LAST week, the Australian government promised it would spend more than $500 million to protect our greatest national treasure, the Great Barrier Reef.
But now the government is being urged by environmental groups to put its money where its mouth is and reconsider a proposal to clear 2000 hectares of pristine Queensland forest on Cape York Peninsula.
Federal officials are planning to back the bulldozing of enough forest to fill the CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne three times over.
The clearing will see swathes of eucalypt forest, melaleuca swamplands and the habitats of a number of endangered species completely destroyed.
The draft report from the Department of the Environment and Energy recommends the government give the green light to the Kingvale Station clearing.
If it’s approved by Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg, Australia will not only have lost an area of forest almost six times the size of one of our capitals, but run-off into the Great Barrier Reef is also expected to increase.
The land has a river system that flows directly into Princess Charlotte Bay, a tidal wetland with large seagrass beds — an integral part of the reef.
Australian Conservation Foundation boss Kelly O’Shanassy said Kingsvale Station is located near a section of the Great Barrier Reef that is already “up against it”.
“Any sort of land clearing there could promote algae growth and that makes it very hard for the coral to grow. It’s the same part that’s been devastated by coral bleaching so that area is really up against it in terms of regeneration,” Ms O’Shanassy said.
The Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia’s 12 natural wonders listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and last week’s $500 million promise is supposed to keep it there.
Ms O’Shanassy said approving Kingvale Station wouldn’t be “the smartest thing” for the government to do if it continues preaching about improving water quality.
“To just throw money at the problem while also simultaneously affecting the quality of the reef isn’t going to work,” she said.
“The government has made a commitment to UNESCO to improve the quality of the reef and if it doesn’t, we’ll lose world heritage status.
“The government should know the United Nations won’t base its decision on spin but on the health of the reef.”
Former Agricultural Minister Barnaby Joyce and Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Matt Canavan have publicly voiced their support for the agricultural station in the past.
And in 2016, when Kingvale Station owner Scott Harris was told the permits granted to him by Queensland’s former government had been frozen until they were approved by the federal environment department, the farming giant labelled the temporary freeze “crazy”.
But Mr Harris has just cleared a massive hurdle, after the Department of Environment gave the plan a draft go-ahead.
“We do not have a national, independent environment body and we need one,” Ms O’Shannassy said.
“Our federal Environmental Department is not independent, it can be leant on and that isn’t good,” she added.
The Australian Conservation boss said the fact that our national land clearing laws are “incredibly weak allows the government to do whatever they want”.
Despite the Environment Department giving the minister a draft go-ahead, Ms O’Shannassy said the department’s approval “didn’t mean much”.
“[The department] hasn’t gone out and had a look. They take the information the owners of Kingvale Station give them, they assess it at their desks in Canberra and then make a recommendation. Despite the scientists saying this is very bad, they give approval,” she said.
While Brazil is well-known for being the worst country in the world when it comes to land clearing, Ms O’Shanassy said Queensland has a lot to be ashamed of as well.
“Seventy per cent of the Great Dividing Range is already cleared so we need to protect what’s left. Australia has the highest extinction rate in the world and we’re beginning to really compete with countries like Brazil.
“We are terribly bad, people don’t think we’re that bad but what they don’t realise is that every year since 2013, land the size of the ACT has been cleared,” she said.
Over the next five years, the Federal Government has pledged $535 million to improve the health of the reef.
Through a partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, $443 million of that will be used to “improve water quality, control crown-of-thorns starfish and boost science for reef restoration”.
Australian Conservation Foundation policy analyst James Trezise said “it made no sense” for the Turnbull government to simultaneously approve the Kingvale clearing while pledging millions to help the reef.
Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg has been contacted for comment.
A spokesman for Mr Frydenberg previously told the Sydney Morning Herald the department would “consider all feedback as it finalises its recommendation”.
The spokesman also said the draft report “proposed strict conditions and mitigation measures informed by expert scientific advice”.