Land clearing at VDL

Van Diemens Land Company proposal to clear a large area of native forest at Woolnorth

The TCT first became aware that the Van Diemens Land Company (VDL), based at Woolnorth in north-west Tasmania, was intending to clear native forests after reading an article from the Mercury newspaper, ‘$180m dairy plan a cash cow’ on 23 August 2011. The article included an unattributed comment that some of VDL’s 7000ha of forests would be cleared as a part of its planned dairy expansion. Since then we have received reports that VDL intended to clear 2500ha, and from another source 4000ha, of native forests. This scale of clearing on one property has been unheard of for many years in Tasmania and comes two and half years before the state government’s long-held commitment to ceasing all broadscale clearing on private land comes into effect. As far as we know, VDL has not yet made an application for a permit to clear native forest.

The VDL’s website states that company is 98.42 per cent owned by Tasman Farms Ltd, which in turn is 87.94 per cent owned by the New Plymouth District Council (NPDC).

The TCT first wrote to VDL on 12 September 2011 detailing our concerns regarding its dairy expansion and associated proposal for native forest clearing and we were pleased to meet with the CEO shortly after. At that lengthy meeting:

- VDL did not respond to any of our concerns, nor our offer to work with them to come up with a better approach

- VDL could not rule out any level of clearing native forest, even including habitats of the numerous endangered species found on their land

- VDL promised a written response to our letter, but this was never provided.

In frustration, in March this year we wrote to the Mayor of New Plymouth District Council, Harry Duynhoven, but he chose to refer our letter back to VDL, even though we pointed out to him our great dissatisfaction with dealing with the company. We also offered the mayor a briefing in New Plymouth, but this was declined.

After waiting six months for a written reply, we received letters from VDL that only invited us to another meeting: for them to tell us about their dairy expansion plans and for us to repeat our concerns. We had already stated our concerns to them in two letters and at one meeting and they had failed to provide any actual response to them either orally or in writing.

VDL’s three recent letters fail to either respond to our concerns or to commit to providing a response, let alone what we asked for – an ongoing dialogue and collaboration in an effort to reduce the likely environmental impacts of their dairy expansion.

VDL’s lack of willingness to attempt to respond to concerns and resolve differences reinforces our fear that it intends to clear the maximum possible area of native forest, irrespective of the environmental impacts.

In frustration at the response from VDL and the mayor of the NPDC we issued a media release to the New Zealand media on 4 May 2012. Clearing of native forest is no longer permitted in New Zealand; therefore we believe that most New Zealanders would not want one of their companies destroying Tasmania’s native forests and threatening the habitat of endangered species such as the Tasmanian devil.

The TCT also hopes that the ratepayers of New Plymouth, who are the ultimate owners of VDL, will help us to stop this large-scale destruction of Tasmania’s native forest and prevent the Tasmanian devil from being pushed closer to extinction.

The media coverage in New Zealand was excellent and we were greatly heartened at the number of conservation groups who came out in the media or informed us of their private lobbying of the council in support of the protection of VDL’s native forest. Those groups who supported us publicly included ECO (Environment and Conservation Organisations New Zealand) and the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society New Zealand.

On the 13 June the Mayor of NPDC, the Deputy Mayor, Council General Manager and Chair of the Council’s investments management company met with the TCT in our office and we now have a satisfactory written commitment from them to involve the TCT in the preparation of their property management and clearing application with a view to addressing our concerns.

It has been recently alleged that VDL intended not to inform the Australian Government regarding its proposed clearing, on the false assumption that this was a forestry operation and exempt under the EPBC Act. In our opinion the forestry operations undertaken by VDL would be ‘incidental to another action whose primary purpose does not relate to forestry’ (s.42 EPBC Act) i.e. conversion to dairy pasture, and therefore the exemption would not apply.

The TCT has alerted the Australian Government to the possibility that VDL will clear habitats of nationally listed threatened species, and the EPBC compliance section of the Department of Environment has notified VDL of its obligations under the EPBC Act in relation to actions likely to significantly impact nationally listed species.

Why is VDL’s clearing proposal such a big problem?

The native vegetation on the VDL property contains habitat for nationally listed threatened species including the Tasmanian devil, tiger quoll, Tasmanian giant freshwater crayfish, wedge-tailed eagle and dwarf galaxies as well as several threatened forest communities totalling 700ha in area.

The TCT is concerned that the VDL may have lobbied the Tasmanian Government to revise the state native forest clearing policy (amended in September 2011) to facilitate its plans and that, if VDL are successful in clearing a large area of native forest, it may trigger an escalation of clearing across Tasmania, which may threaten the government’s commitment to ending broadscale clearing on private land by 2015.

The Tasmanian devil population on VDL’s land is extremely significant as it is a high-density population which is still free from the deadly facial tumour disease that is wiping out the species throughout much of Tasmania. The VDL website confirms that this population is under investigation by the Tasmanian Government’s Save the Tasmanian Devil Program for addition to the insurance population for this endangered species. The government has proposed construction of a ‘protective’ fence around the VDL property to keep these healthy Tasmanian devils safe from the deadly disease. For these reasons, the population of Tasmanian devils on VDL’s property is arguably the most important in existence and the survival of the species may depend on its protection. To destroy the habitat after going to great effort to protect the devils from infection would be a perverse and outrageous outcome – not to mention a waste of Australian taxpayer’s money.

If a large area of native forest is cleared, the company’s environmental record and broader reputation could be damaged and the destruction could reflect very badly on the New Plymouth District Council and buyers of VDL’s milk.

The NPDC’s share of the Van Diemens Land Company was purchased using New Plymouth ratepayers’ funds and, as such, we believe that the ratepayers deserve to be made aware of what this company is proposing to do with their investment. The NPDC espouses in its Community Plan that environmental protection and sustainable management are important objectives for the council and the community of New Plymouth. However, the plan fails to identify specific environmental or sustainability objectives in relation to a ‘Council-Controlled Organisation’, such as Tasman Farms and, ultimately, VDL.

The TCT hopes that the people and council of New Plymouth are concerned about the way in which a business that it largely owns treats the Tasmanian environment and will want to safeguard the environment wherever its funds are invested.

Peter McGlone