Controversial bushfire clearing law puts native species at risk: state government

Controversial bushfire clearing law puts native species at risk: state government

23 June 2015

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Australia– The state government’s controversial bushfire clearing policy may risk driving native species out of some parts of the state and should be scrapped, a review by the government’s own environmental advisors has found.

“There is a perceived impact on threatened species […] including concerns about localised extinctions,” a review by the state’s Environment Department based on surveys of experts, councils and landowners found. The document was released under freedom-of-information laws, following a request from the Wilderness Society.

The department recommended lifting the controversial law across much of NSW because of its potential impact on threatened species and because the law is open to misuse.

The so-called “10/50” tree clearing laws came into effect in August. Since then environmental groups and councils say the code has been invoked to cut down 5000 trees.

The new laws replaced a range of different vegetation clearing regulations with a set of simple rules. Anyone living within 350 metres of a bush-fire prone area, may clear any trees within 10 metres of their home, or scrub within 50 metres, without seeking any council approval.

The department’s review found the laws often work at odds with conservation policies and can be invoked by landowners to remove trees even when the risk of bushfire to a property is low.

The Rural Fire Service, which is responsible for the code, and the emergency services minister, David Elliott, would not say if the law should be scrapped. A spokeswoman for Mr Elliott said the RFS was reviewing the policy, and the environment department’s review would contribute to that review.

“The evidence is clear Code 10/50 doesn’t deliver on its intended objectives and the community doesn’t want it, so why is the RFS still deliberating?” said Kaine Johnson of the Wilderness Society. “Ninety-nine per cent of submissions to the Government’s review of 10/50 called for the code to be repealed or reformed”.

The introduction of the new laws was almost immediately followed by reports of landowners across the length of the state’s coastline removing trees to secure harbour and beach-side views.The review found the code was often invoked for reasons other than bushfire safety, like improving a property’s views. The department recommended largely scrapping the rule, except for areas that already had longstanding approval for bushfire clearing.

The law could also make homeowners complacent about bushfire risk by not accounting for a home’s vulnerability to “ember attack”, a risk that is not lowered by clearing trees.

Fairfax recently revealed that the Victorian rural fire service had warned woodchips and vegetation left lying around from unregulated tree removal could increase bushfire hazards.

Labor’s environment spokeswoman, Penny Sharpe, said the 10/50 law should be suspended while the government reviews its unintended consequences for tree clearing and bushfire safety.

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