When Australians think of great environmental achievements, they invariably think of the Franklin Dam campaign in Tasmania, the progressive reduction of logging in the rainforests and tall eucalypt forests of eastern Australia, or the protection of extensive sections of the Great Barrier Reef in the 1970s and 2000s. Less well-known, but at least of equal significance, are the land-clearing reforms introduced by the Goss, Beattie and Bligh Labor governments in Queensland in 1995-2009.

For many years, the clearing of Australia’s woodlands was actively encouraged by governments keen to promote agricultural development in rural and regional areas. The destruction of native vegetation brought benefits in the form of jobs, wealth and a vibrant farming sector but these benefits came at an environmental price and, as the clearing progressively moved deeper into marginal agricultural areas, the benefits dwindled.

In the 1970s, 340,000 hectares of remnant forest vegetation was being cleared annually in Queensland. The agricultural boom years in the early ’70s saw the clearing rate hit the highest level ever recorded — 622,000 hectares in 1974. From there, clearing rates trended downward as the farmers’ terms of trade deteriorated and uncleared productive land became harder to find. Still, as the 1980s drew to a close and the 1990s began,  250,000-300,000 hectares was being cleared annually and many sectors of society began asking whether measures should be taken to curb the loss of Queensland’s woodlands.

In 1990, a government inquiry, the Queensland Land Policy and Administration Review Committee, raised concerns about the rate of deforestation. This triggered the first round of clearing reforms in 1995, when the Goss government introduced restrictions aimed at controlling broad-scale clearing on leasehold land, the dominant form of land tenure in the rangelands. The 1995 changes failed to reduce the rate of clearing because of loopholes and its exclusion of freehold, and pressure built for further reform.

Leading up to the 1998 state election, Peter Beattie, as the leader of the opposition, promised to introduce legislation to end unsustainable clearing. After taking office, Beattie came good on his promise and extended clearing controls to freehold land. However, again, the clearing reforms had defects. There was a sizeable delay between when the legislation was passed and its commencement, providing a window in which there was panic pre-emptive clearing. The clearing restrictions applying to freehold land were also watered down because of a dispute with the Howard government over who would cover the costs of compensation.

These flaws ensured that high rates of clearing continued after the new legislation took effect and,  again, pressure mounted for change. In May 2003, Beattie responded, announcing a moratorium on clearing applications while consultations were conducted with interested stakeholders and the Australian government. The moratorium was followed by the Vegetation Management and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2004 (Queensland), which laid out a structure to phase out broad-scale clearing of remnant vegetation by December 31, 2006.

When Anna Bligh took over as premier in late 2007, the rate of clearing of remnant vegetation had begun to fall but there was still extensive removal of high-value regrowth. This was partially addressed in 2009, when restrictions were placed on the clearing of high-value regrowth vegetation and native vegetation adjacent to regrowth watercourses in the Burdekin, Mackay Whitsunday and Wet Tropics catchments.

Through this 14-year iterative reform process, the Goss, Beattie and Bligh Labor governments achieved what many believed was unachievable; a drastic reduction in the rate of forest loss in Queensland. In 2004-2005, the rate of deforestation was about 180,000 hectares a year. By 2009, after the last round of Beattie reforms had taken effect, this had dropped to 50,000 hectares a year.

While there is scope for further reductions, the clearing reforms have thrown a lifeline to countless native plant and animal species, and saved hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of hectares of Queensland from wasteful agricultural development that would have brought little in the way of economic return and caused untold land degradation.

In addition to these “standard” environmental benefits, the native vegetation laws have cut carbon emissions by 20-25 million tonnes a year. This has ensured that Australia will meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and even have a surplus to carry over into the post-2012 regime. It will also reduce the economic cost of achieving Australia’s post-2012 mitigation targets (primarily by reducing reliance on imported carbon permits) and increase the revenues earned by the Australian government under its carbon-pricing scheme.

If the Coalition wants an example of how successful “direct action” can be, it should look no further than the Queensland clearing reforms — they stand head and shoulders above any like measure.

It is difficult to tell how the Beattie/Bligh Labor government will be judged by history but, when the history is written, special mention should be made of their achievements in protecting Queensland’s woodlands. Arguably, it is the single most important environmental policy achievement in Australian history.