Responsible environmental stewardship was the strong message pushed when the State Development, Natural Resources and Agriculture Infrastructure Development committee sat down to hear what western Queenslanders had to say at the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame at Longreach last Thursday morning.
In a factual, non-emotional presentation, Dominic Burden, chairman of natural resource management group Desert Channels Queensland, told the hearing that if the government wanted to see vegetation managed well, it needed an outcomes-based approach rather than a prescriptive one.
“By describing only the rules, without identifying the grazing and ecological outcomes sought, broad support for outcomes cannot be achieved,” he said. “An outcomes-based approach allows for some flexibility in achieving that goal, and can produce innovative methods of managing vegetation that cannot be achieved through prescriptive systems.”
DCQ developed Area Management Plans in 2012, prior to government codes, one for thinning and encroachment on Mitchell Grass plains and the other for Weeds of National Significance, particularly Prickly Acacia, to guide landholders undertaking vegetation management in its region, and they were put forward as a better solution on a geographic basis than codes.
“The point is, allowing DCQ to manage notifications means there would be no gap and it would take a lot of tension out of the process,” Dominic said.
“Not all notifications go in as they should – not everyone is equipped to understand.”
Supporting that was Longreach landholder, Mac McClymont, who told the hearing that prior to AMPs and self assessable codes, “everything took a mountain of paperwork, from us and DNR”.
He said an understaffed department couldn’t cope and took months to process applications, by which time circumstances had often changed and the ability to undertake the work had passed.
The comments prompted Traeger MP, Rob Katter, who was sitting in on the hearing, to say that AMPs sounded like a good way forward, but there was no response to his query about whether they should be enshrined in legislation or just made best practice.
Barcoo shire deputy mayor, Mike Pratt described AMPs as a “magnificent step forward”, saying they took away the bureaucracy and paperwork.
Dominic went on to say that, based on DCQ’s experience, appropriate extension materials and support were needed to support codes and AMPs.
Agribusiness specialist, Peter Whip, said it had been critical in the DCQ scenario, in which the group had put on a series of workshops that included a contractor with a dozer demonstrating what could and couldn’t be done.
“People can do their work without the fear of penalties breathing down their necks,” he said.
Dominic continued the carrot versus stick theme when he spoke about ground-truthing PMAVs, saying while it was hard to do accurately and fairly on a large scale, high resolution aerial platforms could offer a solution.
“Do it from a positive point of view rather than a regulatory one,” he said. “You’d be able to see how groundcover was responding and would establish facts as well.”
He called for a depoliticisation of the issue, which he said got “kicked around the field” like so many agricultural issues.
“Regulating is cheap and nasty government. It destroys relationships rather than builds them.
“Get a bit of political bravery happening and say, we trust these people, with good guidelines in place and extra monitoring. That’s the space you need to be in.”
Local government had a strong presence at Longreach, where Barcoo shire’s deputy mayor, Mike Pratt, said his shire, of which 40 per cent fell within the gidyea and mulga bioregion of Queensland, consisted mostly of large holdings faced with extensive development costs.
“New regulations which are clearly not ‘fit for purpose’ across Queensland let alone a remote region, impose an unfair, unaffordable, unnecessary and emotional burden on landholders,” he said.
The shire’s response to the proposed legislation was to point out flaws in the regulations, which it said were not based on scientific evidence.
One of these was the suggestion that gidyea stem densities greater than 1250 stems per hectare don’t exist in the Mitchell Grass downs bioregion, but Cr Pratt put forward photographs of land that he said dispelled that, showing 4800 stems/ha, measured with 100m x 4m transects.
He and other presenters, including Isisford grazier David Morton, described the resulting land as a monoculture that resulted in an ecological “wasteland.”
Cr Pratt was scathing also of the plan to reduce the maximum thickened area to 400ha/lot, saying that given the safe carrying capacity of the shire’s gidyea and mulga bioregions was1 DSE:5 ha, the area required to sustain a viable livestock business is around 50,000 ha.
“The maximum of 400 ha/lot of thickened vegetation to be managed is unacceptable within this low rainfall belt and only equates to the size of an average horse paddock. The cost per ha, of relocating machinery to only thin 400 ha is too expensive.”
He believed the area of thickened country allowed to be managed must relate to the average size of a viable, living area within each bioregion, and said lodging a development application to increase that could take up to two years, when seasonal conditions and finances may not suit.
“We all want good biodiversity outcomes and we want a sustainable agricultural production system – these do not need to be mutually exclusive,” he said.
“If a well thought out collaborative approach, involving education and extension/awareness, was implemented for vegetation management, the issues of concern to both sides of this debate could be addressed in a pragmatic and well-reasoned approach, based on science and on ground application, relevant to the various regions.”
Appearing for the Barcaldine Regional Council and Remote Area Planning and Development Board was mayor Rob Chandler, while Crs Trevor Smith and Leonie Nunn represented the Longreach Regional Council, along with deputy CEO Paul Hockings.
Emphasising the day’s theme of cooperation not control, Cr Chandler recalled the days of Wild Rivers legislation under then-Premier, Anna Bligh.
“RAPAD and the environment groups came together and worked out a sensible plan, and that’s what we should be doing now,” he said.
Outcomes that would be the opposite of what the government was trying to achieve were highlighted by Clermont grazier, Robyn Simmons, who made a 10 hour return trip to state her case.
She told the hearing that category R regulations, which controlled clearing of native woody vegetation within 50 metres of a watercourse in the Burdekin, Mackay, Whitsunday and Wet Tropics Great Barrier Reef catchments, had a detrimental effect on erosion rather than preventing it.
She said this was because animals sought shade and so there was a higher concentration of them along shaded creeks and gullies, removing all the ground cover.
“We actually chose to leave more trees in our category X country because it was better for the environment,” she said.
Robyn’s testimony covered what she saw as the counter-productivity of limiting the development of high value agriculture, drawing on her experience of growing 2023ha of forage sorghum a year to drought-proof their 200,000ha aggregation.
“Without it, we’d be asking the government for a hand-out in a drought,” she said.
“That’s exactly what we’re trying not to do.
“There are limited areas that are suitable – we need to be able to develop them when we can.”
Other landholders making points at the hearing were Mac and Paul McClymont, Dalkeith, Longreach, David Morton, Nelah Downs, Isisford, John Chandler, Kyneton, Clover Hills and Gregory Park, Barcaldine, Bruce Currie, Speculation, Jericho, and Elisha Parker, Eastmere, Aramac, in an encore after speaking also at the Rockhampton hearing.
Mr Currie, whose property is within the Desert Uplands bioregion, commented that landholders in his area were accused of causing run-off to the Great Barrier Reef and so they needed to manage thickening that prevented daylight from reaching groundcover, which consequently died.
“We need to reinstate our groundcover,” he said. “You tell us to stop erosion, well, you give us the means to control our trees.”
Barcaldine-based John Chandler urged the ALP politicians in the room not to vote on party lines.
“If you have any courage, I urge you to cross the floor on this – it means that much to us.”
Also providing expert comment was Peter Whip, PRW Agribusiness, Longreach, who helped devise the Area Management Plans.
As a consequence, he had a lot of practical advice on a number of the proposals, saying the five metre rule for thinning may be applicable for rainforest or similar country but if that amount of young growth was left in alluvial Mitchell Grass country, it would be guaranteed to kill the tree within 10 years.
“It’s counter-intuitive to what you’re trying to achieve,” he said.
He said using a development application process in thinning codes was inappropriate.
“Normally DAs are for when you’re constructing something whereas thinning is maintenance work,” he pointed out.
On the subject of self-assessable codes, Peter said a major regional ecosystem for the area, 4.3.23, wasn’t in thinning or encroachment codes, saying it was a “real gap” in understanding.
He finished by noting that the landscape was always changing, especially after big wet years, leaving the impression that it was impossible to legislate for nature.
SDNRAIDC chairman, Chris Whiting, answered the call for cooperation by saying that was what the hearings in Longreach and five other centres was all about.
“We are listening with the aim of delivering a reasoned and balanced bill,” he said.
On the subject of amendments, he said the process the government was engaged in via the hearings showed it was willing to compromise.
Over 14,000 submissions have been received by the committee.
Mr Whiting said its next step was to meet and discuss recommendations prior to the April 23 deadline.
See who was at the hearing here.