Bill McCormick, Science,
Technology, Environment and Resources
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.
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.
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
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
cover change in Queensland 2012–13 and 2013–14 Statewide Landcover and Trees
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
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
- 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
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.
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.
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
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