The north coast’s rich biodiversity is under grave threat from a shock announcement by the coalition just two days out of the election that if re-elected it will repeal the state’s major protection laws for threatened species and native vegetation.
Conservation groups and the Greens have lashed out at yesterday’s move by the Liberal-National government to review the laws, describing it as ‘a black day’ for threatened wildlife and one set to cause ’an environmental disaster’ which would setback conservation in NSW for 25 years.
And the NSW Liberals have been accused by Labor of ‘pandering to the worst instincts of the National Party’ over the plans to gut the laws by adopting all 43 recommendations of a panel that reviewed biodiversity legislation in NSW.
Key to the proposal is the removal of the requirement that land clearing only be allowed if it improves or maintains environmental outcome, and shifting approval for vegetation clearing to the planning system.
Deputy premier and Nationals leader Troy Grant defended the reforms, saying they ‘deliver an enhanced overall environmental outcome’, but opponents on the north coast and around NSW say that’s ‘rubbish’ ,and the move will lead to broad-scale and destructive land clearing.
The North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) says the repeal of the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 and the Native Vegetation Act 2003 would ‘set back conservation in NSW 25 years’ by removing obstacles to clearing native vegetation in most areas.
NEFA spokesperson Dailan Pugh said most rural councils had yet to identify or map high-conservation value vegetation for protection and, where they had ,the National Party had intervened to stop it.
Mr Pugh said that giving local councils the responsibility for regulating clearing of native vegetation through their Local Environment Plans (LEPs) meant that ‘native vegetation will only be afforded some protection where it is zoned for conservation (ie E2 and E3), and only from activities that require consent’.
‘The reality is that most rural councils have not identified, mapped and zoned high conservation value vegetation for protection in their Local Environment Plans, and where they have tried to the National Party has intervened to stop it,’ he told Echonetdaily.
‘So the changes effectively mean no obstacles to clearing native vegetation in most areas.
‘For example the draft Kyogle LEP proposed limiting environmental zones over private lands to cliffs, lakes or swamps and other lands unsuitable for agricultural and pastoral production with no consideration of ecosystem values.
‘It proposed that extensive areas of rainforest of world heritage value inhabited by numerous threatened species would remained zoned for agriculture.
‘Even this was too much for the National Party who intervened in September 2012 to stop north coast councils from including environmental protection zones in their Local Environmental Plans, supposedly for six months while a review was undertaken.
‘Because the review supported environmental zones, two and a half years later we are still waiting to see what the Nationals will allow north coast councils to protect.
‘The Native Vegetation Act is the only mechanism available to protect rainforest, old-growth forest, endangered ecological communities, core koala habitat and other high conservation value vegetation in most areas because the National Party refuse to let councils protect it when they try to.
Lurch to the right
Nature Conservation Council (NCC) chief executive Kate Smolski said repealing the laws ‘represents a significant lurch to the right to appease radical elements in the farming community’ and ‘a black day for the state’s threatened wildlife and fragile soils’.
‘The Native Vegetation Act is among the most important nature conservation laws in NSW because it protects so much of the state’s wildlife like koalas and gliders from indiscriminate destruction,’ Ms Smolski said.
‘If new laws weaken protections for land and wildlife, Mike Baird will be remembered as the premier who took us back to the dark days of broad-scale land clearing’.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says the Native Vegetation Act prevents uncontrolled land clearing, and has been credited with saving the lives of more than 250,000 native animals in its first five years of operation.
WWF’s Paul Toni said that ‘at the same time as the government is establishing a $100 million survival fund to stop a “race to extinction”, it is re-igniting the single biggest threat to native species – the broadscale clearing of native vegetation.
‘The decision also risks wasting the $600 million plus that has been spent to protect native vegetation since 1997,’ Mr Toni said.
The NSW Greens say the repeal of the Act would be a ‘devastating blow to the environment’.
NSW MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi said that ‘if the Native Vegetation Act is ripped up and other key biodiversity legislation watered down, premier Mike Baird and environment minister Rob Stokes will be proven to have presided over the most anti-environment government in NSW history.
‘The recommendations of the review are a recipe for disaster and would devastate biodiversity and what little native vegetation is left in NSW,’ Dr Faruqi said.
‘Biodiversity is on the decline so we need to be strengthening laws, not weakening them.’
Total Environment Centre Executive Director Jeff Angel said ‘By leaving it so late in the campaign to announce this major policy shift, the coalition cannot legitimately claim an electoral mandate for trashing the state’s most important nature conservation laws’.
‘The coalition proposes the most significant overhaul of the state’s conservation laws in more than a generation, so the community requires time to understand the full implications of scrapping these laws,’ Mr Angel said.
‘Detail proposals should be presented to the people so they can vote on them at the 2019 election.’
NSW National Parks Association CEO Kevin Evans said ‘There is widespread concern within the environment movement about the Coalition’s plans to draft new conservation laws to replace the Native Vegetation Act, the Threatened Species Conservation Act, and parts of the National Parks and Wildlife Act’.
‘The coalition’s has had a poor record on nature conservation over the past four years, so the community has little faith that protections will be maintained or improved in the new law,’ Mr Evans said.
Humane Society international campaign director Michael Kennedy said ‘The Coalition partners have been highly susceptible to pressure from developers and extreme elements in the farming community’.
‘We are concerned these elements will use their influence during the drafting of new laws to further unwind protections the community has fought decades to achieve,’ Mr Kennedy said.
The Wilderness Society’s Charlotte Richardson said ‘Scrapping the Native Vegetation Act would undermine the $100 million commitment to threatened species recovery that environment minister Rob Stokes announced during the election campaign.
‘The Native Vegetation Act was implemented in 2005 after a sustained campaign by The Wilderness Society and other conservation organisations, and since the law was introduced land clearing has declined by about 60 per cent a year,’ Ms Richardson said..
‘With almost 1000 plants and animals threatened with extinction in NSW, we cannot afford to go backwards on environmental protection.’
Labor leader Luke Foley said his party was proud of the existing legislation that ‘has delivered an end to mass clearing and helped build resilient farming communities’.
Years of uncertainty
Mr Foley told Fairfax Media that ‘scrapping the laws is pandering to the worst instincts of the National Party’ and that Mr Baird was ‘capitulating to [Nationals’ leader] Troy Grant’.
‘Reopening this debate will simply deliver years of uncertainty to farmers, most of whom are happily working within the laws as they stand,’ he said.
The NSW Farmers lobby group welcomed the plans and is pushing for a draft replacement bill by the end of this year.
Fiona Simson, president of the group, said ‘We will be holding the coalition parties to their timeline on this should they be returned to government’.
Mr Pugh said claims by Mr Grant that getting rid of the laws will put more protections in place across a region are ‘rubbish’.
‘We are similarly alarmed by the proposal to reduce and remove regulation for most logging of private land in NSW,’ he said.
‘The current rules are already grossly inadequate and poorly enforced.
‘In September 2013, in a logging operation undertaken by the Forestry Corporation on private property at Whian Whian (adjacent the Nightcap National Park) NEFA identified 76 threatened plants and eight koala high use trees which were meant to be protected by 20-metre buffers that had roading and logging within their buffers.
‘Twenty seven of these were affected, with six killed and one injured, after we had identified their presence to the Environmental Protection Authority.
‘We also found that rainforest mapped as the Federally Critically Endangered Lowland Rainforest of Subtropical Australia had been remapped as cleared land under the supervision of the EPA, so that a road could be constructed through it.
‘Given their complicity, it is hardly surprising that one and a half years after we submitted detailed complaints we are still waiting for the EPA to respond.
‘Neither the rainforest, core koala habitat, or threatened species habitat on this property was proposed for protection in the Lismore Local Environmental Plan, and under the proposed changes such logging would not even require consent.
‘We need to improve protection for high conservation value forests and woodlands, rather than remove the few constraints that exist. The claim by Mr Grant that their reforms will end the site-by-site incremental erosion of biodiversity is plainly wrong,’ Mr Pugh said.
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