Taking action on unlawful land clearing around Australia
The devastating impact of land-clearing and deforestation on the unique ecosystems and wildlife of Australia’s woodlands, bushlands and rainforests is well-documented, and a contributor to the sixth mass extinction taking place on Earth today.
In 2017, The Wilderness Society (TWS) raised concerns that illegal land clearing was occurring on Wombinoo Station in Minamoolka, QLD. We have been advising TWS on these concerns and contacted the relevant authorities regarding the legality of the clearing, requesting an investigation.
Despite having received clearing approval from the Queensland Government, the landholders should also have sought approval under the Federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, which they eventually did. The Federal Department of Environment and Energy commissioned an independent assessment of both proposed further clearing and clearing that had already taken place. The assessment concluded that: the property contained important populations of greater gliders, koalas, threatened skinks, rats and probably Australia’s rarest bird of prey, the red goshawk; that the clearing which had already occurred was likely to have had a “significant impact” on the koalas, and that “the proposed clearing of additional habitat is likely to further exacerbate this impact”; and that some of the animal populations on the property were “necessary for [the] species’ long-term survival and recovery”.
TWS has since identified further clearing on Wombinoo Station, some of which occurred inside the area still to be assessed for approval by the Federal Government. Despite their own ecological report illustrating a significant impact on important populations of threatened species, the Department has said it won’t be taking any compliance action. Since a landholder is required to refer an action that could have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance, our Senior Solicitor, Brendan Dobbie said that on the face of it, those facts suggest the clearing broke the law; “There may be good reasons for the Government’s decision to not hold the landowner to account for these actions, but they are not – on the information available – apparent to us”.
We are supporting EDONT Principal Solicitor Gillian Duggin in a Court challenge representing the Environment Centre NT . The landmark case challenges a massive land-clearing approval based on various grounds, including how the project’s climate change impacts were considered. A first of its kind in Australia, the case questions whether the way greenhouse gas emissions from the clearing were considered demonstrates a legal error such that the permit should be set aside.
The permit for Maryfield Station is the largest single land clearing permit issued in the NT - an area of 20,432ha - and it has been approved without an environmental impact assessment under the Environmental Assessment Act (NT).
Northern Territory Environmental Protection Agency (NTEPA) briefly considered the greenhouse gas emissions from the action and concluded they “are likely to make a considerable contribution to the NT’s annual greenhouse gas emissions”. However the assessment went on to say the NTEPA did not consider that would be a “significant impact” on the environment, citing the NT Government’s lack of climate change policy as their reason.
The case will be heard in July 2018.