More than 700,000 hectares cleared over two years, 40% of it in reef catchment, before stricter laws were passed
— More than 700,000 hectares of forest and bushland were destroyed in Queensland in the past two years and 40% of it occurred in Great Barrier Reef catchments.
Environment groups have described the level of deforestation as an “environmental disaster” and called for federal intervention to end land-clearing in reef catchments and other nationally significant areas.
The Queensland government has published its statewide landcover and trees study (Slats) data for 2016-17 and 2017-18, which monitors vegetation clearing across Queensland.
The report, released on Thursday, shows 356,000 hectares of forest and bushland were cleared in 2016-17 and 392,000 in 2017-18.
In the two years, 314,000 hectares were bulldozed within Great Barrier Reef catchments.
The data covers a period up to 1 August this year, which means most of the deforestation occurred before the Queensland government’s introduction of new laws in May aimed at curbing the state’s rate of land-clearing.
Jess Panegyres, the national nature campaigner at the Wilderness Society, said the figures were catastrophic.
“It’s an environmental disaster and it shows why laws to end deforestation are desperately needed,” she said.
“Queensland introduced stronger controls this year, we now think the federal government needs to act.”
She said there were land-clearing referrals from Queensland currently sitting with the federal government for assessment.
On Thursday, the federal environment department said it would rely on preliminary documentation to assess an application for more than 2,000 hectares of proposed clearing at Kingvale station in the Great Barrier Reef catchment.
This is a level of assessment that does not require a full environmental impact statement. Environment groups had been calling for a more rigorous environmental assessment.
Last month, draft approvals for the clearing were tossed out by the federal court, which ruled the federal government acted unlawfully by applying only minimal scrutiny.
Martin Taylor, a conservation scientist with WWF Australia, said the new Queensland data showed “the ultimate outcome of the former Newman government taking the axe to laws in 2012-13”.
“We’re keeping a watch on this because Labor has brought in reforms this year, but how long will it be before we know what the impact of those changes has been?” he said.
“In the meantime, we really need new federal environment laws.”
The state’s deputy premier and treasurer, Jackie Trad, said on Thursday the figures “paint the picture of the devastation caused by uncontrolled land-clearing of Queensland’s landscape.”
“The data shows that in 2016-17 and 2017-18, before our laws came into effect, tree-clearing was still continuing at a rate more than 1,000 football fields every day,” she said.
The Queensland environment minister, Leeanne Enoch, said reducing clearing was a commitment in the 2050 reef sustainability plan and 405,000 hectares of vegetation in reef catchments were now protected under the new laws.
The Queensland opposition criticised the government, saying it had failed to release the entire Slats reports for 2016-17 and 2017-18.
“Labor promised to release the Slats report within 30 days of receiving it from the Queensland Herbarium,” the Liberal National party’s natural resources spokesman, Dale Last, said. “Instead of the 100-plus pages of analysis we were expecting, we have a four-page summary that doesn’t even mention the word drought.
“The selective summary fails to mention that during the time of reporting, Queensland was more than 80% drought declared.”
Last added that the report “doesn’t mention regrowth and vegetation rejuvenation that would provide important context”.
Comment was sought from the federal environment minister, Melissa Price.