Despite vocal opposition from primary producers, the Vegetation Management and Other Legislation Amendment Act (Act) was passed on 3 May 2018.
The changes arose from election promises made by the Queensland Government in 2015 and followed the Government's failed attempt to tighten the State's vegetation management laws in the minority-government days of 2016.
The Act extends the protection of high value regrowth to freehold land, includes vegetation that has not been cleared for 15 years within Category C (high value regrowth) vegetation, removes the ability to apply for a permit for developing high value and irrigated high value agriculture projects and removes the code for managing thickened vegetation so that a permit is now required.
To obtain a permit to manage thickened vegetation, landholders first need to apply for a "relevant purpose determination" with the risk that such an application can stall, with no right of appeal, if the Department does not accept that the proposed clearing is for a "relevant purpose". A landholder who obtains a relevant purpose determination will then need to make a development application and pay an application fee of at least $3,240.
The Act also removes the ability to obtain an area management plan to regulate vegetation management on an individual property or broader scale, phases out any existing area management plans relating to clearing for encroachment, thinning or fodder harvesting by 8 March 2020 and revokes any permits obtained under the Mulga Lands Fodder Area Management Plan. The Government's discarding of the area management plan concept is particularly disappointing to those landholders who saw area management plans as the last remaining tool for collaboration with the Government on scientific-outcomes-based vegetation management.
Further, the Act expands Category R areas so that clearing of native vegetation is now prohibited within 50 meters of a watercourse in the entire Great Barrier Reef catchment and reintroduces the requirement to obtain a riverine protection permit to clear vegetation in a watercourse.
At the same time, the Department's enforcement powers have been expanded. Entry by authorised officers without consent or a warrant to investigate clearing activities requires only 24 hours' written notice, evidence can be seized and stop work notices can be issued. Maximum penalties for failing to comply, providing false information and failing to stop work or restore land have also increased.
Following 41 successive amendments to the Vegetation Management Act since its introduction in 1999, there is a justifiable sentiment amongst landholders that the current legislative approach has failed. The underlying framework that prohibits management practices unless they fall within State-based codes or are approved by a Brisbane-centric bureaucracy (at significant expense, if at all) prioritises process over outcomes.
It is time for a comprehensive review of the Vegetation Management Act and for Government and industry resources to be devoted to a better scientific understanding of management practices that simultaneously enhance the grazing potential and the environmental values of our landscape.
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