Two north coast MPs have given bipartisan support for changes to the controversial ’10/50’ vegetation clearing laws, telling parliament they resulted in the clearing of protected littoral rainforest on a property on the Tweed Coast dubbed the Fingal Head ‘chainsaw massacre’.
Ballina MP Tamara Smith (Greens) and Tweed MP Geoff Provest (Nationals) both spoke for the Rural Fires Amendment (Bush Fire Prevention) Bill 2015 yesterday, citing two examples on the Tweed where developers cleared trees for development or better views.
Last August, police and council rangers were called to a Fingal Head property after locals protested the landowner was wiping out a pocket of rainforest to facilitate planned development (days after council knocked back the development plan and only weeks after the introduction of the new clearing code).
The clearing laws had been changed after the Blue Mountans bushfires in 2013 which destroyed many homes, but wide-scale clearing in Sydney and elsewhere by landowners wanting to improve their views sparked protests around the state to ‘Stop the Chop’.
Mr Provest told MPs that he had ‘full faith in this amending bill’, saying that when the 10/50 scheme was introduced ‘my area of Tweed was the focus of intense media scrutiny when a local gentleman decided to clear trees on his properties’.
‘The police were called and there were people with chainsaws, protestors and so on. It was fairly unsavoury,’ he said.
The Tweed MP said that while he endorsed the amendments with its 30 recommendations, he could ‘not ignore the fact that the purpose of the bill is to protect people’s lives and properties’.
He said the recommendations ’will significantly improve the way that 10/50 works in NSW’.
Ms Smith said the Greens ‘empathise with the spirit of this legislation in the context of the horrendous 2013 bushfires in the Blue Mountains, the Hunter and Port Stephens areas’ but her party had opposed the 10/50 laws from the start ‘because of the unintended consequences of these rules’.
‘The clearing of thousands of trees, including endangered ecological communities and threatened species, has become the unintended consequence of this legislation,’ she said.
‘The reality is that the code has become little to do with bushfire protection; rather, it has become an out for developers and property owners to improve their views and property values at the expense of ecology, amenity and communities.’
Mr Provest said that ‘as we know, unfortunately some people took advantage of the 10/50 scheme. I had a two classic cases of that in my electorate’, but ‘with the safeguards built to minimise the abuse of the scheme, there is a greater relationship between the 10/50 scheme, the environment and our planning framework’.
‘There is no doubt that the community wanted greater environmental protections introduced, and that is what is happening today,’ he said.
‘We are protecting core koala habitats, coastal wetlands, natural rainforests, trees within 100 metres of the coastline, critically endangered plants, critical habitats and a range of endangered ecological communities.
‘These areas will be excluded from the 10/50 vegetation rules. Additional environmental protections in the 10/50 arrangements will include the removal of mangroves, salt marshes and trees 100 metres from the coastline.’
Mr Provest said the case in Fingal Head ‘resulted in evil graffiti. It split the wider community; neighbours were fighting against each other and with their councils’.
Ms Smith said ‘the reality is that, far from making people safer, there is strong evidence that the 10/50 code does not mitigate fire risk’.
‘Both the NSW Rural Fire Service and the Office of Environment and Heritage accept that the current code is being abused for purposes other than bushfire risk management,’ she said.
‘As we heard earlier from the member for Tweed, on the North Coast the impact of 10/50 has been particularly harsh. One example is Fingal Head, which has been cited widely in public debate and is a devastating example.
She commended Mr Provest for ‘for his acknowledgement of the horror show that was Fingal Head and the abuse of 10/50’, saying the lcoal Coastcare group reported that more than 44 mature trees were lost that day.
‘With them went the hollows that take decades to form in a tree’s trunk and branches and provide a critical habitat to many species listed in the Threatened Species Conservation Act.
‘The Minister may have indicated changes planned to the code to exclude littoral rainforest and other areas, but the damage is done.
‘The Government’s support for 10/50 as a concept has left the community with a broad message that it is a free-for-all for clearing in this State.
‘To address this, the underpinning feature of 10/50 must be removed: self-assessment is not an appropriate way to ensure bushfire risks can be reduced while preserving important vegetation.
‘What happens is that, piece by piece, remnant and endangered vegetation is chopped away and the community is left to try to get a response from government after irreplaceable bush and ecological communities already are gone,’ Ms Smith said.