Review of Native vegetation clearing in NSW (Natural Resources Commission, NRC)

The level of clearing confirmed by expert report shows that rather than helping the environment our laws are now operating to put greater stress on native landscapes that are already suffering the impacts of climate change, drought and bushfires.  Instead of building resilience and ensuring healthy and productive country, our laws are degrading the land.

It is extremely disappointing that the general public and NFP environmental groups like NEFA were not included in the review process.  The review conducted by the NRC was due to broadscale land clearing exceeding acceptable rates, and in turn, triggering the legal requirement for a review according to the Vegetation Laws of 2016. However, the review’s existence and its results were not made public, it had to be sought and released by members of the media.

The data in this report is truly alarming.  

It shows clearing rates have increased by almost 13 times.  

Biodiversity in 9 of 11 regions is now at risk.

Unexplained clearing has risen to a point that the NRC concludes is “a major risk” and that “compliance rates are inadequate”

The relaxation of rules around “offset areas” to compensate for land clearing has resulted in a dismally inadequate result.  The area that is required to be managed under conservation agreements falls far short of the minimum – by 33,743 hectares!

The EDO NSW had warned (in 2016) of fatal flaws in the new native vegetation laws, and tragically, their concerns are now apparent in what is a blatant failure of regulatory policy.

In 2017 the new native vegetation laws were established with a new approach to land clearing that replaced established guidelines with “self-assessment” and more flexible “biodiversity offsets”.

This approach relied heavily on regulatory mapping to determine the basis for clearing of native vegetation.  It also required the establishment of a “native vegetation panel” of ecological experts to assess suitability of applications for vegetation clearing.   Another layer of protection against unfettered clearing was the Biodiversity Conservation Act and its facility to declare protected areas of “Outstanding Biodiversity Value” AOBV.  

After two years it is now apparent that none of these actions have taken place. There is no complete “regulatory map”, no evidence of a Native Vegetation Panel and no process for declaring an ABOV.

Current mapping has not yet classified the vast majority of lands in NSW into areas of classified regulation.  Landholders are expected to “self-categorise” their landholdings without the necessary skills to identify ecological communities or sensitive biodiversity.  Furthermore – it is not in their economic interest to assess their land is Category 1 (exempt from land clearing).

Under the new laws areas that have been mapped and regulated with a code are supposed to be monitored by a Native Vegetation Panel.  This independent panel must consider the environmental, social and economic impacts of any proposed land clearing and refuse anything that has serious irreversible impacts on biodiversity values.  However, the EDO has found that no applications have been made to the panel since the scheme began!

The EDO concludes that we are left with a situation where all the significant clearing now occurring in NSW is happening under a self-assessable Code or allowable activity. 

Without the oversight of a Panel we cannot know whether land of high conservation value, threatened species or ecological communities is being cleared indiscriminately.  The new LLS act contains mechanisms for assessment and approval but no such mechanisms appear to have been put in place!

The declaration of areas as ‘AOBV’ was intended to protect critical habitats containing irreplaceable biodiversity important to NSW, Australia or the world.  In such areas code-based clearing would be prohibited and private land conservation agreements would be put in place.  To date the EDO has not found no new AOBVs and no process to establish them. Previously protected communities like the Wollemi Pine and the Little Penguin remain without protection under the new laws.

The picture that emerges for our native environment is a man-made disaster.  This is in addition to the horror of recent fires and severe drought.  In such circumstances the laws that protect our native environments are of extreme importance.  It is appalling to see these laws stripped of their potency and operating with only a fraction of their essential mechanisms at a time when we need them most urgently!  

It is equally appalling to read the governments response to this report which is perfunctory at best showing no grasp of the extent of this policy failure and the consequences we have already witnessed.  The NSW governments’ published response merely “notes” the points concerning mapping and ABOVs.  It agrees only “in principle” to consider reviewing aspects of the law that are clearly failing.  It does not commit to independent scrutiny or public transparency but only to in-house reviews.  There is no intent to “fix” or “reform” anything as a result.

The monumental failures outlined by the NRC and explained by the EDO require the wholesale rewriting of land clearing laws in NSW.  In light of natural disasters and ongoing impacts of climate change it is more important than ever that these laws fulfil the purpose of conserving landscapes and building environmental resilience.