Media Release Fight For Our Reef

New data shows Reef-protecting bushland still being cleared due to legal loophole

December 30, 2021

Alarming new data shows that over 200,000 hectares of forest and bushland were destroyed in the Great Barrier Reef catchment in 2018-19, illustrating that Queensland’s vegetation laws are not working, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) says.

Vegetation is important for filtering chemical-laden run-off from agricultural lands and it stabilises and provides nutrients for the soil. Clearing forests and bushlands leads to massive soil loss and sediment pollution of inshore waters of the Reef, smothering corals and seagrass meadows, home to threatened turtles and dugongs.

AMCS Great Barrier Reef water quality expert Jaimi Webster said the data highlights the urgent need for the Queensland government to strengthen vegetation protection laws to prevent unregulated clearing.

“This law isn’t working for the Reef. Loopholes mean unregulated clearing is happening at a very concerning scale,” said Ms Webster.

“We need the Queensland government to close these gaps and provide landowners with incentives to protect vegetation. There should also be stronger penalties for those who illegally clear.

While the Queensland government did take some steps to strengthen clearing laws within Reef catchments in 2018, these changes did not go far enough, and large areas of forest designated “category x” are still unregulated. Landholders can continue to clear high conservation value vegetation, without approval, based on “category x” land maps that were determined under old legislation. Category x clearing is responsible for 85% (185,243ha) of all clearing within Reef catchments in 2018-19.

“Strengthened vegetation laws to help reduce water pollution to the Reef was a commitment the Australian and Queensland governments made in 2015 to the World Heritage Committee,” added Ms Webster.

“But in the updated Reef 2050 Plan, released last week, there are no new commitments to address this issue. This lack of action risks the World Heritage status of our global icon.”

The Queensland government’s Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (SLATS) indicates clearing has likely increased from previous years. Between 2016 and 2018, 314,000 hectares of forest and bushland were destroyed just in Reef catchments. A hectare is roughly the same size as a rugby union playing field.

Ms Webster said when vegetation is cleared, soils lose nutrients. The carbon that was stored away is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to dangerous global warming – the Reef’s biggest threat.

“Our Reef is fighting for its life and the time for action is now. We must end vegetation clearing in the Reef catchment if we have any chance of improving water quality and keeping carbon stored away,” Ms Webster added.

Notes to editors

Clearing activity in the Great Barrier Reef catchment areas accounted for 32% (217,419ha) of the state’s total clearing in 2018–19. About 85% (185,243ha) of the clearing in reef catchments was in Category X areas and 11% (24,385ha) was in Category B areas, which are defined as areas of undisturbed woody vegetation (remnant). The majority (92%) of the clearing in reef catchments resulted in the full removal of the woody vegetation.

The clearing of land in Queensland is governed by the Vegetation Management Act 1999. The law was strengthened in 2018 with the aim of reducing clearing and protecting areas of remnant vegetation, corridors of plants that grow on the water’s edge (riparian) and areas of high conservation value. But some loopholes still exist allowing clearing to take place.

SLATs data capture for the 2018-19 year has used finer scale satellite imagery than for previous years, ensuring better accuracy.