As land clearing continues across NSW, locals around Wagga Wagga in the state’s south are worried river red gums on the Murrumbidgee River will become the next hot spot.
A recent article in The Fifth Estate demonstrates how land clearing in Australia has reached unprecedented levels, much of it a result of illegal activities, often uncontrolled and unhindered by state and federal governments.
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The science says land clearing increases carbon emissions, decreases available shade, and damages erosion control, fauna habitat and carbon pools. As we face catastrophic climate change, it is vital legislation be toughened to police and regulate land clearing.
Corporate land clearing is a major culprit. Techniques such as precision agriculture and intensive monoculture plantings replace natural ecosystems, practices scientists say must stop.
Macquarie Bank came under fire earlier this year for land clearing operations undertaken by Viridis Ag, a farm cropping enterprise owned by the banking group’s agricultural investment management business, Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Asset.
Viridis Ag owns properties in NSW and Western Australia totalling 81,000 ha and has received a $100 million investment from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
Viridis Ag told The Fifth Estate in July it was planting more than 10 times the number of native trees and shrubs it is removing at Englefield Plains and had committed to a long-term, dedicated conservation area of 61ha.
A group of NSW farmers from the Riverina district told The AFR in an article published in early April that the wholesale clearing of Viridis Ag’s 7500 ha Englefield Plains property near Cootamundra was a “national disgrace”.
The group, led by veteran Cootamundra District farmer Ashley Hermes, said Viridis Ag had transformed what was “classic grazing country, with a scattering of magnificent old gum trees and native cypress trees that provided livestock with shade and native birds and animals with habitat” into a “monoculture desert of wheat and canola”.
Sacred river red gums
Macquarie Bank faces further accusations that its grazing business, Paraway Pastoral, is undertaking similar operations at its Bulls Run Station, near Wagga Wagga in NSW.
Sue Salmon, a former full-time campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation, says Paraway Pastoral is planning to raze 130 old-growth river red gum trees on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River.
Salmon says she and several other people have written repeatedly to Macquarie Bank and Paraway Pastoral. Paraway’s chief executive officer Jock Whittle has allegedly described the operation as the clearing of a few scattered trees for a farm development project.
Salmon says that through a direct contact she became aware that a local contractor had been commissioned to destroy the trees and he supplied images of several trees he had already felled.
“He was apparently to do the job as quickly as possible,” Salmon told The Fifth Estate.
“As soon as I became aware of what Paraway was doing I called The Daily Advertiser [the local Wagga Wagga newspaper]. The journalist said she would call them. Shortly after, the contractor was dismissed, so I don’t know the exact number destroyed”
Salmon says this is a dangerous time to be felling large mature trees.
“At this point in human history we are facing the sixth great extinction event, that is predominantly due to habitat destruction,” she says.
“The paddock trees being destroyed are magnificent specimens that are storeys tall and habitat for countless creatures. They provide free environmental services including shade for stock, maintenance of a stable water table, pollen and nectar for birds and insects, carbon storage, transpiration through the water cycle and, given their age, habitat for the magnificent Superb Parrot.
“These trees have thrived under Wiradjuri occupation, ownership by HV McKay, the Duke of Westminster and others. Their destruction is inconsistent with the Paraway company’s commitment to the environment and promised accountability to the community.”
Dr Greg Moore from Melbourne University’s School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, recently wrote a piece for The Conversation where he estimated the life span of river red gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) at 1000 years. He noted they need several hundred years for their vital habitat hollows to form. These provide refuges for birds, mammals and reptiles and huge populations of bees.
Their deep, spreading systems are crucial to holding the river banks together in times of flood and provide shade for native animals and stock.
Climate change impacts
Salmon says she has emailed relevant research on the ecological importance of river red gums to Macquarie Group CEO Shemara Wikramanayake, citing research from Gibbons and Boak, published by the NSW Department of Environment on isolated paddock trees and small patches of trees conducted on 30,000 ha of agricultural land around Holbrook, using satellite imagery and computer simulation.
“The research found that paddock trees are declining due to natural senescence, clearing, dieback and the general absence of recruitment,” Salmon says.
“The scientists noted that paddock trees are declining in much of the intensively managed agricultural zone of Australia. The rate of loss among isolated and scattered trees has been estimated at 0.54 to 2.5 per cent, suggesting their total loss could feasibly occur in 40 to185 years.”
Salmon says it’s important to note that the research did not take into account climate impacts, which can be expected to exacerbate this rate of loss.
In its defence, Paraway says it recognises the importance of sustainable and responsible environmental management on the properties under its stewardship.
“The Bulls Run constitutes 6909.32 ha of land and … and is estimated to include over 10,000 well-established, native trees. Paraway … engages with Local Land Services to … ensure our activities do not result in negative environmental impacts,” it said in a statement.
“As part of our commitment to sustainable and responsible environmental management, there are a number of Property Vegetation Plans underway at The Bulls Run, which involve the management of native vegetation, stewardship and revegetation. These plans include:
“A total of 86.74 ha of conservation management, including biodiversity stewardship of 50.36 ha of wetlands, planting salt tolerant pasture in an eight-hectare saline discharge area and 21 ha of regeneration and protection for biodiversity, including 4.21 ha of riparian areas. Plantings as part of this plan include 1210 of Grey box, Cypress Pine, Yellow Box woodland and 1210 of River Red Gum forest and 3455 trees and shrubs.
“Protection of 336.78 ha through vegetation management, grazing and fencing. This included the control of weeds, pests and the protection of indigenous heritage sites.”
Salmon has agreed to meet Paraway Pastoral Company and has asked the company not to destroy the trees in the interim but says she has not yet had a response.
However, Salmon doesn’t believe that what the company has done offsets irreplaceable paddock trees.
“They are being planted in drought conditions,” she says. “Who knows how many of these plantings will survive. Given the momentous task we have to address climate change we need to retain every one of these magnificent old trees.”
Salmon pointed to the scientific paper published by the Department of Environment titled “The value of paddock trees for regional conservation in an agricultural landscape”.
It says paddock trees perform a number of vital ecosystem functions: As habitat trees they are vital for several species listed as threatened, such as the Superb Parrot, Squirrel Glider, Brush-tailed Phascogale and a number of species of bats. They also harbour pollen, nectar and seed-eating species and invertebrates in their hollows, which only occur in trees at least 120 to 150 years old. To maintain habitat viability, these recruitment trees must be established well before the existing paddock tree resource is lost.
Paddock trees also enable bird species to move between forest remnants, contributing to the viability of metapopulations. Isolated and widely spaced trees have a high root volume which can pump considerable volumes of subsurface water and reduce soil salinity. They recycle nutrients, maintain neutral pH and improve soil friability.
A local resident told The Fifth Estate that a big excavator was recently seen heading towards the property, raising fears the trees have already been destroyed. A number of similar clearances of River Red Gums has been carried out recently in the area, notably at Galore and on the southern side of the Murrumbidgee River at Yarragundry, west of Wagga Wagga. Salmon claims it’s not unusual for old trees to be removed to make way for pivot bore irrigation (use pic to show pivot bores).
At Yarragundry, she says six very large old river red gums have been destroyed to establish a pivot bore and it’s understood there are plans to repeat the process. The area is a flood plain known as habitat for squirrel gliders, she says.
Meanwhile, the National party MP for Murray, Austin Evans is attempting to legislate the return of the 41,0000 ha Murray Valley National Park to State Forest status and restore logging access to the park’s red gum forests.
In Victoria, an ongoing fight to save thousands of trees, including river red gums, sacred to the Djab Wurrung people has been defeated by the federal government approval of a controversial highway expansion
Expansion of a 12-kilometre stretch of the Western Highway in the Ararat region is set to wipe out the trees, including shield trees and an 800 year-old traditional birthing tree, in a $672 million highway duplication. Djab Wurrung people, who have been camping onsite for 13 months, say the trees are integral to their ancient songlines.
UPDATE 8 August 2019: This article has been updated with minor changes for accuracy of location (Wagga Wagga not Holbrook) and relating to requests for a meeting between campaigners and Paraway Pastoral.