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Green hypocrisy and environmental vandalism

15, March 2007

A public forum in Dubbo on March 2, 2007, hosted by the Australian Environment Foundation and the New South Wales Regional Community Survival Group heard that 20 million hectares of western NSW is now threatened by invasive native scrub. This is an area three times the size of Tasmania.

The amount of land affected continues to grow each year because the native vegetation laws currently in place are so prescriptive, that in many cases, it is not feasible or economical for landholders to try and control the woody weeds.

Native vegetation legislation introduced by the Carr Government in 2003 has effectively eroded the property rights of many western NSW farmers, removing their ability to properly manage the vegetation on their own properties.

The primary objects of the legislation are listed as:

to provide for, encourage and promote the management of native vegetation on a regional basis in the social, economic and environmental interests of the state; and
to prevent the clearing of remnant native vegetation and protected regrowth unless it leads to better environmental outcomes.
The legislation clearly fails to achieve these objectives as they apply to woody weeds.

Woody weeds, or more correctly Invasive Native Species, are a small number of species that have invaded native grasslands and created virtual monocultures or a very limited diversity of plants that discourages habitation by native wildlife or native groundcover plants.

Inspection of numerous properties in the Nyngan - Cobar region reveals an unnatural landscape consisting of thick stands of native scrub that have taken hold since the introduction of native vegetation legislation. Aboriginal elders talk of a landscape dominated by grasslands, periodically burnt to keep them open and produce fresh new growth.

The current dilemma stems from prescriptive legislation designed to limit land clearing which achieves the objectives of The Wilderness Society and appeals to the urban green vote.

The legislation, as it applies to woody weeds, does not achieve any worthwhile land management objectives.

No other environment group has spoken out against the environmental degradation caused by this legislation. This is perhaps not surprising, as to do so would be contrary to the ideological viewpoint of most city based “environmentalists” - that any native tree growth is good - no matter what the cost to the environment.

The hypocrisy of the Wilderness Society campaigners who are driving this issue is breathtaking. Agitation for the imposition of legislation that removes property rights from individuals - without compensation - to satisfy the ideological whims of “environmentalists” who will not bear the cost of their actions or the consequences.

All this for outcomes that amount to environmental vandalism.

If this very substantial area of western NSW was pristine native forest that was being cleared, perhaps this campaign could be validated to some degree - but it is not - in the main, this vast area has been farmed for over 150 years and has had very limited tree cover. Extensive native grasslands were the natural landscape before white man arrived.

Farmers are willing to set aside up to 15 per cent of their own private property to provide more tree cover - this would be a massive increase on what has traditionally been an open landscape. This compromise has not been accepted to date by the Iemma Government.

The public forum heard from a number of speakers including the chair of the AEF Don Burke, himself a bird lover, who lamented the demise of the Superb parrot among other species from the area now covered by woody weeds.

Shadow Minister for Natural Resources, Adrian Piccoli advised that a coalition government would repeal key elements of the current legislation that has led to the environmental degradation depicted in slides shown at the forum.

These slides graphically displayed the loss of ground cover in the thick stands of woody weeds, showing the bare earth that was badly eroded by wind and water. Other slides showed the same landscape - previously covered in grasslands - with no sign of erosion and in obvious good health, with the occasional scattered clump of trees.

Apart from the environmental tragedy that is unfolding, there is the now obvious social tragedy that is occurring through the disempowerment of landholders to manage their own land.

Landholders have been stripped of the ability to manage their land productively as an agricultural enterprise by the state and are expected to manage it to a set of criteria that appeals to residents of far off Sydney.

If western landholders are required to manage their land for the benefit of the state then they should be compensated by the state for providing state prescribed “environmental management”.

To not do so is to dilute the property rights and private property value of a minority.

This is the crux of the debate which has bigger ramifications than the looming environmental disaster.

All around the country state governments, which by and large are city centric, are enacting legislation that bit by bit erodes the property rights of individuals, mainly in rural areas, to accommodate the agendas of a constituency that has no connection with the land and no practical experience with land management.

The woody weeds issue highlights this gradual removal of property rights with very little public outcry - even among the farming community. Because landholders currently affected by this issue are a minority many other landholders who should be supporting them are indifferent, as they see this as an issue that does not affect them.

The inaction by farmer groups on this long running issue highlights the lack of solidarity that can only be a detriment to all of the farming community as the loss of property rights transcends many issues - not just woody weeds.

The government sanctioned spread of invasive native scrub is an environmental, social and political disaster that marginalises a minority group to the detriment of the whole community.

The tragedy is the community as a whole is allowing it to happen.

By Max Rheese

Published in On Line Opinion

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