A Queensland farmer has been fined and ordered to restore native vegetation he cleared on his property, despite a significant media campaign from the farmer, lobby groups and conservative politicians, all claiming the farmer had done nothing wrong.
In November, the Guardian reported on allegations that the owners of Wombinoo, south-west of Cairns, had illegally cleared 60 hectares of native trees.
Earlier this year, the federal government had taken the highly unusual step of forcing the landholders to gain approval under federal laws for its planned bulldozing of about 3,000 hectares.
A report written for the government found clearing on the land would likely affect koalas and greater gliders.
But despite no indication the government had approved it, the landholder went ahead and cleared the land.
The allegations, also aired on the ABC, caused a furore, with the owners of the property insisting they had gained all relevant approvals under both state and federal law, and said they had begun legal action against the ABC.
Federal Liberal MP Warren Entsch also attacked the ABC journalist who wrote the story, calling him a “serious piece of work,” telling parliament the landholders “were given state and federal government approvals for permits to clear their land”.
The lobby group representing Queensland farmers also came out, attacking the Wilderness Society for promoting the story.
“This case highlights how a farming family acting in accordance with the law can be dragged through the mud just so a grubby green group can score some political points on the eve of an election,” said AgForce chief executive Michael Guerin at the time.
After intervention from Entsch, federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg declared the landholders “are complying with their obligations under federal environmental law and a proposal for future clearing is being assessed by the department”.
When asked how clearing on the land was compliant with federal law, despite not yet being approved, the minister referred the Guardian to his department.
The Department of Environment and Energy told the Guardian: “The department believes that no land-clearing has commenced in relation to EPBC referral 2017/7903 [Wombinoo].”
But publicly available satellite imagery appears to show a long strip 60m wide was cleared right through an area that is subject to that EBPC referral. The department has not responded to questions about how that is consistent with their belief that no clearing related the referral had commenced.
And now the Queensland government has announced it had found the landholders had engaged in the unauthorised clearing of untouched vegetation. It said while the landholder had a clearing permit in place, approximately 132 hectares was cleared outside of the approved area.
It said it had fined the landholders, and ordered that they restore the bulldozed areas. In addition, they had banned clearing over other parts of the property as an offset measure.
“It’s pleasing that the Queensland government has taken action to help protect our forests, our wildlife and the Great Barrier Reef catchments,” said Lyndon Schneiders, national director of the Wilderness Society.
“Deforestation in Australia is spiralling out of control, led by Queensland. Deforestation kills tens of millions of animals a year, muddies the waters of the Great Barrier Reef and releases millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.”
Martin Taylor, conservation science manager at WWF-Australia, said the federal government’s inaction on the clearing “is not doing its job”.
He said the Queensland government’s move was positive. “At least the Queensland government has a system in place for continuously monitoring for any potential compliance issues – seeing whether people have gone over the line. And they call them to task fairly promptly. Compare that to the commonwealth approach – it’s shocking,” Taylor said.