Illegal Clearing on Private Land - St Helens

On 25 September 2012 a St Helens man, was convicted and fined $5500 in the Launceston Magistrates Court for clearing important native forest without a permit on his property near St Helens.

While the fine issued to the landowner was lenient (it could have been over $100,000), this court decision should send a message to other landowners and contractors who are thinking of clearing without a permit.

Not only did the landowner not obtain a permit prior to clearing, he was caught in the act and refused to stop the clearing when ordered to do so by a forest practices officer. This offence is as bad as it can get and the landowner deserves to pay a higher fine.

While the area cleared was small, 20ha, this did not mean the clearing had little environmental impact because the forest contained habitat for three threatened species:

-          New Holland mouse (nationally listed as vulnerable)

-          Tasmanian smoke-bush (nationally listed as vulnerable)

-          Juniper wattle (state listed as rare).

We are lucky in this case because the landowner has been stopped from converting the land to paddocks or putting houses on it. The vegetation has been damaged but, if left alone, it now has a chance to recover and may provide habitat to these threatened species once again.

Given that the landowner failed to obtain a permit from the Forest Practices Authority and failed to follow instructions to cease his clearing activities, it is highly likely that he also failed to obtain a permit from the Australian Government to clear the habitat of the two nationally listed species. We therefore have written to the federal minister for the environment, Tony Burke, asking him to instruct his department to investigate the landowner’s actions and, if it is warranted, to initiate a prosecution under the EPBC Act.

Some or all of the landowner’s land near St Helens remains subject to the EPBC Act approval 2008/4635, ‘Land Rehabilitation on St Helens Point Road, Stieglitz’, which includes the requirement for him to prepare and implement a smoke-bush management plan. We understand that this requirement resulted from a previous attempt to clear the land.

Assuming this plan was prepared as was required, it is possible that the landowner’s recent actions impacted the area of land subject to that management plan and therefore contravened the requirement of the management plan and the approval 2008/4635. If this is the case then an additional offence would have been committed by the landowner and he should be prosecuted for this as well.

Clearing of habitats is the number one threat to species worldwide and it is vital that landowners seek approvals prior to clearing so that impacts on the most important habitats can be avoided. This case certainly shows that failure to seek approvals can lead to worse consequences for the landowner as well.

This case was reported by a member of the public so it also shows the value of vigilant and knowledgeable community members.

Peter McGlone