A CASE involving a Eidsvold landholder charged with breaches of both the Forestry Act and the Vegetation Management Act is now likely to go into a fourth week.
Mike Baker, who owns the 9000-hectare property Chess Park, constructed a 100km series of firebreaks across the property with the aim of preventing the spread of future bush fires. As reported by Queensland Country Life last week, the firebreaks were constructed in response to three devastating bush fires in 2011 and a fourth fire in 2012.
The case currently before the Magistrates Court in Brisbane largely focuses on the width of the firebreaks Mr Baker constructed. The prosecution of the case is expected to cost the Queensland Government more than $1 million.
Mr Baker’s lawyer Tom Marland from Marland Law said although the prosecution’s case was still to be made out, it appeared the government’s position was that all clearing within areas mapped as remnant vegetation must not exceed 10 metres for firebreaks and 5m either side of a fence line regardless of the height of the adjacent vegetation or its history of fire.
“Despite a notice of forest practice being lodged on the property and clearing being conducted in compliance with the relevant code, no exemption has been applied by the prosecution,” Mr Marland said.
“Effectively, the prosecution is leaving the proof of compliance with the code up to Mr Baker while adducing no evidence to prove he is in breach. It is effectively an attempt to reverse the onus of proof.”
Mr Marland said despite clear evidence of dead and burnt vegetation adjacent to fire lines, water lines, access tracks and fire breaks, no exemption has been applied for the necessary maintenance to remove dead and falling timber.
“A landholder is only able to allow that timber to fall to the ground over a fence, track or firebreak and then clean the mess up – but only if it remains within the 10m exemption. God help them if that timber is on fire,” he said.
“The sleeping giant of available exemptions under the Vegetation Management Act i.e. infrastructure, firebreaks and forest practices has now been awoken and the government is enforcing strict compliance.
“It is not hard to imagine, given the reduction in broad scale clearing, that the relevant government departments are scouring the state looking for similar breaches for firebreaks, fences and forest practices.
“It is also not hard to imagine that they have already found breaches across the state and are awaiting a verdict against Mr Baker to trigger an avalanche of similar prosecutions.”
Mr Marland said every landholder who undertook maintenance of their fence lines, firebreaks or undertake a legal forest practice was now at risk of prosecution.
“After three weeks of trial it is clear: this prosecution has nothing to do with the environment or common sense. It is purely politically motivated,” Mr Marland said.
“Every rural landholder should be concerned and every taxpayer appalled at this blatant abuse of process for political gain.”
Mr Marland said the prosecution’s case had descended to farce.
“They have mapped and assessed areas as small as 0.01 of a hectare,” Mr Marland said.
“In an analogy of a child stealing a box of matches, the prosecution have felt it necessary to not only count every match, but measure and weigh them.”