Denuded landscapes threaten biodiversity, writes Andrew Picone

Right now, a pair of D 11 bulldozers, linked by chain, have started clearing 33,000 hectares at Olive Vale station on Cape York Peninsula. Local sources estimate about 1,000 hectares has been completed to date. 

Olive Vale, a massive pastoral lease immediately west of the town of Laura, straddles the Peninsula Development Road and is adjacent to the Aboriginal owned Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park, the region’s largest conservation area.

This clearing was approved during the Newman government’s three-year frenzy of regulation slashing, which included weakening the Vegetation Management Act. 

Field naturalist and ornithologist Lloyd Nielsen tells me there are several threatened species of birds he believes will be directly affected by the clearing. Nielsen, who recently won Birdlife Australia’s J.N. Hobbs award for his outstanding contribution to ornithology as a citizen scientist, is particularly concerned about the red goshawk and the buff-breasted button-quail among many others. 

For many years, Mr Nielsen has scoured Cape York for the elusive buff-breasted button-quail. It is the only species in Australia that has never been recorded or photographed in the wild. Known predominantly from museum specimens there are thought to be fewer than 500 breeding pairs in the wild. Lloyd Nielsen is certain the birds live on Olive Vale. 

Established in 1877, Olive Vale was one of the first pastoral stations on Cape York. Once owned by Leichardt MP and northern industrialist advocate Warren Entsch, the property is now slated for intensive agriculture, growing sorghum and grains for cattle. 

I’ve been told some effort has been made to address concerns about soil erosion, water quality and the protection of riparian vegetation.  Regardless, remnant native vegetation is being cleared, destroying biodiversity. 

Sediment and agricultural pollutants are highly likely to enter the water stream and end up in Princess Charlotte Bay, one of the Great Barrier Reef’s most important turtle and dugong habitats. During the wet season, flooding rains will carry nutrient laden sediment from the Normanby Basin, which includes Olive Vale, to the outer reef as it has done in the past. Increased nutrients will trigger a crown of thorns outbreak, as happened in 2014. 

This decline of Cape York’s Great Barrier Reef was predicted in Commonwealth’s 2013 Strategic Assessment. Despite UNESCO ruling it is not in danger, the Reef is still clearly threatened. 

Slowly but surely across northern Australia we are repeating the mistakes of the past, like those that were made in southern Australia. The consequences of over clearing include salinity, soil loss, species extinctions and ongoing cost of repair, particularly in the Murray Darling Basin. 

On Cape York, more than $12 million was allocated by the former LNP Government to bring an end to land use conflict, protect environmental values and chart a course for sustainable development.  Evidently that process failed. 

Similarly, we continue to greenlight ill-thought-out agricultural expansion across northern Australia - ignoring its long-term consequences and economic viability.  

People travel to Cape York for many reasons - but nature based tourism and extraordinary birdwatching opportunities are high on the list. 

Queensland’s $10 billion tourism industry provides 236,000 jobs and generates more than $60 million in expenditure per day. This is largely dependent on intact natural environments, including national and marine parks, world heritage areas and free-flowing rivers, not to mention the wealth of wildlife diversity, including the buff-breasted button-quail. 

Cape York’s tourism industry is on the cusp of significant growth. The Palaszczuk Government’s inaction on clearing sends the wrong message to domestic and international visitors. Denuded landscapes are nothing to write home about. 

While we pay lip-service to World Environment Day, June 6 will come and go while land clearing continues to rise throughout Queensland. 

Under Campbell Newman’s leadership land clearing across Queensland tripled. The loss of biodiversity, increased greenhouse gas emissions, loss of catchment integrity and various other ecosystem services didn’t seem to matter to the LNP. 

And it doesn’t seem to matter to the current government, which has done nothing to arrest the destruction of more than 130,000 hectares approved for clearing across Queensland. It’s time for the Palaszczuk Government to set a different course.

Andrew Picone

Conservation, ecology, protected areas, people, policy & politics. Bush regen, consulting & working for @QLDConservation on National Parks