An inspection of vegetation clearing at Olive Vale station by officers from the Federal Environment Department was concluded today, but no official outcome has yet been given.
On Wednesday departmental officers spent most of the day flying over the station in a chartered helicopter.
Owner of the Laura grazing property Paul Ryan said he was quietly confident the inspectors had not found any major issues, “…because we have been totally compliant with the permit conditions,” he said.
Unsubstantiated accusations and claims of habitat and vegetation destruction were made last week by Deputy Premier Jackie Trad in State Parliament, who, according to Mr Ryan, had never visited the property.
A permit to clear vegetation for high value agriculture was granted on January 20, 2015, during the ‘caretaker’ mode prior to an imminent election which Ms Trad conceded was quite lawful as the original application had been made in the mid-term of the previous government which had requested two extensions of time.
In a Ministerial statement Ms Trad told Parliament the clearing of 32,000 hectares was approved for the purpose of high-value agriculture and included a crop, upland rice, which is not currently grown commercially in Queensland.
“As part of this review, my acting director-general sought independent advice on three specific matters,” she said.
“First, advice was sought from Crown Law about the application of the conventions of caretaker government.
“This advice confirms that the caretaker conventions were not contravened. “Second, advice was sought from Mr Greg Vann, a Life Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia, about the decision-making process associated with the development approval, taking into account the requirements of the Sustainable Planning Act and associated policies and guidelines.
“Mr Vann concluded that the application was processed and decided in accordance with the relevant procedural requirements”. She said the department received conflicting advice from Mr Bill Thompson of Land Resource and Assessment Management Pty Ltd about the decision-making process associated with the determination that the proposed clearing was for a relevant purpose—in this case, high-value agriculture under section 22A of the Vegetation Management Act.
“Mr Thompson has advised that the correct decision from the assessment process should have been that the purpose of the clearing could not have been high-value agriculture”.
Amid interjections from LNP Members Ms Trad warned the Opposition, “… these are contraventions of the laws implemented by those opposite. Right now, the bulldozers are already clear-felling at Olive Vale, destroying habitat and vegetation that should be preserved”.
A Traditional Owner, Elder and stockman from Laura, Mr Joseph Lee Cheu said the land being cleared had little use in its present form.
“We want the jobs that this farming project will provide and we have no opposition to the clearing and it won’t harm the environment,” said Mr Lee Cheu.
“There are millions of acres of similar land on the Peninsula in reserves and other properties. “Most Traditional Owners support the clearing here, and farming is much better than mining”.
Olive Vale station is the Laura district’s largest employer with an annual payroll of $1 million, directly benefitting the Laura, Cooktown and Hopevale communities.
“Our indigenous workforce and payroll will double in six months as we begin farming operations,” Mr Ryan said.
“We have begun a school-based apprenticeship scheme with Cooktown High School and a student will start a diesel-fitting course here later this year”.
The Deputy Premier told Parliament now that the former LNP government had approved the clearing, there was limited opportunity for the government to stop it.
“For that reason, today I have written to the federal environment minister, Greg Hunt, under section 69 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act,” Ms Trad said.
“If Mr Hunt determines that the clearing now under way is a controlled action, then the Commonwealth has the power to seek a Federal Court injunction to stop the bulldozers”.
She said she would be working with the Natural Resources Minister to change Vegetation Management laws to prevent any more development of “high value” farmland.
Land Resource consultant Peter Spies said he had been undertaking ongoing soil analyses of the area to be cleared and found the soils to be suitable for sorghum, dryland rice and pulses with the potential for irrigation. Although the green element pushed the loss of species and habitat line, Mr Spies said the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry was excited about the proposal.
“We will be doing crop varietal trials for forage sorghum and baling it for forage will help drought proof the property and provide a ready source of feed for other properties in dry times,” Mr Spies said.
“There is the potential for feed lotting and having a live export depot for the port at Weipa, which would be dependent on the upgrading of the Peninsula Development Road.
“There are no threatened animal or plant species and we have developed species recovery plans by mapping all likely habitats.
“There is no threat whatsoever to the reef because there will be much less runoff from the almost level farmland than in its natural state”.
The Member for Cook, Billy Gordon has refused to comment about the land clearing.