The Vegetation Management Framework Amendment Bill 2013 (the Bill) was introduced to Parliament on 20 March 2013. The Bill aims to significantly reform the vegetation management framework in Queensland by:
- reducing red tape and the regulatory burden on landholders, business and government;
- simplifying and streamlining the vegetation management framework;
- supporting Queensland's key economic pillars of construction, resources, agriculture and tourism; and
- maintaining sustainable vegetation clearing practices to protect native vegetation.
The proposed reforms are intended to pave the way for the development of new agricultural areas by providing landowners with the opportunity to clear vegetation without the regulatory burden that exists under the current system. Accordingly, the Bill is viewed as a vital component of the Newman Government's aim of doubling the value of agricultural production in Queensland by 2040.
While the changes are particularly relevant to farmers, all landowners ought to be aware of the proposed new rules for vegetation management, as the Bill also aims to simplify the mapping of vegetation and streamline assessment for vegetation clearing generally through:
- the removal of the regrowth regulations;
- the creation of self assessable clearing codes to remove the need for an application to be made in certain circumstances;
- the introduction of a single vegetation map incorporating information that is currently shown on various maps produced by the Department of Natural Resources and Mines (the DNRM); and
- potentially locking in regulated and non-regulated vegetation to provide landowners with greater certainty when developing long term property plans.
Progress of the Bill
The Bill was recently referred to the State Development, Infrastructure and Industry Committee (the Committee) to consider the lawfulness of the Bill and the policies it seeks to give effect to. On 14 May 2012, the Committee tabled its report and recommended that the Bill be passed by Parliament subject to further clarification and amendment.
The Committee's approval means that the Bill is likely to be passed in which case the proposed changes could come into effect before the end of 2013.
What are the proposed changes?
The current vegetation management framework commenced in 2000, so that the clearing of native vegetation is regulated under the Vegetation Management Act 1999 (the VMA) and the Integrated Development Assessment System under the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 (the SPA). A number of the changes to the framework proposed under the Bill involve the removal of changes made to the framework in 2009, including the removal of regulations that restrict the clearing of mature regrowth vegetation that had not been cleared since 31 December 1989 ("high value regrowth).
Other major changes proposed under the Bill include:
- the introduction of new clearing purposes under the VMA to expand the range of circumstances in which an application can be made for a development permit for vegetation clearing;
- the creation of self-assessable clearing codes enabling landowners to undertake vegetation clearing without the need to obtain a development permit in certain circumstances;
- the simplification of State-wide vegetation maps; and
- changes to the enforcement, investigation and offence provisions under the VMA.
The removal of high value regrowth vegetation regulations
The Bill proposes the removal of high value regrowth vegetation regulations from freehold and indigenous land. Currently, high value regrowth vegetation (that is, regrowth vegetation in a regional ecosystem classified as 'endangered', 'of concern' or 'least concern' or regrowth which has not been cleared since 31 December 1989) on freehold and indigenous land is protected. However, the Bill aims to allow clearing of vegetation on freehold and indigenous land with the effect that high value regrowth vegetation will only be protected on –
- leasehold land for agricultural or grazing purposes; and
- along water catchments in priority reef areas.
The introduction of new clearing purposes
Under the current framework, a permit to clear vegetation will only be granted if the clearing is for one of the purposes specified in Section 22 of the VMA including, but not limited to, fodder harvesting, extractive industry and pest control.
The Bill introduces three new clearing purposes to allow –
- Necessary environmental clearing meaning the clearing of vegetation which is necessary to:
- restore the ecological and environmental condition of land (for instance, stabilising banks of watercourses, works to rehabilitate eroded areas, works to prevent erosion of land or for ecological fire management);
- divert existing natural channels in a way that replicates the existing form of the natural channels;
- prepare for the likelihood of a natural disaster (for example, removing silt to mitigate flooding); and
- remove contaminants from land.
- High value agricultural clearing which means clearing vegetation to establish, cultivate and harvest crops. This includes clearing for annual and perennial horticulture and broadacre cropping but does not include clearing to establish and cultivate native or introduced pastures for the grazing of livestock or to establish plantation forestry; and
- Irrigated high value agricultural clearing which means clearing carried out to establish, cultivate and harvest crops or pasture that will be supplied with water by artificial means. This includes clearing for annual and perennial horticulture and broadacre cropping and pasture which requires irrigation (e.g. dairy farms), however plantation forestry is specifically excluded.
In its report, the Committee recommended the inclusion of a fourth additional clearing purpose to allow clearing for projects which will provide desirable social, economic and environmental outcomes and/or significant employment for local indigenous communities. As Parliament has not yet considered the Committee's report, it remains to be seen whether the Bill will be amended in accordance with this recommendation.
The creation of self-assessable clearing codes
The Bill also seeks to reduce the regulatory burden on landholders by empowering the Minister to make self-assessable vegetation clearing codes which are designed to operate in the same manner as self-assessable development codes under planning schemes. Provided landowners notify DNRM of the proposed clearing activity and then comply with the applicable self-assessable clearing code, landowners will be able to undertake certain clearing activities without the need for a development permit.
If the Bill is passed, it is anticipated that the first codes to be developed will be for routine rural land management activities including weed and pest control, managing encroachment, fodder harvesting and thinning. At this stage, it is unclear how the self-assessable codes will be developed and the form they will take although the Committee has sought clarification from the Minister for Natural Resources and Mines on this issue.
Streamlining State-wide vegetation maps
Currently, vegetation mapping information is shown on three separate maps – the regional ecosystem map, the remnant vegetation map and the regrowth vegetation map. The Bill aims to simplify this system by creating an overarching regulated vegetation management map which incorporates the information currently shown on these three separate maps. The new map will also 'lock in' regulated and non-regulated vegetation areas to provide greater certainty for landowners when developing long term property plans. However, the Committee has highlighted the risk of locking in areas given the inaccuracy of the current mapping system and so there may be further amendments to the Bill in this regard.
Changes to enforcement, investigation and offence provisions
The final reforms introduced by the Bill are aimed at providing greater fairness and balance in relation to the enforcement and compliance provisions of the VMA. This includes changing the onus of proof for vegetation clearing offences whereby the clearing of land will no longer be taken to have been done by the occupier of that land in the absence of evidence to the contrary. Other changes are designed to provide a more equitable and consistent approach to sentencing in relation to unlawful clearing of vegetation offences.
Where to from here?
Although the Committee has recommended that the Bill be passed, there may be further amendments to the proposed reforms based on the Committee's recommendations. Until the Bill is passed, the current framework will continue to apply.
If you plan to undertake any clearing activities in the near future you should closely monitor the progress of the Bill. Details of any further developments will be available on our website as and when they occur, including the adoption and commencement of the amendments.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.