Queensland grazier fined $450k for illegal land clearing

A Queensland grazier, whose bid to bulldoze native woodlands has the support of Federal Government MPs, has been hit with one of the state's heaviest penalties for illegal land clearing.

Scott Harris and his company were fined $450,000 in the Cairns Magistrates Court last month for illegally clearing 2,875 hectares of native vegetation at Strathmore Station in Queensland's Gulf Country.

His convictions were recorded by the court and could derail his proposal to clear 2,100 hectares at another cattle station — Kingvale in Cape York.

The federal environment department confirmed it was taking the court case into account as it prepared its recommendation to its minister on whether the Kingvale clearing should be approved under Australia's conservation laws.

An official has said its report is likely months away, putting a final ruling by the Federal Environment Minister Melissa Price beyond the looming national election.

Four Federal Government MPs from Queensland, including Northern Australia Minister Matt Canavan, have lobbied on Mr Harris' behalf for the Kingvale proposal.

The clearing at Kingvale was first approved by the former Newman government in 2014 under changes to land clearing laws to allow "high-value agriculture" projects.

But in a rare move, the federal environment department froze the Kingvale clearing permit for assessment under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act after Mr Harris declined to make a referral himself.

Conservationists welcomed the successful prosecution of illegal clearing under state laws but said it highlighted the lack of similar tough action under federal laws.

Mr Harris' lawyer David Kempton, who was an assistant minister in the Newman government, did not respond to an ABC request for an interview with him or his client.

Cairns Magistrate Allan Comans gave Mr Harris and his company 28 days to pay the fines.

Mr Harris was convicted on 13 counts of carrying out assessable development without a permit.

They mirror the then record $450,000 penalty meted out to Mr Harris' partner in the Strathmore venture, Ronald Greentree, in 2004 when he was the first person convicted for illegal clearing of a protected wetland under the EPBC Act.

Together they are now growing cotton at Strathmore. 

Four members of Qld Coalition lobbied Frydenberg

Under the Act, the federal Environment Minister "may consider whether the person is a suitable person to be granted an approval, having regard to … the person's history in relation to environmental matters".

The Act's guidance note says: "Information relevant to the person's environmental history is that which will indicate whether a person is likely to comply with the conditions of an approval".

A spokesman for the federal Department of Environment and Energy told the ABC that in February and March it "sought information from the Cairns Magistrates Court, the [DNRME], and the proponent in relation to charges against the proponent".

"The department will consider this information for the purpose of preparing advice to the Minister on whether the proposed clearing of vegetation at 'Kingvale' should be approved under the EPBC Act," he said.

Mr Harris is still facing one charge of failing to take reasonable practical measures to ensure activities do not harm Aboriginal cultural heritage at Strathmore.

The case is due back in court again on April 29.

Mr Harris could not be reached for comment.

Queensland Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch has claimed that federal approval of clearing at Kingvale would show "total disregard" of a commitment to cut land clearing in Australia's great Barrier Reef conservation plan.

"The kind of run off from that particularly block of land, or that particular area, onto the Great Barrier Reef will absolutely have impact, which is not what anybody wants," she said.

She said an approval would undermine the half a billion dollars the Federal Government has spent on the reef, and could also potentially cause UNESCO to finally list the reef as an "in danger" World Heritage site.

"It could potentially put the Great Barrier Reef at risk of being on that 'in danger' list and being taken off the World Heritage list," she said.

"If that happens the impact to industry will be absolutely catastrophic."

Kingvale is located in the fourth largest river catchment feeding into the reef, the Normanby Basin.

Mr Harris proposes to clear eucalypt forest and melaleuca swamplands to make way for sorghum and green cropping.

Last year documents released under Freedom of Information laws revealed that four Queensland members of the Coalition lobbied then-Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg.

The documents showed Mr Canavan, fellow senators Ian Macdonald and Barry O'Sullivan, and MP Warren Entsch also met several times with officials from the Environmental Standards Division in the federal Department of Environment and Energy (DEE).

The Federal Court in November forced the Government to apply more rigorous assessment of the environmental impacts of the Kingvale clearing after a legal challenge by a conservation group. 

Conservationists warn of less scrutiny

Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner Andrew Picone said conservationists welcomed Queensland's successful prosecution of illegal clearing but it was "evidence our national environment laws are ineffective".

He said the "wholesale destruction of threatened species habitat" at north Queensland properties like Strathmore Station had seen "no prosecutions under national law".

Mr Picone said the four government MPs had been "exerting influence and pressure" to allow the clearing to proceed with a lower level of scrutiny.

The Federal Government's inaction on unapproved land clearing activity is yet another example of why we need strong new laws to protect threatened species habitat and an independent [Environmental Protection Authority] at arm's length from government and beyond the influence of vested interests."

A spokesman for Mr Canavan said he would not be making comment "before the due process is complete".

The prosecution over Strathmore was driven by Queensland's Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy (DNRME) under the state's Sustainable Planning Act 2009.

A spokesman told the ABC in a statement: "Queensland's vegetation management laws strike a vital balance between enabling landholders to get on with managing their businesses by sensibly clearing appropriate vegetation while also protecting the environment."

Federal environment department assistant secretary James Barker told Senate Estimates on Thursday that he expected the recommendation to be made in "the coming months".

"Currently the department is seeking further information from Queensland and is preparing information to support a decision on whether the proposal should be approved," he said.

"It's subject to us being able to obtain further information from the State Government so we don't have a timeframe for that at this stage."

Should this be of interest to you, would you please feel free to contact Emanate Legal 0747270100, for an obligation free discussion in relation to the above. https://www.emanatelegal.com.au/services/clearing-management/

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-06/grazier-scott-harris-fined-illegal-land-clearing/10972660


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