Changes to Tasmania’s Native Forest Clearing Policy

On 20 September 2011 the Minister for Energy and Resources, Bryan Green, approved a revised Permanent Native Forest Estate Policy (PNFE Policy). The TCT is greatly concerned at the effect the changes will have and about how and why the policy was amended.

The announcement regarding the revision to the PNFE Policy hardly rated a mention in the media because Minister Green’s announcement related to forest ‘clearing and conversion’ and not ‘logging’. As bad as logging is (where felled forests are regenerated with native species) for forest values such as old-growth-dependent animals and wilderness, ‘clearing and conversion’, which results in the native forest being replaced by pasture, crops, plantations or houses, is much worse because nothing survives and the impacts are permanent. While clearing and conversion affects a much smaller area of forests per year (logging affects tens of thousands of hectares and clearing a few thousand hectares) the forest types being targeted for clearing are much less common and some are close to being threatened vegetation communities. Environmental impact is not determined just by the area of vegetation affected but by the area, the environmental values and the nature of the land-use change.

It is the TCT’s view that the recent changes to the PNFE Policy were designed primarily to enable dairy interests in the heavily cleared north-west (and perhaps just one company), to clear native forest which they have previously been refused permission to clear. The Forest Practices Authority (FPA) figures show that 56% (or 1323.4 ha out of a total of 2367 ha) of all native forest cleared in Tasmania in 2010–11 was in the far north-west (Woolnorth Bioregion) and the recent policy changes will enable even more rapid clearing in this area. This is one sure way to taint the dairy industries’ environmental reputation.

Before addressing our concerns in detail, it is important to provide some background because most people are unfamiliar with the PNFE Policy and the critical role it plays in regulation of forest clearing and conversion.

The Permanent Native Forest Estate Policy

The PNFE Policy was established by the state government in 1996 following the Regional Forestry Agreement. The policy was significantly amended following the 2005 Supplementary RFA which established a series of objectives in relation to native forest clearing and conversion (see below). It sets out the mechanisms for achieving these objectives and is administered by the Forest Practices Authority (now the minister also has a role) through its assessment of Forest Practices Plans under the Forest Practices Act.

Under the PNFE Policy, broad-scale clearing on public land was to be stopped by 1 January 2010. Broad-scale clearing and conversion on private land must cease by 1 January 2015 or when the limit of 95% of the 1996 native forest area is reached (whichever is sooner). As of 1 July 2011 the area of forest clearing that remains before the statewide threshold is reached is 9,611 ha, or conversely the area to be retained is 3,046,887.5 million ha.

2005 supplementary RFA native forest estate objectives

The key objectives relevant to forest clearing and conversion are included in section 45 of the 2005 Supplementary RFA:

45. The Parties have agreed an approach to the phasing out of broad-scale clearing and conversion of native forest in Tasmania. The State agrees to revise the Permanent Forest Estate Policy so that:

- An overall cap on clearing or conversion of native forest on both public and private land will be established to retain 95% of the 1996 area of native forest;

- Broad scale clearing and conversion of native forest on public land will be phased out by 2010;

- Broad scale clearing and conversion of native forest on private land will be phased out over a period of ten years from the date of this Supplementary Agreement (13 May 2005); and

- Assessment criteria for regulating forest clearing and conversion will ensure the protection of regional biodiversity and water quality values and to meet salinity objectives.

Since 2005 the PNFE Policy has established non-threatened native vegetation community retention levels to prevent these communities also becoming threatened. Vegetation communities that are naturally rare, or have been heavily depleted in a region but are not yet threatened, are to be retained atlevels of 2000 ha or 75% of the 1996 area in an IBRA bioregion (whichever is higher).

Clearance and conversion of threatened vegetation communities are regulated in accordance with the Forest Practices Act and the Nature Conservation Act, so in effect the PNFE Policy does not apply to these communities.

The objectives set out in the Supplementary RFA, the PNFE policy, the Forest Practices Act and the Code together form Tasmania’s system for regulating the clearing and conversion of native forests. There is no stand-alone act as in some other states. As we have just witnessed, the government of the day can change our system with the stroke of a pen.

What has changed?

Under the previous 2009 version of the Policy, the FPA decided whether to grant an exemption to the bioregional or property limits and had to determine that the application for clearing demonstrated substantial public benefit. The key change made in September 2011 to the PNFE Policy was to take the responsibility for determining ‘substantial public benefit’ from the FPA and give it to the Minister for Resources.  We fear that this will lead to the 40-ha-per-property-per-year limit and the bioregional limits being ignored routinely.

The TCT’s concerns

Despite repeated letters, the minister has failed to answer our questions and address our concerns about the policy changes. In perfect Yes, Minister speak, when we ask the minister to explain why the policy was changed, and why now, he simply describes (in bureaucratic language) what has changed, and describes these changes in the most innocent terms. In the minister’s words, the changes ensure the policy is ‘clear and unambiguous’, key terms now have ‘clearer definitions’ and it enables a ‘broader input from relevant agencies and authorities on any determination around “substantial public benefit”.’ (Minister Green’s letter to the TCT, 8 November 2011).

The minister’s letters have failed to explain the reasons why the policy was changed and why was it vital to change it now. He has failed to explain why he has taken the power over determining ‘public benefit’ from the FPA and did not pursue a less political and more transparent approach. He simply ignores our concerns that the new policy may lead to serious weakening of protection of forest communities which are heavily depleted or threatened.

The TCT’s concerns regarding the PNFE Policy are that it:

-          will lead to significant environmental damage

-          appears to have been developed in response to the demands of a few large corporations within the dairy industry and perhaps just one corporation, Van Diemens Land Corporation

-          will disadvantage the vast majority of landowners in Tasmania

-          if it was produced without consultation with the Australian Government it is in contravention of the Supplementary Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement (Supplementary RFA).

In our October 2011 letter to the minister we recommended that he revert immediately to the December 2009 PNFE Policy, institute a full public consultation process in response to the proposed changes and refer the proposed new policy to the Australian Government for m comment. Needless to say, these recommendations have been ignored.

Environmental damage

Essentially the changes to the PNFE Policy involve making it easier for private landowners to clear native forest in excess of the limit of 40 ha per property per year and to exceed regional limits for less common forest communities.

We acknowledge that the government has retained the overall statewide cap on clearing of native forest, but it is vital to have strict limits at a property and bioregional level because some parts of the state and some forest communities have been more heavily affected by past clearing. The FPA did grant numerous and very substantial exemptions – e.g. one application to clear 798 ha was approved last year – which have significantly depleted some forest communities, but this will only get worse with the minister having a say. Under the changes, we will not lose more native forest in total but the environmental impacts of the remaining clearing will be greater.

The weakening of property and regional limits on clearing of native forests on private land will lead to an acceleration of native forest clearing, with most clearing potentially being focused in a few small areas or regions which have already lost much of their native forest.  Forest types that are less common and have been heavily affected by past clearing will now be easier to clear, will become more depleted and may become threatened. Landscapes that are already heavily damaged by over-clearing will potentially suffer more damage.

Although the government has retained a process to assess and approve/refuse applications from landowners who want to exceed property and regional clearing limits, the power to do this has been taken away from the independent Forest Practices Authority and is now in the hands of the Forests Minister. We have little confidence that the minister will demonstrate the appropriate independence and capacities to be able to balance the environmental and economic interests when assessing clearing applications.

Contravention of the Regional Forest Agreement

Minister Green clearly misinterprets (deliberately or otherwise) the wording of the Supplementary RFA. He says that because the recent changes to the PNFE Policy do not impact on the state’s commitments to the native forest retention objectives as agreed to in the Supplementary RFA, the state is not required to consult the Australian Government. This is not what the RFA says.

Section 45 of the 2005 Supplementary RFA obliges the state government to revise the PNFE Policy to achieve a number of broad goals.

Section 46 of the Supplementary RFA requires the state government to amend the PNFE Policy to implement these goals and do so in consultation with the Australian Government. We interpret clause 46 as meaning that the Australian Government is to be consulted on the initial amendment of the PNFE Policy and any subsequent amendments that may affect the delivery of the broad goals as outlined in section 45. Clearly this was the intention of the RFA authors, otherwise the PNFE Policy could be dramatically changed, and fail to address the RFA goals, without the Australian Government being aware of it. The RFA did not grant the state discretion to decide when to consult but it requires that all significant changes are done in consultation so that the Australian Government are seen to endorse the changes.

Minister Green has confirmed that the PNFE Policy was revised without any consultation with the Australian Government, and in our opinion, the state government is in contravention of section 46 of the Supplementary RFA. But the state government has contravened the RFA repeatedly and blatantly ever since the original RFA was signed, because there are no consequences.

The Australian Government has not been willing to act on such contraventions previously but it will be interesting to see if anything is different this time.

In October 2011 the TCT also wrote to the Prime Minister (RFAs are signed for the Australian Government by the Prime Minister) and the two ministers responsible for the RFA’s implementation: Ministers Burke and Ludwig. We still await a reply.

Social impacts

The TCT would have preferred a lower limit; however the limit 40 ha per property per year limit, introduced in 2009, was a sensible measure to ensure an orderly and fair phase-out of broad-scale clearing and conversion of native forest on private land – everyone had an opportunity to clear a little. The recent changes may reverse this situation, with most clearing potentially being done by a few landowners. This may lead to the statewide and regional limits being rapidly met and most landowners missing out, which will mean that most landowners will not have the same economic opportunities as the bigger corporate farmers and could push some into attempting illegal clearing.

The reason for the policy change

The TCT believes the revisions of the PNFE Policy were to facilitate continued expansion of the dairy industry, which has been experiencing somewhat of a boom. Linked to this boom has been a boom in the rate of clearing in the north-west of the state. What the minister fails to state is that the FPA has been doing a good job fending off the dairy industry’s demands to be allowed to clear threatened forest communities. In the Woolnorth Bioregion, during the financial year 2010–11, the FPA approved clearance of a very small area of threatened forest communities. Out of 1323.4 ha of forests approved for clearing and conversion in the Woolnorth Bioregion, just 12.7 ha of this comprised threatened forest communities.

The other thing that the minister fails to address is that recent clearing in the north-west has been heavily focused on a few forest communities (primarily Leptospermum sp. / Melaleuca squarrosa swamp forest) and we have reason to believe that this community is approaching the regional limits in terms of area that can be cleared.

Van Dieman’s Land Company

Whether or not the policy was changed just to benefit the Van Dieman’s Land Company, owners of the Woolnorth property in the far north-west of Tasmania, is open to speculation. To change government policy in response to the demands of one company grants one company a competitive advantage.

The Premier did a very good job of confirming this speculation when she was photographed with the Van Dieman’s Land Company CEO Nicola Morris in the Mercury newspaper on 23 August 2011 under the heading ‘$180m dairy plan a new state cash cow’. The Mercury included the unattributed statement from the company that, ‘Some of the 7000 ha of forested land on the Woolnorth property will be cleared to house the extra stock, which will boost the farm’s milking herd to 40,000’. Following this statement the Mercury included the unattributed statement from the Premier that, ‘Ms Giddings said the Government was keen to quickly secure the approvals the company needed’.

Although we do not have documented evidence to make the connection, this looks a lot like another special deal for one big corporation.

What is a stake on the Woolnorth property

We are concerned about what the VDL Company wants to clear. We are particularly concerned that it may want to clear vegetation at Woolnorth that includes habitats of threatened species, and native vegetation communities that are listed as threatened on the Tasmanian Nature Conservation Act (NCA). The Woolnorth property is known to contain stands of NCA-listed threatened Eucalyptus brookeriana forest and Melaleuca ericifolia swamp forest, and possibly NCA-listed heathland communities. Native vegetation on the Woolnorth property also contains habitat for the nationally listed tiger quoll, Tasmanian devil and Tasmanian giant freshwater crayfish, among many others. The Tasmanian devil population at Woolnorth has exceptionally high significance as it is a high-density and disease-free population which is under investigation by the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program for addition to the insurance population for the species.

We are also concerned that such a dramatic intensification of use for dairy grazing will have devastating impacts outside the areas directly affected by clearing and conversion. Much of the native vegetation remaining on Woolnorth is on poor soils and this is probably the reason it has not previously been cleared for pasture. We understand that, if cleared and converted to dairy pasture, these soils will require continued application of fertilisers. Run-off from these areas will contain high nutrients from the fertilisers and cattle excrement, and this has the potential to devastate wetlands and streams. With poor sandy soils and high winds, which are very common in the Woolnorth area, there is also potential for damaging wind-blows to develop.

The TCT wrote to the VDL company in September, immediately after hearing of its planned expansion, and was pleased that the CEO, Nicola Morris, immediately contacted us and met with us.

Although she promised at our meeting to provide a written reply to our letter, we are yet to receive one. In our letter and at our meeting we offered to work with VDL to deliver a best-practice biodiversity and landscape management framework, which maximises the protection of the natural values on the Woolnorth property while still enabling a significant expansion of its dairy grazing business.  She refused to response either negatively or positively to this suggestion and instead offered us a tour of the property.

Peter McGlone