The Queensland Government is under fire from conservationists over the granting of new land clearing permits in the north of the state.
The Wilderness Society says weakening of vegetation management laws last year has led to large-scale clearing applications.
Campaigner Gavan McFadzean says the biggest example is a permit granted to Strathmore Station, a big cattle station in the gulf savannah country near Georgetown.
“We’ve discovered through a tip-off that [land clearing] is now broadscale and at an alarming rate,” he said.
“One of the biggest examples of that we’ve discovered is in the Gilbert catchment at Strathmore, where an application for 30,000 hectares of clearing – that’s about 134 Brisbane CBDs of clearing – has been granted.”
Mr McFadzean says the legislative amendments are undermining the land clearing legislation introduced in Queensland nearly 20 years ago.
“During the 1980s and 1990s Queensland was clearing at an alarming rate, it was actually an emerging environmental crisis,” he said.
“If Queensland was a country, in the early 90s it would have been one of the worst land clearers in the world, on par with Brazil, the Congo Basin, Borneo and Indonesia.
“It was through the 1996 native Vegetation Act introduced by the Beattie government that land clearing was brought under control.”
Queensland Minister for Natural Resources and Mines Andrew Cripps says the legislation changes are part of the Government’s vision to expand the state’s agricultural economy.
“What the amendments to the vegetation framework that the Queensland Parliament passed last year are doing is providing opportunities for the sustainable expansion of agriculture in Queensland,” he said.
“The Queensland Government went to the last state election with a commitment to build a four pillar economy here in this state and that included agriculture, and we’re changing the regulatory environment to provide for those opportunities.”
Mr Cripps says it is this kind of agricultural development the Queensland Government is keen to support.
“I think the opportunities for Strathmore Station to undertake an expansion of their existing grazing enterprise by taking into account some cropping agriculture on their property, is a great example of the opportunity that the Queensland Government is providing to grow sustainable communities in Cape York Peninsula,” he said.
“Strathmore Station is in fact growing sorghum at the moment under the high value agriculture framework to improve the sustainability of the existing grazing operations, and I think that is going to be a tremendous thing for communities in Cape York Peninsula.”
Land clearing will create opportunities, says station owner
Strathmore Station owner Scott Harris says his permit to clear 28,000 hectares is aimed at improving the environmental health of the land, as well as making it more productive.
He says it will be done in an environmentally sensitive manner.
“The environmental aspects of Strathmore Station, the land there, historically has been very degraded,” he said.
“It is chock-a-block full of weeds, rubber vine, there’s feral animals there.
“This is more about not clearing pristine wilderness that everyone thinks this is about, trying to return the environment back to somewhere like before white man settled there.”
Mr Harris says the application is part of a plan to expand his operation, that will create up to 200 jobs, and economic opportunities for others in the region, including Indigenous communities further north.
“With it there is a big opportunity for the landholders in Cape York to be able to become a person that can purchase cattle, which is a great help to the Indigenous communities up there, because at the moment they’re quite hamstrung in the respect that they’ve got nowhere to sell their cattle.”
But Mr McFadzean questions the economic argument behind the proposal.
“The so-called high value agriculture that’s allowed at Strathmore is for fodder cropping which even the CSIRO has stated, earlier this year in its report, would only be viable in two to three years out of every 10,” he said.
“So if the bar is set so low for high value agriculture agriculture in Queensland, we’re very concerned that rampant land clearing will return to this state.”
He says there is no public scrutiny of permit applications or approvals.
“We fall on those incidents of land clearing by accident but god only knows how much land clearing is happening in Queensland, and at an increasing rate, and that’s what we’re extremely concerned about.”
The Queensland Government says all applications for land clearing must meet strict environmental and economic criteria.