Land and Forests

Bill McCormick, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources

Key Issue
Many Regional Forest Agreements are likely to be extended when they expire during this term of Parliament.
Significant changes to land clearing legislation are proposed for both Queensland and New South Wales, with potentially different outcomes.

Native vegetation, such as forests, has many benefits including supporting biodiversity, reducing land degradation and salinity, improving water quality, storing carbon, and contributing to on-farm production.

Australia’s State of the Forests Report 2013 said that there are over 19,000 species of vertebrates and plants found in Australia’s forests. 1,431 forest-dwelling species are listed as threatened due to habitat loss from land clearing for agriculture, grazing, and urban and industrial development as well as predation and competition from pest and unsuitable fire regimes. The report said that forestry operations pose a minor threat to these threatened forest-dwelling fauna and flora species.

Australia’s forests

Forests comprise just 125 million hectares (ha), or 16% of Australia’s total land area. Of this, 123 million ha is native forests and 2 million ha plantations. Only 36.6 million ha of native forests are available and suitable for wood production, of which 7.5 million ha are in public native forests.

There has been a 63% decline in log production from native forests of 10.4 million cubic metres (m3) in 2003–04 to 3.9 million m3 in 2014–15. This compares to a 46% increase from 16 million m3 to 24.5 million m3 from plantations. This is the result of structural change in the industry which has led to a significant decline in native hardwood logs for woodchip export, but a 280% increase in plantation hardwood logs. Around 70,500 people were employed in the forestry and forest products industry in 2013–14.

Regional Forest Agreements

Issues associated with native forestry have been controversial for the past forty years; Commonwealth involvement in native forestry activities started with the regulation of woodchip exports in the 1970s. Conservation groups have sought to convince state and federal governments to include old growth forest and wilderness in conservation reserves. In 1995, the Comprehensive Regional Assessment process aimed to find a long-term solution by identifying areas for protection and areas to be open for harvesting in order to enable certainty of future wood supply. Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) were then agreed between the federal and state governments, protecting 90% of wilderness and 60% of old-growth forests in reserves. Ten RFAs were signed between 1997 and 2001, covering four states:

RFAs apply for 20 years, with five-yearly reviews. As such, they are due to expire in the next few years. However, each RFA may be extended for a further period after the third five-year review of the RFA.

The 2013 Coalition forestry policy stated that it would extend the RFAs for five years following each five-year review, starting with the Tasmanian RFA. The third five-year review of the Tasmanian RFA has been finalised. In its response, the indicated they would extend the RFA into a rolling 20-year agreement. Tasmania will be entering formal negotiations over the RFA extension with the Australian Government.

The agreed process for the Tasmanian RFA may be a template for the RFAs in other states. All three other states have agreed to pursue their reviews in 2016. However, the Victorian Government has not decided its position about the extension of its RFAs. It is still considering whether to establish more national parks in forest areas of Victoria. In November 2015, it established a Forest Industry Taskforce, which has yet to report.

The establishment of RFAs has not halted significant public opposition to the continued logging of old growth forests and there are now campaigns from conservation groups to end all logging in native forests. While both the Coalition and the ALP support the continuation of the RFAs, the Greens want to phase out logging in native forests.

Vegetation clearing

Clearing of native vegetation can have a number of serious consequences such as biodiversity decline, dryland salinity, reduced water quality and quantity, difficulty in flood control, increased erosion, increased greenhouse gas emissions and reduced ecosystem functioning (facilitating biological insect pest control).

Figure 1: Annual woody vegetation clearing rate in Queensland (1988–2014)

Annual woody vegetation clearing rate in Queensland (1988–2014)

Source: Land cover change in Queensland 2012–13 and 2013–14 Statewide Landcover and Trees Study
Note that HVR stands for high value regrowth vegetation

High levels of land clearing in the early 1990s led Commonwealth, state and territory governments to set the goal of reversing the decline in the quality and extent of native vegetation by 2001. Australia’s Native Vegetation Framework updates a 2001 framework that aimed to implement this goal.

The 2001 target was not met and more than 400,000 ha was still being cleared annually, with the great majority being cleared in Queensland along with significant areas in NSW. These states implemented more stringent vegetation management controls from 2006. They resulted in a decrease in land clearing with greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from deforestation across Australia decreasing from 98 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) in 1991 (19% of Australia’s GHG emissions) to just 34 Mt CO2-e in 2014 (6.5%).

Change of governments in Queensland (2012) and NSW (2011) resulted in a loosening of the restrictions on land clearing in both states.

In the case of Queensland there was a tripling in the rate of land clearing from less than 100,000 ha in 2011 to 300,000 ha in 2014 (see Figure 1 above). According to the Queensland Government, land clearing in Queensland is now generating a substantial proportion of Australia's GHG emissions from deforestation.

The newly elected Queensland government is attempting to reverse this trend, and protect the Great Barrier Reef, by introducing new legislation that will:

  • reinstate the protection of high-value regrowth on freehold and Indigenous land
  • remove provisions permitting clearing for high-value agriculture
  • broaden protection of regrowth vegetation in watercourse areas to cover all Great Barrier Reef catchments
  • reinstate compliance provisions for vegetation clearing offences and
  • regulate against the destruction of vegetation in watercourses.

The Australian Conservation Foundation welcomed the changes. However AgForce Queensland criticised the new legislation as a ‘knee-jerk action’ and is concerned that Departmental mapping is ‘wildly inaccurate’.

New South Wales also plans to overhaul its vegetation management by establishing a new risk-based framework for clearing native vegetation. The framework proposes to remove the requirement for a farmer to obtain an approval to clear native vegetation on their property if it is zoned as exempt or the clearing is carried out according to a code of practice.

Conservation groups are concerned that the new proposals would see a return to broad-scale clearing. However NSW Environment Minister Mark Speakman indicated that there would be strong caps to stop overclearing.

Further reading

Department of Agriculture, Regional Forest Agreements – an overview and history, 2015.

The State of Queensland (Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation), Land cover change in Queensland 2012–13 and 2013–14 Statewide Landcover and Trees Study, 2015.


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