The Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy estimates a net loss of forest, from human-induced conversion of forest to other land uses and gains from human-induced revegetation, of 149,000 hectares in 2014. This is similar to the net loss recorded in 2009 (153,000 hectares), but higher than in 2011, when there was an estimated net gain of forest cover of 65,000 hectares. For woody vegetation that does not meet the forest thresholds, there was a net gain of 330,000 hectares in 2014, down from net gains estimated for 2009 (1,618,000 hectares) and 2011 (1,637,000 hectares). Drivers of change in woody cover are complex; they reflect a mix of factors, including climate signals, economic conditions, and changes in management practices and land management regulations.
Each state and territory has its own native vegetation legislation, and associated issues relating to agriculture and land-clearing rates. In Queensland, clearing has increased since 2011. Following the introduction of a ban on broadscale clearing that came into effect in 2006, and the extension of clearing controls to high-value regrowth in 2009, land clearing fell to a historical low of 78,378 hectares in 2009–10. High-value regrowth refers to nonremnant vegetation that was cleared more than 20 years earlier. Major reforms to the Vegetation Management Act 1999 were introduced in 2013 to allow landholders to clear vegetation not cleared since 31 December 1989 on land that is suitable for economically viable agricultural development. This change recognises that restrictions on how native vegetation could be managed were having an impact on agricultural productivity, a topic revisited in the recent Agricultural competitiveness white paper (Australian Government 2016). By 2013–14, clearing had increased to 296,324 hectares. This compares with the average annual rate of land clearing before the 2006 ban of 448,000 hectares per year. A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund (Taylor 2015) on clearing rates in Queensland found that:
- clearing of nonremnant native vegetation increased from about 54,000 hectares in 2009–10 to about 183,000 hectares in 2013–14
- clearing of remnant vegetation nearly doubled from about 52,000 hectares in 2012–13 to about 95,000 hectares in 2013–14, and has nearly quadrupled since 2009–10
- about 700,000 hectares of high-value regrowth lost protection in 2013, and are currently being cleared
- about 125,000 hectares of remnant vegetation, including about 12,000 hectares of endangered ecosystems, have been remapped as exempt from protection on regulatory maps since 2012.
Land cleared in Queensland’s reef catchments increased by 229 per cent from 2008–09 to 2013–14, from 31,000 hectares per year to 102,000 hectares per year. A 113 per cent increase from 2010–11 to 2012–13 coincided with the policy change to reduce compliance activities. In a 2015 report, the Queensland Auditor-General noted that (Queensland Audit Office 2015):
… this result may lead to an increase in the extent of bare ground which, depending on the occurrence of storms and the amount of ground cover provided by the replacement land use, increases the risk of soil erosion within the catchment. Therefore, a rise in tree clearing rates can contribute greater sediment run-off.
In South Australia, although clearance of native vegetation has stabilised and remaining native vegetation is protected by legislation, the remaining extent is strongly related to previous land use: in the arid natural resource management (NRM) regions (South Australian Arid Lands and Alinytjara Wilurara), 99 per cent of native vegetation remains, while historical agricultural and urban developments in the southern NRM regions have left only about 25 per cent of native vegetation (South Australian Government 2014). This pattern is repeated in other states—that is, less tractable agricultural land often remains largely intact, while land close to settlements or with predictable water availability and fertile soils has been heavily cleared in the past (Figure LAN8).