Unauthorised clearances highlight environmental “crisis” in Queensland, Australia

Monday, July 31st, 2017

Tree clearing in Olive Vale cattle station, Cape York, Queensland. Image courtesy of the Wilderness Society

More than 130 hectares of trees have been cleared by a cattle rancher in Queensland, Australia, despite a government minister ordering an end to the deforestation in 2015.

Olive Vale cattle station in Cape York initially gained approval from Queensland’s Liberal National Party to clear 31,000 hectares of trees for crops, after the state government had weakened environmental protections governing clearances in a 2013 Act.

1,700 hectares were deforested on the property before then-environment Minister Greg Hunt intervened, responding to concerns about the environmental consequences of clearing the land, which is in the Great Barrier Reef catchment and inhabited by endangered species such as the buff-breasted button-quail.

“No further works are planned on the property unless and until all approvals are granted,” the Minister said in November 2015. No such approvals were given.

But satellite analysis released on 25 July 2017 by a team of four environmental organisations shows that the station continued to clear a further 130 hectares in the year following Hunt’s intervention.

The owner of the cattle station, Paul Ryan, told the ABC he had done “nothing wrong […] it was just individual trees – we haven’t pulled a chain with a bulldozer since 2015.”

A spokeswoman for the current environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, confirmed to the Guardian that the government is “making urgent enquiries” into the allegations.

“One million hectares have been cleared in Queensland alone in the past four years with almost no federal oversight”

Gemma Plesman from the Wilderness Society, one of the four NGOs that conducted the satellite analysis, described the clearances as “one case in a much larger crisis unfolding across Queensland.” Under the oversight of the Liberal National Party, bushland the size of Melbourne cricket ground was being cleared every three minutes following the 2013 Act.

“One million hectares have been cleared in Queensland alone in the past four years with almost no federal oversight,” Plesman said.

A 2016 analysis commissioned by the Wilderness Society found that the additional carbon dioxide generated by the surge in clearances in Queensland equalled the emissions the Australian government claimed to have averted with a flagship scheme that paid farmers $670 million to stop cutting down trees. Combined with weakened clearance regulations in other states, it warned that the changes threatened Australia’s capacity to meet its Paris climate change targets.

In April 2016, a former Liberal National Party official acting as a land-clearing consultant advised landholders to “hang up” on environmental officials investigating clearances.

“I believe many in these departments are green people, who obviously got into these jobs as they are environmentalists,” the consultant, Peter Spies, said in an email to landholders. He accused state officials of paying consultants to get “predetermined outcomes”.

Queensland is currently governed by the Australian Labor Party, which has so far tried without success to restore stronger clearing protections. They face opposition from “people who don’t want to see their property rights reduced,” the state’s deputy premier, Jackie Trad, told the Guardian.