Phil Dickie's Stories

Bush whackers

As tree clearing rates in Queensland steadily rise it is salutary to recall that the first warnings of dire environmental consequences go back nearly 120 years. Phil Dickie reports.

When the issue of clearing the brigalow belt first hit the Queensland parliament 116 years ago it was a notable victory for the cause of conservation.

Former explorer and surveyor-general A.C. Gregory had something of a monopoly on scientific knowledge in the legislative council and his opinion that "It was really very doubtful whether the extensive destruction of those scrubs would conduce to the benefit of the colony" carried the day

The legislative council went further, rejecting settlement on the basis that "extensive destruction of the Acacia forests . . . will certainly decrease the grazing capabilities of the country in seasons of drought".

Parliament discarded its premonitions fifteen years later but brigalow scrub proved fairly resistant to wholesale clearing using the technology of axe and oxen. And what was cleared rapidly became unusable due to prickly pear infestation.

Government determination to settle the brigalow belt in the face of all adversity suffered by the settlers often returned servicemen from the killing fields of France was soon attracting its critics.

The most influential, who managed to attack the land allocation and clearing policies of a succession of governments for more than a decade, was the State’s own Conservator of Forests Edward Swain.

The Land Administration Board, according to Swain in 1924, had "no perception of the developmental importance of natural resources, no appreciation of conservation principles, no idea of land economics or of land utilisation, no policy at all except to parcel out the country into individual blocks regardless of consequences or of topography".

Opposition to wholesale tree clearing around the State became known as "Swainism" and the shortlived Moore government went so far as to establish a royal commission to nobble its perpetrator. The Royal Commission found that "Queensland needs no forestry science for present requirements" and Swain himself was finally induced by way of dismissal - to continue his distinguished career elsewhere in Australia and overseas.

Even when the cactoblastis moth was finally procured to take care of the prickly pear, development of the brigalow belt continued to be described as "a war of attrition" against regrowth in departmental publications.

When clearing accelerated after the Second World War, much of the credit was due to an inventive farmer and peanut processor Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who started with the notion that surplus army tanks towing steel cable between them would be able to knock the bush flat.

They couldn’t, and proved prohibitively expensive to run. But bringing the largest available bulldozers into the South Burnett and rigging shipping anchor chain in place of cable gave the firm of Joh and sister Agneta a march on all their competitors.

Joh later noted to biographer Hugh Lunn that "there are vast plains stretching into the distance west of Rockhampton that was standing scrub when we came here. Others followed and you can go right up to Blackall today, hundreds and hundreds of miles, its all development, all opened up."

The only lip service paid to any conservation values then was in miniscule National Parks, which had since the 1930s been able to be declared for conservation purposes as well as scenic or recreational values. In 1962, the State introduced a requirement for a permit to clear leasehold land with permission never, if ever, denied.

In any case, leases usually were issued subject to clearing requirements and large amounts of public money were pumped into clearing like a $22 million program announced by the Commonwealth for brigalow clearing in 1962.

.In the mid 1970s, the Martel family of the Willandspey property near Clermont were faced with the requirement to clear 5000 hectares of the last remaining pristine gidgee forest in their area. They took the then radical step of agitating for the forest to be excised from their lease as a conservation reserve. The Willandspey Conservation Park is thus something of a landmark the first feeble stirrings of a conservation ethos among Queensland graziers and land administrators.

In other States, the consequences of past tree clearing activities started to hit home in the 1980s. South Australia tried to get farmers to enter voluntary conservation agreements in 1980. Farmers continued bulldozing.

A ban on clearing was introduced without warning in 1983 and legislation providing for payments to be made to eligible farmers entering into the "voluntary" Heritage agreements followed in 1985. Broadscale clearing has effectively ceased in South Australia and permits for minor clearing are tied to replanting proposals elsewhere on properties.

In Victoria, clearing dropped by two thirds after the overnight 1989 introduction of permit requirements on blocks over 0.4 hectares. There was no provision for compensation or other payments to landholders.

In Western Australia, where nearly 3 million hectares of valuable wheat belt has been damaged or lost to salination, a lax permit system with an 80 percent approval rate for clearing was replaced in 1995 with controls trying to hold vegetation cover at 20 percent of properties and shires.

Controversial interim clearing controls were introduced in New South Wales in 1995 by way of a planning policy followed up by legislation in 1998. Observers agree that the NSW situation is messy, with management plans still being prepared and illegal clearing continuing in the absence of significant enforcement activity.

Queensland also moved in 1995 to strengthen a lax permit system for clearing leasehold land although the legislation was not proclaimed until 1997. The legislation has so far had only a muted impact, as permits are valid for five years and the Queensland way is apparently to give plenty of warning for panic clearing.

Australian environment ministers were told last August that Queensland has 32 percent of Australia’s native forest and accounted for 80 percent of national tree clearing activity in the period 1990-95. More recently the satellite eye in the sky and the State Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) that analyses the pictures have produced an estimate that clearing has accelerated from 289,000 hectares annually in 1991-95 to 340,000 hectares in 1995-7.

The SLATS team has been beavering away on its estimates for 1997-99 and recently provided them to the government which decided to try and sit on them as long as possible and preferably until some time in September.. The estimate, of a new clearing rate of 400,000 hectares a year, was instead released yesterday in The Courier-Mail.

In the absence of any better explanation, it seems a reasonable bet that the State was not keen for the figures to become available to the Federal and other State governments in time for the Murray Darling Basin commission meeting in late August.

Queensland’s Natural Resources Minister Rod Welford is expected to be given a very hard time at this meeting over water and land management issues.

Mr Welford does, however, have a line of defence available to him. The finger is currently being pointed at Queensland because of the destruction now going on.

But most of the bills now being delivered up to Australian taxpayers for environmental restoration are to recover landscapes and catchments destroyed in southern States decades ago..

In Queensland, we still have time to avoid at least some of the mistakes of the past.


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