Earlier this year, ACF Lead Environmental Investigator Annica Schoo and the University of Queensland’s Dr Martin Taylor pored over hundreds of documents to uncover the pervasive flouting of land clearing laws in Queensland.

What they found was shocking. In just a year, over 400,000 hectares of habitat for threatened species and ecological communities was cleared in Queensland—without approval or assessment from the federal regulator, the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water. Under Australia’s national environment law—the EPBC Act—that land clearing should have been referred to the regulator for approval. Instead no approvals were sought or granted, and habitat destruction continued unabated.

We sat down with Annica to understand how just deep the problem goes, and what can be done to fix it.

What does the research you’ve undertaken show? 

We took the most recent data available from the Queensland Government, from 2018-19. It is from a little while ago, but it takes them some time to release the information. What we were looking at is how much of the land clearing that happened that year in Queensland relates to habitat for threatened species, and how much of it was approved under the national environmental law. That's the key part of legislation that's supposed to be taking care of this type of activity.

There were 415,000 hectares of land cleared in Queensland across the 2018-19 year that was likely providing habitat for threatened species—it’s where endangered native species like the koala or star finch have made their homes. Of this, about 404,000 hectares was cleared by pastoralists, clearing trees to create more grass for their livestock to feed on.

96% of habitat clearing in one year was attributable to not just one sector—the agricultural sector, but one specific part of that sector.

Initially that raised alarm, and then we thought, maybe they've got approval—we'll have a look, we'll overlay whether they needed approval to begin with, and then whether they did have approval.

The methodology we used derived from the government's own decision making. We looked at examples of when the government thought something was significant enough to need approval. We used that and applied it across the land area that was cleared. The majority of the land cleared would have, at least on face value, required the department to consider a referral. None of it had a referral or approval.

The report is called “Double standard”; where is that occurring?

As an example, in the last decade, miners, residential developers and other industries have gone through the referral process and received approval to clear about 25,000 hectares worth of koala habitat. That’s over 10 years and across the country; meanwhile pastoralists in Queensland in one year, cleared 75,000 hectares of koala habitat without approval. That's the double standard we're seeing emerge here.

We're not sure why this is occurring. Is it a case of the regulator not taking responsibility for the administration of the Act, or lack of awareness of the pastoral industry? Either way, something really needs to be done by the government to address this. We just can't afford to lose 75,000 hectares of habitat for the endangered koala each year.

If this land clearing was referred to the regulator, is it likely that it would have been approved anyway?

There are issues with the EPBC Act for sure. That's why we're working so hard on reforming it. This kind of land clearing probably would have been approved, but it would have had conditions with it. It would have to be done quite carefully and include admittedly problematic offsets, for example, making sure that there's habitat being grown or protected elsewhere in perpetuity. The conditions it may have come with are still not perfect, and won’t 100% address the impact of environmental destruction, but it's better than 0% addressing the impact, which is what we're seeing here.

And it is an offence under the Act, to take an action that has a significant impact on listed threatened species or an endangered community without approval. So the next question is, has the department taken any enforcement action? We can't see any public record of that occurring.

The next batch of data is coming out shortly. We're really urging the department to look at that and start addressing some of these land clearing concerns quite actively.

Is this a case of conservationists being against any land clearing?

I come from a farming family. ACF is not opposed to the entire pastoral industry, rather we're highlighting the bad land managers who are making disastrous decisions. It's all very short-sighted land management, like wiping out all of the trees that provide shade for the animals, that give them clean water, that allow the soil to stay healthy over the long term. To wipe all that out to get more stock on the paddock over the next 10 years will make those business operators money in the next 10 years. But what are they handing down to their children? Good family farms that have been running sustainably, have responsible land managers who consider their environmental impact. Good farmers and conservationists are on the same side here.

If this is something that you’ve found across Queensland, how likely is it to be happening in other parts of the country?

It is particularly prevalent in Queensland. But I am hearing anecdotally that it's increasing in the Northern Territory and in some of the tropical savanna woodland across Australia. And we do know that there is a land clearing problem in NSW too.

What needs to change to make sure due process is being followed?

From publicly available information we can say that instances of land clearing are just not being investigated, or even if they are, enforcement actions are not being taken. And that's just not good enough. If the issue is resourcing, let's fund the regulator. If it's political interference, let's make it independent. We know there are lots of problems.

An independent Environmental Protection Authority was recommended from the Samuels review of the EPBC Act back in 2020. This is just a perfect case study of just how badly it's needed.

When the laws regarding this type of land clearing were introduced in the late 90s, not a lot of investment was made in education. Within that group of noncompliant clearers, there would be a handful of them who just didn't know that they were breaking the law. But there's no time like the present to inform them. And it is the regulator's job to investigate breaches, regardless of where they occurred. And a mistake of fact—so being confused about where the law applies—is not a defence for these offences. The regulator is completely empowered to be digging into this. Even if the end result is to tell the pastoral industry that the Act exists, that's better than not looking into it at all.

You’ve got a range of recommendations in the report, what are the main points we should takeaway?

Firstly, an independent EPA is critical, and it must be well-funded. There's just a handful of people looking into all the breaches in the whole country. If you think about this report, we've got one year, where we've shown thousands of prima facie breaches. You need a big enough workforce to look into all of those.

We think that the work that we've done in analysing publicly available data is something that is also available to the regulator. They could use this information to undertake risk-based compliance work. If what's emerging from the data is that pastoralists are not aware of the Act, or blatantly ignoring the Act, then that's important information for the regulator that they can use to target the appropriate group of farmers with education or penalties. That could cast a message across the whole community and potentially prevent hundreds of thousands of hectares of clearing in the next year. The national environmental laws need a complete overhaul.

They're very old, very clunky, and they've got more holes than Swiss cheese. We have a review in hand that says it's time to change and the government should be willing to do it.

Lastly, we have all this destroyed habitat, it would be great if the government would invest in restoring some of these ecosystems in response. Because it's not going to be enough to protect what we already have. We know that thousands of different species in Australia are in decline. We need to both protect what we have left and reverse the decline we are in with nature restoration if we want to solve the nature crisis.

Photo credit: Dr Martin Taylor / University of Queensland

Australian Conservation Foundation