'Revved up': Land being cleared at the rate of 14 football fields a day in northern NSW

The rate of land clearing in northern NSW more than tripled after the Berejiklian government eased native vegetation protection in 2017 to the rate of about 14 football fields of koala habitat per day, a new report has found.

The report, compiled by WWF and the Nature Conservation Council using satellite imagery, was released on Friday to coincide with National Threatened Species Day.

The 22,000 square-km region studied, west of Moree, had been a focus of intensive land clearing – legal and illegal – even prior to last year's repeal of the Native Vegetation Act, Wendy Hawes, an ecologist, said.

Satellites are revealing how quickly trees are being bulldozed.

Photo: Supplied

"It's revved up since the new legislation," said Ms Hawes, who is principal ecologist at the Envirofactor consultancy. Tree cover in the areas was less than 30 per cent about six years ago and "it'll be amazingly small now", she said.

The analysis of satellite imagery found the rate of forest and woodland clearing jumped from 2845 hectares – about the size of the City of Sydney – in 2016-17 to 8194 hectares in 2017-18, the report said.

Habitat destroyed includes important sites for nine species with national environmental significance, including koalas and the Corben's long-eared bat, and two endangered species, the Australian painted snipe and Mackay’s burrowing skink.

The area in the northern region of NSW cleared per year has increased from about 1000 hectares per year between 2009-10 to as much as 8000 hectares when partially cleared land is taken into account.

Photo: WWF/NCC

Kate Smolski, Nature Conservation Council, said the imagery confirmed "the dire predictions of the government’s own advisers, who warned the new laws would permit bulldozing of 99 per cent of all identified koala habitat on private land in the state".

The region studied was already one of the most heavily cleared in the state, with just 6 per cent of forest remaining, with an additional 11 per cent in sparse woodlands, she said.

'Nothing short of criminal'

A spokeswoman for the Office of Environment and Heritage said it had an "effective regulatory compliance program",  drawing data from satellites, the Environment Line, and other reports.

"All potential breaches are assessed and if appropriate, investigated," she said, that the department would consider any additional information provided by the report that it had not already identified.

"The legislative framework establishes strong offences and tougher penalties for illegal clearing and harming threatened species," the spokeswoman said.

NSW Farmers had decried the previous laws, saying they placed an unfair burden on private property holders to care for native vegetation, even if it was regrowth or weedy species.

Penny Sharpe, Labor's environment spokeswoman, though, said “the figures tell the story – these laws are about clearing and deforestation of NSW".

"They do not and will not protect threatened species and address critical biodiversity loss," she said, adding that her party would repeal the new laws if elected next March. "Labor will not sit by as NSW tips towards catastrophic biodiversity loss."

Land clearing has been an ongoing issue in northern NSW, including in the region where Glen Turner, on OEH officer, was murdered by a farmer in 2014.

Photo: OEH

Cate Faehrmann, her Greens counterpart, said the clearing was "nothing short of criminal", adding that "the report should be a wake-up call" for Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

'Local extinctions'

Ms Hawes said the land was being cleared by agricultural developers who were stripping out woodland or removing paddock trees that provided important habitat for birds and lizards, as well as connecting the remaining pockets of native landscape."

"They can basically level the whole lot," she said. "You're going to get local extinctions, including koalas."

The region studied is around Collarenebri in northern NSW.

Photo: WWF/NCC

Ms Smolski said the government had been responsible for "opening the floodgates to the destruction of koala forests and woodlands on a scale we have not seen for more than 20 years".

“This report looks at a fraction of the state. We fear that this spike in deforestation in the north is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

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