Farmers feel environment threat closing in on them

THE WA Government is facing a multi-million dollar compensation bill if it goes ahead with plans to prevent farmers clearing bush land they own, according to the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA.

PGA communications director Geoff Gare said the Government’s plan to appoint the Department of Environmental Protection as the arbiter of land clearing applications would quarantine massive areas of potentially productive agricultural land.

“The Government is making light of the fact that there’s un-cleared land in private hands,” he said.

“We are currently in the process of compiling a register of just how many people are involved. In Queensland compensation for land owners has amounted to around $200 million.

“We argue that this is a public cost and that individual land owners should not be made to bear it.”

It is not just the Environmental Protection Amendments Bill that is causing problems.

Mr Gare claimed that the Department of Planning and Infrastructure had played a significant role in regional areas.

“Under the auspices of planning the Department of Planning and Infrastructure has engineered the involvement of the Department of Agriculture and it is planning a new charter to identify which farms should be subdivided and which farms should be kept,” he said.

“The land owners are the last people to be consulted.

“I don’t think the Government or the public understands the extent of the problem.”

Member for the South West Region Barry House is the chairman of a standing committee on Public Administration and Finance, which is conducting an inquiry into the Impact of State Government Actions and Processes on the Use and Enjoyment of Freehold and Leasehold Land in Western Australia. It is expected to report to WA Parliament in the middle of next year.

Mr House said there was a growing distrust and disillusionment with elements of the Government bureaucracy.

“It’s mostly in relation to the land clearing process and the planning process,” he said.

“The impact is unfair in many cases.”

Until now the process of land clearing has involved an application sent to Soil and Land Con-servation through the Department of Agriculture.

Amendments to the Environmental Protection Act will transfer this role to the Department of Environmental Protection.

Mr House said this meant all applications would become environmental assessments.

“They [the farmers] bought the property as productive units and [parts of it are] now viewed as bushland that should be conserved and enhanced,” he said.

Mr House said there was some low level of compensation around the edges of the issue however it was not the Government’s policy.

“The burden falls back to the private land owner. They are not only deprived of that land they also have to fence it and keep it free of pests,” he said.

“Government agencies that are custodians of land are in many cases the worst land owners of all… that’s why there’s growing animosity.”

Environment Minister Judy Edwards said the new land clearing application procedure would simplify the whole process.

“All applications will be submitted to the DEP, with assessment taking into consideration the comments provided by other agencies and interested parties,” she said.

“This process means that the time taken to assess most proposals should be back from, in some cases years, to a matter of months.

“The new system will be fairer with urban and rural areas assessed on the same basis as Government and subject to the same controls as private land owners.”

Dr Edwards said key environ-mental issues, such as biodiversity, soil erosion and water tables, would be considered up front and that meant fewer proposals will need to be referred to the EPA.

“Clearing in accordance with a permit will protect the land owners from prosecution under the pro-posed environmental harm pro-vision,” she said.

Dr Edwards said she was firmly opposed to any compensation for farmers who failed to successfully apply for a land clearing.

She also said unauthorised clearing would attract tougher fines up to $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for corporations.

A spokesman for the DEP said the proposed amendments to the Environmental Protection Act placed the environment on centre stage.

“The Government policy is aimed at sustainable development and to promote more sustainable agricultural practices,” he said.

“The State does face a critical situation with salinity and loss of biodiversity and it is concerned with mutual responsibility.

“But the aim is not to put people out of business and the Government intends to help people move forward.”

The Liberal Party has added its voice to the debate with a position statement titled Agricultural Land – Property Rights defining the difference.

The Liberal Party defines property rights as one of the most basic and important aspects of modern democracies.

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