NSW Native Vegetation Act repeal: Primary Industries, Lands and Water Minister Niall Blair responds

Photo: Gareth Gardner

Photo: Gareth Gardner

With the upcoming changes to the Native Vegetation Act set to impact farmers and landholders across the state, The Leader sat down with Primary Industries, Land and Water Minister Niall Blair to get the facts.

NSW Lands Minister Niall Blair.  Photo: Gareth Gardner

NSW Lands Minister Niall Blair. Photo: Gareth Gardner

What is the Native Vegetation Act? 

The Native Vegetation Act 2003 is a NSW law that controls the clearing of native vegetation on rural properties.

It allows some clearing of native vegetation for simple routine agricultural management activities, such as to build a fence. All other clearing must pass the “improve or maintain” environmental outcomes test, which is very difficult to do at the site level.

What is wrong with the Native Vegetation Act? 

It puts too many restrictions on what a farmer can do with the native vegetation on their land, and requires them come to the government to get an approval for all but the most basic clearing. 

Farmers need to demonstrate clearing “improved or maintained” the environmental value on their land. This is very difficult to do at the site level.

There is no consideration of the social or economic benefits, as occurs for development under the planning framework.  This means that farmers need to follow much stricter rules than those who apply to clear native vegetation as part of a planning application.

Despite these strict rules, there hasn’t been any broader environmental benefit.  In fact, the decline in the State’s biodiversity has continued.

How would I explain that to my child? 

Imagine you have a vegetable garden in your back yard that is next to fifteen trees. You want to remove three trees so that you can grow more food to sell at the local market. You ask your parents for permission to remove the trees and they say you can only remove one, but you need to fence off and not touch the remaining fourteen.

Now compare that to the new system. You have the same vegetable garden and you want to remove three trees. You ask your parents for permission to remove the trees. They think about what impact it will have on the remaining trees in your backyard and on the neighbours. And they consider the extra money you’ll get from selling more vegetables. Your parents decide that the loss of the trees is balanced by the additional money gained and say that you can remove the trees. To address the environmental impact of removing the trees, you must either pay your parents some money to look after trees on someone else’s property. Or you can promise to look after 6 of the other trees in your own backyard forever.  Your parents will check on the trees to make sure you keep your promise.

What is the government planning to do/already doing?

The government has taken the first step in changing the current system, which will allow it to switch on the new system next year.

Photo: Gareth Gardner

Photo: Gareth Gardner

On 17 November, the NSW Parliament passed the Biodiversity Conservation Bill 2016 and Local Land Services Amendment Bill 2016. Together these Bills set up the new framework, and repeal the Native Vegetation Act 2003, Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995, Nature Conservation Trust Act 2001 and parts of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.

The Bills will be supported by regulations and other detailed products, such as the Land Management Codes. The government will continue to engage with stakeholders and the community as these are prepared over the coming months.

How will the new legislation help farmers?

The land management framework provides landholders across NSW with a broad range of regulatory tools and pathways, which will enable them to improve the efficiency of their existing agricultural activities and modestly expand those activities.

These tools and pathways will benefit all landholders – big and small; developed and underdeveloped; cropping and grazing; in the west, in the central and tablelands zones and on the coast.

For day-to-day activities, like removing a couple of trees to put in a new fence or vehicle track, a landholder can just go ahead and get on with the job.

For activities like removing invasive native species, thinning, removing some paddock trees or more moderate clearing, depending on how much native vegetation is removed, a landholder must notify the Local Land Service or ask them to certify that the clearing meets the rules in the new Land Management Codes.

For larger scale vegetation removal, a landholder can make an application to a new Native Vegetation Panel who will consider the social, economic and environmental impact of the proposed activity – similar to any other development proposal. These applications will need to do a standardised environmental assessment, the Biodiversity Assessment Method, and offset those impacts, similar to a development application in the planning framework.

How does this compare to other states?

Each state and territory has different approaches to the regulation of native vegetation to take account of regional differences.

However, I believe that this new system in NSW is ground-breaking and really stands apart from anything else in Australia.

The approach is nothing like the framework in Queensland, which has been criticised for broad scale clearing on a large scale. That is not going to happen in NSW because the new system is designed to produce a balanced outcome.

There are a number of safeguards built in to the system, including a requirement that in most cases, for every hectare cleared under the Land Management Codes, farmers need to set aside approximately 2-4 hectares of land and manage it for biodiversity outcomes in perpetuity.

Why has this been controversial issue? 

The controversy has its roots in a misunderstanding of the reforms as a whole package.

Yes, we expect there to be some more clearing. But the requirement to actively manage set aside areas and areas under private land conservation agreements will see the biodiversity gains exceed the biodiversity lost through any clearing.

Some people are quite attached to the “lock-it and leave-it” approach of the current legislation. But the assumption that just putting a fence around some native vegetation will improve its condition is wrong. Since the introduction of the Native Vegetation Act, around 100 species have been added to our list of threatened species.

There are also many environmental safeguards in the package which people might not be aware of.  For example, there are a number of categories of land where clearing under the new Land Management Codes will be prohibited or very restricted, such as koala habitat and vulnerable land.

How long will it take for the new rules to come in? 

It is intended that the new scheme will commence from mid-2017, after consultation occurs on the regulations and other products. 

What some of the key differences with the new rules?

A key objective of the land management and biodiversity conservation reforms is to create a simpler and more streamlined legislative framework which reduces regulatory burden and cuts red tape. The reforms are about more than just the regulation of native vegetation.

The reforms have four main components:  wildlife interaction, the biodiversity offsets scheme, private land conservation and the land management framework.

Land Management Framework

·        For the first time, landholders will have access to a map which will clearly show the land on their property where the clearing of native vegetation is unregulated under the new framework, and the land where a regulatory pathway is necessary.

·        Allowable activities have been simplified and streamlined.

·        The Land Management Codes will provide a straightforward pathway for landholders to manage and improve the productivity of their land, as well as leading to better biodiversity outcomes.

·        Finally, Local Land Services will work closely with landholders in their service delivery and extension role. This will enable landholders to use the new framework to their best advantage.

Private land conservation

·        The reforms establish a new framework for private land conservation that rationalises the existing seven different types of conservation arrangements into voluntary private land conservation agreements and creates a dedicated organisation to support landholders, the Biodiversity Conservation Trust. 

·        This private land conservation framework will be backed an unprecedented investment by Government - $240 million over five years and $70 million each year in ongoing funding, plus $100 million over five years for the Saving our Species program.

Biodiversity Offsets Scheme

·        The new biodiversity offsets scheme introduces a single method for biodiversity assessment that replaces a number of other approaches.

Wildlife interactions

·        The new legislation will reduce regulatory burden for landholders and adopt a risk-based approach to licensing wildlife interactions.