Last night the Queensland Parliament passed the Government’s Vegetation Management (Regrowth Clearing Moratorium) Bill, implementing the three-month moratorium on clearing of native regrowth that commenced on 8 April. The ALP had promised the moratorium before the election, saying it was needed while the Government works out options for curbing Queensland’s still-high levels of land-clearing.

Land-clearing figures released in February for 2006-07 showed that the ban on broadscale land-clearing in December 2006 had led to a significant reduction in clearing rates, which fell 37% compared to the previous year. The 2006-07 level was the lowest since 1988, although not that far below the levels of the 1990s.

However, 100,000 hectares of the 235,000 hectares cleared was regrowth of vegetation which had earlier been cleared under Queensland’s previous pro-clearing land management regime.

The Queensland Government has confined the moratorium to about 1 million hectares around rivers in Central Queensland that form part of the Great Barrier Reef catchment. The WWF, which welcomed the moratorium announcement during the election campaign and wants incentives for farmers to sustainably manage and revegetate their land, has criticised the limit, saying it should be extended to all endangered regrowth. “The Government hasn’t announced why they’ve limited it,” Dr Martin Taylor, WWF’s Protected Areas Policy Manager told Crikey, “but basically it only applies to regrowth that has already returned to forest. That’s the regrowth that, of its nature, is less likely to be cleared again anyway.”

Taylor points out that much of the vegetation should never have been cleared in the first place if landholders met their basic duty of care. Clearing leads to the loss of huge amounts of soil which significantly diminishes the productivity of the land for agricultural use. “This isn’t just about saving koalas and locking up trees,” said Taylor. “It’s about lost productivity.”

Despite this, the ban has generated fury in regional Queensland, with claims that urban greenies are threatening rural life and jobs. The town of Theodore, about 550 kms northwest of Brisbane, is one hotbed of land-clearing anger, with locals militantly talking about “extreme green groups” that “have hijacked all logical debate” as part of a “radical green onslaught”. Farmers are trying to organise a campaign against further regulation of land-clearing.

Others are taking the aggressive language to heart, with one Theodore woman suggesting Anna Bligh would be killed if she came to the town. The intemperance isn’t confined to the bush, either. During the debate in Queensland Parliament this week, former National leader Jeff Seeney told responsible Minister Stephen Robertson that “you will find out what offensive is when you go out into the bush.” “Is this another personal threat you are making?” Robertson asked. “I was merely drawing to your attention the reality,” replied Seeney.

The level of anger in Queensland over any threat to the unfettered right to bulldoze vegetation demonstrates one of the key problems in climate change approaches that rely on preventing and reversing land clearing and revegetating, such as the Coalition’s “green carbon” proposals. For all the rhetoric about sustainable land management and the agricultural industry being “custodians of the land”, many in rural communities still have a deep and abiding view that native vegetation is “rubbish” that ought to be removed. It’s not clear how such people can be partners in a serious effort to use vegetation as a tool to fight climate change.

Peter Fray

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