The New South Wales government will allow rural landholders to clear up to 25m of land from their property’s fence line without an environmental approval, a move it says will “empower” property owners to reduce bushfire risk.
But the proposal, which was not one of the 76 recommendations from the NSW bushfire inquiry, has been labelled “anti-science” and prompted alarm it will lead to broad-scale clearing of endangered forest and habitat for grazing and other purposes unrelated to hazard reduction.
The NSW cabinet agreed on Tuesday to amend the state’s Rural Fires Act to allow the clearing “without onerous approvals”.
The state government already allows property owners to clear trees within 10m of a house or other building and shrubs within 50m, to mitigate bushfire risk. The proposed new rules would allow additional clearing at the boundary on top of that.
The government will need to put legislation to the parliament and says it is developing a code to take account of endangered species and habitats, and clearing unrelated to reducing bushfire risk.
The state’s emergency services minister, David Elliott, said the new laws were based on “the expert operational advice” of the NSW Rural Fire Service.
But there are concerns the plan could allow for unregulated clearing of vulnerable ecosystems including rainforest, koala habitat, old-growth trees and critically endangered ecological communities. NSW has already recorded huge increases in land-clearing rates as a result of changes to native vegetation laws in 2017.
The NSW independent MLC Justin Field accused the National party and some members of the Liberal party of using the bushfire crisis to push an “ideological” agenda to clear more land.
“Premier [Gladys] Berejiklian must make clear what protections will be in place for koala habitat, rainforest and old-growth forest on private land – right now it looks like it is a free-for-all for property developers and landholders to clear their land,” he said.
The recent report handed down by the NSW bushfire inquiry made no recommendation for expanded clearing on private property.
It recommended the government do further research on a range of hazard reduction techniques, including grazing, to analyse their costs and benefits, and that it support councils and agencies to do more comprehensive hazard reduction around towns, cities and infrastructure.
“It sounds like the cabinet has decided it knows better than the experts, the experts being the entire commission of inquiry,” said Chris Gambian, the chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW.
“If this had anything to do with bushfire risk it would have been in the report.”
Gambian said clearing of 25m on a single property could quickly add up to hundreds or thousands of hectares of cleared bushland.
“It’s a sop to people who want to be able to build houses and graze cattle on what is otherwise some of our dwindling forests,” he said.
Field said the proposal would ultimately result in more deforestation and was “a hundred times worse” than negotiations over the koala state environmental planning policy (Sepp) that nearly split the Coalition.
“Any protection in the now weakened koala Sepp will now potentially be undermined by the ability of private landholders to clear koala habitat under the guise of bushfire protection,” Field said.
The Coalition also reached agreement on the koala plan at Tuesday night’s meeting.
The agreement retains most of the existing policy, including the 123 tree species considered core koala habitat, and clarifies the definition of core koala habitat.
The main change is the removal of the pink map of koala habitat around the state, which had caused concern among farmers. Instead, a requirement for on-ground surveys for koalas will be reinstated.
The planning minister, Rob Stokes, said the revised plan “hit the mark” in terms of striking a balance between koala protection and the rights of farmers.
Other measures agreed to at the cabinet meeting include a new requirement that complaints to agencies, such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service, about hazard reduction be passed on to the NSW RFS commissioner. This was one of the recommendations of the bushfire inquiry.