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Bluegum growers in rights plea

BLUEGUM forest managers have raised concerns about the rights of agricultural users in an attempt to bolster support from other rural groups after the State Government’s threat to ban aerial spraying of WA’s vast plantations.

The private plantation managers, most of whom have emerged from obscurity in the past decade to become major corporations, claim to have been singled out by the Government action against chemical use which they say has ramifications for all rural groups.

But their efforts to find a common chord with other rural groups has failed to win the support of either of the key farm lobby groups. Even one of the most vocal proponents of so-called right to farm legislation, the WA Wine Industry Association, has dismissed the foresters efforts to connect their plight with the issue.

Last month, Primary Industries Minister Monty House told bluegum industry association, Commercial Plantations WA, that he would impose a ban on aerial spraying unless he is satisfied that the industry had addressed concerns about the impact of pesticide use on the beef, wine and aquaculture industries as well as on drinking water quality.

But industry members say he is acting on the concerns of a vocal minority, including hobby farmers in his own electorate, and without regard to the facts.

They claim activists are using the bluegum industry in a bid to restrict farm practices statewide.

“This is the thin edge of the wedge,” Great Southern Plantations executive director Helen Sewell said.

“Monty is listening to a few of his constituents because he is after green preferences.”

“The ramifications of this are huge for the entire State.”

“Farmers don’t have a right to farm.”

Even ITC, a forest manager which claims to use signifcantly less chemicals than its competitors, thinks the WA Government has overstepped the mark.

“For the timber industry to be singled out separately from other agriculture users is not correct,” said ITC managing director Tony Jack.

“His (Monty House’s) attitude appears to be firmly politically driven.”

Moreover, the industry thinks the State Government’s attack is ill-conceived, claiming they are using the same chemicals as everyone else, that aerial spraying is the best way to reduce impact on neighbouring properties and that last year’s spraying was unusually high due to the amount of recent plantings.

Mr House told Business News that he acted after public meetings raised concerns about the impact of pesticide on beef, wine and aquacultural production as well as drinking water. He said those concerns spread well outside his State electorate of Stirling.

“All these were genuinely raised on the basis of ‘could you please give us an answer’,” he said.

“We need to sit down with all the players and work through these issues. There are a few people who are opposed to the timber industry but I think most people have accepted we all have to live together.”

Mr House said he was surprised by the reaction of the industry in claiming it was being victimised.

Some industry members said complaints were coming from hobby farmers whose visions of an idyllic lifestyle were being disturbed by typical agricultural practices which were undertaken under the terms of a code of practice.

WIA spokesman on the issue, Voyager Estate’s owner Michael Wright, said the right to farm is needed to protect farmers from the encroachment of rival uses not to allow one type of farmer to ride roughshod over the commercial interests of another type of farmer.

“In the context of right to farm, it is not the same thing as one farmer upsetting another,” Mr Wright said.

There is little sympathy from farmers in regions like the Great Southern where the bluegum industry has become a major player and earned a reputation for ignoring the concerns of neighbours.

Plantation managers have recognised this problem, which they regard as a perception rather than fact, but they have yet to alleviate concerns among remaining farmers regarding depopulation, fence maintenance, vermin control, fire risk and chemical spraying.

Pastoralists and Graziers Association natural resource management committee chair Sue Walker is one Great Southern farmer who has no time for the bluegum growers concerns.

“They are not good neighbours,” said Ms Walker whose farm is adjacent a plantation, where big 10m wide fire breaks maintained by spraying create erosion on her property .

She said all agricultural land users had to be considerate of others needs, just as traditional farmers had their spraying activities curbed when tomatoes and grapes appeared in the area.

“They (bluegums) are not being singled out, there have been problems going on for a long time,” she said

WA Farmers Federation meat section president Barry Bell said he doesn’t disagree with bluegum plantations having the right to farm, but not if it impacts on other farmers.

“They have the right to farm and plant bluegums but they don’t have the right to let sprays from there own operation affect other peoples’ operations,” Mr Bell said.

He said he had no trouble from the managers of a plantation neighbouring his property but would not stand for anything which put the clean/green reputation of WA beef at risk.

They also say the spraying adheres to a code of practice implemented by the WA Government in September.

In addition, they pointed to the Government’s massive aerial spraying operation this year when it acted to contain the threat of locusts in WA’s wheatbelt.

Bluegum plantation managers may also appear a soft target because of community discontent in southern regions over the vast tracts of arable and grazing land being converted to forestry.

Foresty is perceived to depopulate regions and to be a fire risk.

But managers claim that bigger numbers of people will be needed by the industry as the wave of plantings during the 1990s are harvested in 10-year cycles.

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