered non-forest native vegetation communities on public and private land’. The State Government previously delivered on this commitment by establishing a regulatory system administered by the Forest Practices Authority but the recent changes have left many regulatory gaps and are a clear contravention of this clause.

If the State Government does not remedy this situation, the TCT has called on the Australian Government to implement provisions of the STRFA which allow it to withhold state funding until appropriate protection of threatened communities is reinstated.

These changes are the result of the Forest Practices Amendment Regulations 2009, which took effect on 25 November 2009. These regulations were introduced into the Tasmanian Parliament in the last days of the last sitting for 2009 and were passed unnoticed by opposition parties.

Under the new regulations the Forest Practices Authority will no longer have responsibility for issuing permits for clearing native vegetation, including Threatened Native Vegetation Communities, for construction of buildings and associated developments, mining or mineral exploration, or for the construction and maintenance of a railway or electricity infrastructure. The Authority will retain controls relating to forestry and agricultural clearing.
 The weakening of vegetation clearing controls is perhaps most evident in relation to local councils. Under the new regulations, councils and other planning authorities now have responsibility for regulating clearing of native vegetation for construction of buildings and associated developments through planning schemes, some councils have weak or non-existent controls over vegetation clearing in their planning schemes. Therefore, in many areas, clearing of native vegetation, including threatened communities, for such purposes will be effectively unregulated.

Where councils have adequate controls, many do not have the staff and resources to properly assess whether development applications will affect threatened communities or other important vegetation In these situations councils may unknowingly or unwittingly approve such vegetation clearing.

The TCT also has grave concerns that the regulatory arrangements now in place in relation to vegetation clearing for mining or mineral exploration, and construction and maintenance of a railway or electricity infrastructure, will be significantly weaker than the system that previously existed under the Forest Practices Authority.

To remedy this situation the TCT has recommended that the Minister for Planning, David Llewellyn, instruct the Tasmanian Planning Commission to work with councils and all other bodies that regulate vegetation clearing to develop a planning directive to set regulatory standards (equivalent or higher than the system which existed previously) in relation to vegetation clearing.

The planning directive should aim to ensure the protection of Threatened Native Vegetation Communities, identified threatened species habitats and other critical environmental values which could be significantly affected by clearing of native vegetation, e.g. freshwater ecosystems as identified under the Conservation of Freshwater Ecosystem Values Program.

The TCT has written to the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Premier, David Bartlett, notifying them of the contravention by the State Government of the STRFA. We have recommended that the Australian Government enact Clause 51 of the STRFA and suspend funding to the State Government until full protection is given to threatened native vegetation communities.

 Peter McGlone