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Byron Shire
April 21, 2021

Land-clearing code ‘still risky’ despite changes

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A aerial view of the  endangered rainforest cleared at Fingal Head under 10/50 bushfire laws.
An aerial view of the critically endangered rainforest cleared at Fingal Head under 10/50 bushfire laws.

Luis Feliu

Proposed changes to the state government’s controversial 10-50 urban land-clearing laws, which saw protected littoral rainforest in the Tweed cut down and clearing of historic trees to improve views, don’t go far enough, environmentalists say.

The scheme, introduced after the Blue Mountains bushfires in 2013, gave property owners in many coastal and bushfire-prone areas the right to remove trees within 10 metres of their homes and vegetation within 50 metres, without seeking approval.

The changes at the time sparked a heated dispute in Fingal Head on the Tweed Coast where a landowner wanting to redevelop a property removed a patch of littoral rainforest, which outraged neighbours who thought it was protected by state and federal laws.

Police and council managers were called out to a standoff in Queen Street when the felling began.

And across Sydney harbour’s foreshore, historic old trees were brought down to improve views or facilitate development.

But now, trees within 100 metres of the coastline or estuaries will be given some protection and excluded from the contentious clearing code.

Yesterday, Tweed National Party MP Geoff Provest welcomed the review to the clearing code, saying it would ‘provide better protection for critical habitat, animals and minimise tree clearing along the coast simply to improve views’.

‘It was clear that some people were clearing trees for reasons which had nothing to do with bushfire protection,’ Mr Provest said.

But environmentalists say the review doesnt’ go far enough, with the NSW Nature Conservation Council (NCC) saying public safety and large areas of urban bushland were still at risk under the changes.

The council’s chief executive Kate Smolski says the code’s ‘fundamental problems’ remain, and it still ‘overrides the bulk of the Threatened Species Conservation Act and local council tree preservation orders’.

‘One of our main concerns is that the 10-50 code removes the obligation of landholders to have professionals from the Rural Fire Service inspect properties before vegetation and wildlife habitat is cleared,’ Ms Smolksi said.

‘This is the only way to ensure we achieve the triple bottom line of protecting lives, property and wildlife in these urban bushland settings’, she said.

‘There was a very good system in place and they should return to that system.

‘Hundreds of landmark trees across Sydney and NSW have already been lost because of this rule without any meaningful improvement in bushfire risk.

‘This arbitrary, one-size-fits all standard is bad policy made on the run, and is not supported by the science.’

Ms Smolski said the review recommendations ‘still allows for threatened plant species and the habitat of most threatened animal species to be cleared. This is totally unacceptable’.

Mr Provest, on the other hand, said the review ‘concluded residents should retain the right to protect their homes from bushfire, but made 30 recommendations to tighten the scheme’.

He said the government had accepted all 30 recommendations and introduced legislation to parliament to amend the Rural Fires Act 1997 ‘and separately tighten the NSW RFS Code of Practice’.

‘Around half of these recommendations introduce greater environmental protections such as excluding koala habitats, littoral rainforest, Aboriginal places, and trees within 100 metres of the coastline,’ he said.

‘Critically endangered plants, critical habitats, all mangroves, saltmarshes and a range of critically endangered ecological communities have also been excluded from the scheme”

But Ms Smolski says ’it has been clear since its introduction that the 10/50 rule has been used almost exclusively to remove trees to improve views, facilitate development and other non-bushfire related purposes’.

‘The recommendations proposed by this review will do little to change those underlying reasons for its misuse.

‘The 10-50 vegetation clearing code does little to reduce bushfire risk to property but has had devastating consequences for urban bushrland and the wildlife it supports.’

Mr Provest said the NSW RFS said the review ‘encourages councils to take greater responsibility for their bushfire prone land and ‘can exclude low-risk pockets of bushland from the scheme if it is satisfied that council has appropriate mitigation strategies in place’.

The report on the code, its eligibility and review can be seen at www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/1050.

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