Land clearing: an environmental and human health disaster that must stop

Mar 31, 2023
Native forest clearance Australia 2014

Governments must come to understand that preservation of life support systems is more vital than many economic ones and they must develop the ability to explain this to the public.

In the eastern states debate on the environment or ‘nature’ has been mainly about protecting koala habitat. This view is too simplistic. Protection should embrace all biodiversity and ecological services. These are our human life support systems, and those which determine food production.

Global heating and environmental degradation are synergistic in their growing impact and are equally important in our fight to preserve life.

We carry only a small share of the world’s responsibility for reducing greenhouse emissions, but we are totally responsible for protecting our own natural environment by stopping many damaging practices, foremost land clearing, which continues throughout the entire country.

This ongoing clearance includes more than 400,000 hectares destroyed in 2019-20 in Queensland, and extensive logging is permitted commercially or carried out by the state governments in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.

In terms of health and the environment, this logging is bleeding requiring urgent application of a tourniquet.

The situation in NSW is particularly egregious. The Perrottet government indicated logging of native forest would continue because of the needs of the construction industry and dependence on 20,000 jobs. We know that governments have failed to develop plantation timber for reasons of cost.

This assumes it will remain prudent to continue with the same economic growth model and increasing population. State governments are operating in the world of 50 years ago with no recognition of the new normal which will require constraint and sacrifices to avoid facilitating threatening outcomes from nature.

It will be interesting to see what impact the reformed EPBC Act will have on logging and other large scale clearances when what is seen by government as an economic or electoral imperative, clashes with the increasing need to preserve our life support systems.

However there is an additional aspect of land clearing which is illustrated by recent happenings in South Australia. Most of its vegetation was cleared in the early days following colonisation so today you may think that there is little clearance to report. However clearance of remaining vegetation continues because of government inaction and public attitudes that the environment is for personal use rather than being essential to protect the lives of the entire population.

This is displayed in a recent case in South Australia when the joint land owners cleared half a hectare of native stringy bark forest near to Mt Lofty Summit for a house, lawn and presumably for view management. This was 5 times more than they had been given permission for. The forests are koala habitat and host to many species of flora and fauna.

In SA, native vegetation is managed under the outmoded Native Vegetation Act of 1991 and administered by a Native Vegetation Council which issued a reprimand about this clearance and requested re-vegetation. In response one of the owners said “We are about to replant a lot of native vegetation” and “We need donations from people or help with planting.” How could they imagine that people would be willing to donate or volunteer to replant under these circumstances?

There was no understanding that re-vegetation takes dedicated care for decades particularly when temperatures become more extreme and special measures are required to stabilise denuded sloping land.

There was no understanding that a century will be needed to replace the carbon storage of the trees, or that this was essential habitat of SA’s rapidly diminishing biodiversity.

It presents a view that the environment is of little importance when its preservation depends on the availability of volunteers! Such attitudes prevail with many wealthy owners building in remnant forest areas.

Between 1990 and 2015 nearly 500,000 hectares of native vegetation were lost under the Native Vegetation Act of 1991; between 2010 and 2020 only 1% of 1428 applications to clear were refused.

Many applications to clear are for small areas relating to housing, roads and other developments. If a road needs widening according to development minister, small remnants of vegetation and trees will be removed whatever the environmental and health case for protection.

Currently native forests cover only 9% of South Australia with less than 10% of the original forest cover remaining in the Mount Lofty Ranges, and less than 4% remaining on the Adelaide Plains relative to the commencement of colonisation.

Under the EPBC Act, states have been responsible for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of projects and this included a Heath Impact Assessment (HIA). However HIA has been gradually eliminated from assessments because the states don’t want it to impede “development”. Health was deemed dispensable.

An important reform is needed for small clearances.

Reformed native vegetation Acts should include a form of EIA including HIA which would operate in the case of small clearances which cannot document potential harms to specific species and to habitat.

Assessment would recognise that local trees purify polluted air, muffle noise, delay runoff to prevent flooding, temporises heat in cities and suburbs, provide psychological resilience in our increasingly complex existence and a range of other heath and environmental benefits described in a report from WWF-Australia and Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Trees provide refuge for species fleeing cleared farmland. Their destruction sacrifices a carbon store which will take a 100 years to replace – probably too late to address the predicted climate catastrophes.

Assessment would have an educational role and if necessary a punitive one.

Thinking laterally, new laws for small clearances might embrace the disciplinary measures of ‘footy’ or ‘league’ applied by state government tribunals. In the Adelaide case of the Mount Lofty clearance, a red card for foul play (failure to get permission for excessive clearance) and a 3-match suspension would be three years’ delay for construction with supervised revegetation to commence immediately. Many developers are happy to pay large fines if they can get three houses in a block instead of one by felling mature trees. Deterrent penalties must be imposed.

Governments must come to understand that preservation of life support systems is more vital than many economic ones and they must develop the ability to explain this to the public.

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