By Paul Hemsley
The Queensland government has hit back over its controversial plan to ease restrictions on clearing by farmers and other property owners after the new laws again drew flak from councils over a lack of consultation and environmental groups opposed fearing threatened habitats will be destroyed.
The sunshine state’s Minister for Natural Resources and Mines, Andrew Cripps, announced changes to be made through the Vegetation Management Framework Amendment Bill in March 2013 and yesterday lashed out at environmental groups, accusing them of “peddling lies” and engaging in extremism.
The government says its changes to the vegetation management rules will help create conditions that make it easier for farmers to clear out trees and natural vegetation and expand cropping operations without the “burden of unnecessary regulation”.
The legislation will include new land clearing processes and remove the previous Labor government’s “greener” regulations that the Campbell Newman government claims “threatened” farmers’ ability to effectively manage their businesses and maintain productivity.
However the legislation has copped a barrage of criticism from environmental groups including the Queensland Environmental Defenders Office and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) because of the potential environmental damage they claim could be inflicted on natural habits for Australia’s wildlife.
Queensland Environmental Defenders Office principal solicitor Jo-Anne Bragg said labelled the Bill a “great leap backwards” in the state’s vegetation protection because hundreds of thousands of hectares now classified as protected growth and remnant vegetation would be exposed to clearing.
The WWF has dug up a pre-election promise in the form of a letter from Campbell Newman that said the Liberal National Party will retain the current level of statutory vegetation protection, which was sent to the WWF just 10 days before the 2012 state election
WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman said the state government’s proposal would break the election promise if it is allowed to pass into law and would “accelerate” the risk of extinction for animals such as the Koala and the Cassowary.
“Minister Cripps’ bill will give the green-light to bulldoze up to 700,000 hectares of endangered or ecologically important forest habitat,” Mr O’Gorman said.
While studiously avoiding the naming of any specific environmental group or person, Mr Cripps accused “green groups” of lying about the government’s plan and slammed their concerns as “alarmist rhetoric”.
“Despite the misleading messages from green groups, these reforms do not allow for indiscriminate land clearing, and we will continue to monitor vegetation management activities across Queensland, with penalties applying to those who do the wrong thing,” Mr Cripps said.
“We are cutting red-tape to ensure farmers can go about their daily business without being treated like criminals,” Mr Cripps said.
He said former Labor government policies “allowed the pendulum to swing too far towards extreme green policies”.
“This is a fact extreme green groups don’t seem to understand, or don’t seem to care about,” Mr Cripps said.
Although the legislation has not yet been put to a vote in State Parliament, the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) has called for the Campbell Newman government to give councils a seat at the table to discuss how they will be impacted by the government’s pitch to change vegetation management laws for the agriculture sector.
LGAQ chief executive Greg Hallam said the Association supports the process of reform but will not sign off on anything without knowing the full impact of the changes on member councils.
“As always, we are willing to work with the government to get the best possible outcome but we will not be a rubber stamp,” Mr Hallam said.
According to the LGAQ, the Newman government’s proposed new vegetation management system “deserves support”, but councils need to be consulted before it is passed in State Parliament.
But the agribusiness lobby has welcomed the state government’s proposed changes to the Vegetation Management Act.
The Queensland Farmers’ Federation (QFF) called the changes a “positive step forward” for the state’s rural sector and environment.
Chief executive of the QFF, Dan Galligan, said farmers would welcome the “sensible provision” to clear trees to prepare for and recover from natural disasters.
Mr Galligan said it is not expected the changes would trigger a rush of clearing activity because existing laws remain until the changes are due to be implemented later this year â€‘ as well as other constraints to agricultural development that investors need to consider.
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