A clear plan? Reversing decline in WA’s native vegetation easier said than done

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A clear plan? Reversing decline in WA’s native vegetation easier said than done

By Peter de Kruijff

More than 10,000 hectares of land was approved for clearing across Western Australia in the 2½ years it took to come up with a policy to try and reverse the continued loss of native vegetation and instead achieve a net gain.

But that’s only as far as easy-to-access public data is concerned on the Department of Water and Environmental regulation’s website.

Activists stop the removal of Salmon Gums near Norseman earlier this year.

Activists stop the removal of Salmon Gums near Norseman earlier this year.Credit:Paddy Cullen

The 10,000 hectare figure is from 2019-20 and comes from the approved permits issued by only two of the 10 state authorities – DWER and the mines department – that are involved with vegetation clearing.

The real figure is hard to discern given it does not take into account the clearing approved through other avenues like the WA Environmental Protection Authority and by the federal government.

Over the past 10 years, 66,000 hectares of habitat containing threatened fauna and flora was cleared with federal approvals, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation. How much has actually been offset is also hard to follow.

In the same period a separate 150,000 hectares was approved for clearing across WA by DWER and DMIRS.

And in the highly populated south-west of the state — recognised as the one Australian global biodiversity hotspot out of the planet’s 36, covering a triangle between Jurien Bay, Esperance and Cape Leeuwin — the clearing has remained steady.

This is despite more than 70 per cent of the hotspot being cleared since European settlement with the most habitat destruction coming with the creation of the Wheatbelt and urban sprawl continuing to pressure unique ecosystems around Perth.


Conservation-minded community and activist groups were hopeful the creation of a new vegetation policy under Mark McGowan’s Labor government would see the brakes put on continued clearing.


Last August these groups were concerned when the draft policy was only 28 pages long, with 14 of them containing the actual plan, outlining more of a framework for different departments and stakeholders to come up with future policies rather than short-term targets.

It wasn’t just green groups who were critical of the draft either; there was some confusion among several industries about how it would work, despite their support.

A submission from the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage also said it was unclear how revegetation and a net gain of it would even be achieved.

“The draft policy reads more as a ‘framework’ and the road map is sectioned into four strategies which presents as a list of opportunities for development of a policy,” the submission said.

“There is limited direct application to current decision making and it does not contain a policy position, criteria or measurables which could be directly applied to land use planning decision-making or a land management or tenure action.

“The draft policy supports future, unspecified, reforms to achieve a net gain in native vegetation extent. This aim will require significant revegetation and it is unclear how this will be achieved.”

The Property Council of WA also warned in its submission based on the draft that red tape costs could exceed $80 million without clear governance.

Not having specified targets was intended in the design of the policy, however, and would instead by developed on a region-by-region basis following more research. The EPA backed the decision, as long as a mitigation hierarchy was followed, stating thresholds and targets could further exacerbate the problem for native vegetation.

The finalised vegetation policy released on Thursday is a four-year plan that promises more cohesion across government by further investigating the convoluted web of frameworks between different departments.

It also recognised historical clearing had caused costly problems like salinity, erosion and intensifying urban temperatures, and that if cumulative impacts continued unchecked they would work against WA’s Climate Policy and progress towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Environment Minister Reece Whitby.

Environment Minister Reece Whitby.Credit:Facebook

But Environment Minister Reece Whitby told a budget estimates hearing on Thursday one of the key challenges was figuring out what vegetation was still there.

“In order to know what we’re losing [and] at what rate we need a baseline,” he said.

“So there’s work being undertaken in terms of satellite technology for instance and investment in technology where we can look at the broader landscape and the type of vegetation in each part of WA.”

About $3.3 million has been set aside for the first two years of the plan which will see a new vegetation monitoring system established and break up the delivery of policy by regions, starting with the Wheatbelt.

DWER, which will be the lead agency for the policy, will team up with the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions to map out vegetation in the Wheatbelt by the end of 2023 and come up with a restoration plan with the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development in the same year.

The restoration plan would provide a guide for public and private sector investment into revegetation and conservation in the region.

There is massive interest in carbon sequestration projects in places like the Wheatbelt, with the big emitters in the resources industry looking to offset their operations as the incoming Labor government pushes for a 43 per cent reduction in emissions on 2005 levels by 2030.

Wilderness Society senior campaigner Jenita Enevoldsen welcomed the aim for a net gain but warned an extinction crisis would continue out of sight and out of mind without concrete accountability and transparency of illegal clearing.


“This policy is a bare bones framework, which will do little to expose WA’s extinction crisis and protect critical habitat for threatened species in the short term,” she said.

“One simple fix to this broken system would be a requirement for all clearing exemptions, including those held by Main Roads WA, to publish a ‘notice with intention of clear’. This would provide public transparency for clearing that is currently effectively hidden.”

The Wilderness Society was also critical of the government spending just $3.3 million on the policy while one of its other highly touted environment policies was spending $62 million for renewable energy on tourist hotspot Rottnest Island, off Perth’s coast.

Conservation Council of WA executive director Maggie Wood called the policy a missed opportunity to tackle the growing problems facing WA’s most important natural ecosystems.

“The state government has known for decades that the way we manage native vegetation is woefully inadequate and this policy does not provide any detail around how we are going to deal with this problem,” she said.

“Collectively, environment and conservation groups from across WA have poured hundreds of hours into the development of this policy, through consultation with three consecutive environment ministers and the department.

“What we have ended up with after all this consultation is a policy which is woefully short on detail - particularly around the practical steps to halt clearances of native vegetation – and comes as a massive disappointment.”

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