The much-anticipated reforms to the Native Vegetation Act go part way to achieving a better balance between food and fibre production and biodiversity protection, but most gains are getting lost in complexity and through other limitations, local farmers were told at a recent NSW Farmers meeting at the Tenterfield Golf Club.
The state government is seeking submissions to the draft legislation now on display, and Tenterfield NSW Farmers chair Bronwyn Petrie is encouraging local farmers to make their feelings known. Mrs Petrie is also one of the organisation’s representatives on the Native Vegetation Working Group.
She said the state government established the Independent Biodiversity Legislation Review Panel to review the current laws, and the panel report clearly identified that the current laws are not only unfair to farmers but have led to a loss over the past 20 years of the very biodiversity the laws were designed to protect.
Mrs Petrie said the government made an election commitment to NSW Farmers that the panel’s 43 recommendations would be implemented, but the manner and complexity of that implementation embodied in the draft legislation is creating major concerns.
“The panel's recommendations are not all reflected in the new legislation,” she said.
“The DPI has been working hard for farmers and for biodiversity. The legislation has the potential to be good if the problems are fixed. Farmers are the front line conservationists. ”
Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) mapping of satellite imagery since 1990 will be used to arbitrarily divide the state into ‘exempt land’ (land disturbed since 1990, with no restriction on clearing activity), ‘regulated land’ (where clearing of native vegetation can be conducted under an allowable activity or various codes of practice, and all other clearing requires approval) and ‘excluded land’ (where clearing activities are covered by other acts such as Environmental Planning and Assessment).
Of concern to Mrs Petrie, however, is that the mapping methodology has resulted in ‘exempt land’ excluding land which has been cleared for grazing unless it has been ploughed since 1990. She said any cleared area should automatically be zoned exempt as per government commitments.
“Instead of mapping areas of high biodiversity value as per the panel’s recommendations, OEH has mapped all potential native vegetation.”
To further complicate the matter, applications to change the maps from regulated to exempt land must come from the Local Land Services (LLS) if the land was last cleared prior to 1970, but by the Office of Environment and Heritage if last cleared between 1970 and 1990.
In addition to the workload this could create for LLS officers when farmers only have six months to get the maps corrected once they are released next year, a farmer could have to seek approval from two different bodies to work a block of land, depending on its history.
“It’s absolute nonsense,” Mrs Petrie said.
“Any disturbed land should automatically be in the exempt category. This is worse than the current legislation and does away with the recommendations to let farmers get on with farming.
“The last thing farmers and taxpayers want is an army of bureaucrats on every property reassessing map data when it could easily be done by the imagery.”
Allowed clearing on regulated land includes specified areas for infrastructure, and Land Management Codes of Practice including management, efficiency, equity and farm planning codes. Mrs Petrie said changes from the current restriction that only allows thinning of invasive species to the proposed capability to clear 90 per cent of a block is a big improvement, and there is an opportunity to add species to that invasive list through the LLS.
Under the efficiency code clumps of trees up to 500 square metres, isolated paddock trees and ‘peninsulas’ of growth can be cleared, up to a two per cent cap of total land area which Mrs Petrie said destroys a lot of the gain under the proposed legislation.
“There should be no cap on efficiency,” she said.
Farmers will also have the option to lock up part of their property under a biodiversity stewardship agreement, to sell biodiversity credits to developers or to offset their own clearing under the equity code. As such sites would be exempt from LLS rates, and there were comments expressed at the meeting that this may create a budget hole, and likewise with council rates.
Mrs Petrie said that NSW Farmers is disappointed that the government proposals require a caveat over part of the property in order to do responsible development.
“Set asides were not mentioned in the panel’s recommendations, and there is a lack of equity for those with less developed land than other farmers. When a supermarket wants to change the products they sell they don’t have to lock up part of the shop. Neither should farmers.”
The amount of land offset is required to be up to six times the area of the developed land, depending on a range of circumstances.
It is proposed that farmers can submit a development application through the LLS with a consultant-prepared Biodiversity Development Assessment Report, which could cost the farmer up to $70,000.
Mrs Petrie is also concerned that compensation for stewardship areas will reflect the management cost of the land rather than its inherent value, so historically-neglected land will be more valuable than areas that have been well-maintained.
“This creates perverse environmental outcomes that the new Act was supposed to prevent,” she said.
“We want to say ‘look after it, and you’re better off’.
“We welcome government’s reforms, but they’ve got to be right so we need strong submissions, especially from farmers in shires like Tenterfield which are greatly impacted by native vegetation legislation.”
More detail on the draft legislation can be found at landmanagement.nsw.gov.au. NSW Farmers have also established its own website at farmers4landreform.com.au to discuss the changes. Submissions close on June 28.