Farmer jailed in land clearing case

29 Jul, 2010 12:01 AM

A MUNGLINUP farmer has been jailed for three months after being convicted of contempt of court in relation to a land clearing case.

Maxwell Szulc was sentenced to three months prison in the Perth Supreme Court on Monday.

The Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) had sought the court injunction after Mr Szulc continued to clear his land after the DEC issued him with a vegetation conservation notice (VCN).

The department said Chief Justice Martin issued the injunction in October last year after the DEC demonstrated to the court that it had exhausted all reasonable avenues of engagement and regulation to stop Mr Szulc from unlawfully clearing native vegetation on his property.

The DEC said Mr Szulc had cleared a total of 345 hectares of native vegetation from the property without authority but that it was the 40ha Mr Szulc cleared after the court injunction that landed him in jail.

Mr Szulc, 62, who represented himself in court, was handcuffed and taken to prison shortly after Chief Justice Martin handed down his decision.

Close associates of Mr Szulc said the sentence should serve as a warning to other farmers in regard to the clearing of land.

Rod Rogers, formerly of Arthur River, Kulin and Esperance, had attended the court hearing and said it was wrong that Mr Szulc should have gone to prison over the clearing of 40ha of land.

"You don't just lock up a bloke for clearing a bit of land, but these are the rules you're are playing by now," Mr Rogers said.

"I thought a fine would have been applicable.

"I think it is just a disgrace and I don't blame the judge, he was going by an Act of Parliament, but the Act is wrong.

"It is turning farmers into criminals.

"The DEC brought the action and they claim you can't touch any country even though you own it."

Mr Rogers said Mr Szulc argued that he had already cleared the land in 1984 and that he was only clearing re-growth when putting in a 20-metre wide fire break he thought necessary to prevent a fire hazard after the injunction.

"The DEC claimed it was pristine bushland, but it was not original bushland," Mr Rogers said.

In a letter to Farm Weekly in June, Mr Szulc, said the DEC was out of control.

"Some of their area managers are making disastrous decisions affecting lives, public safety, the environment, native and introduced animals and birds.

The DEC lights fires in summer time, which have a habit of getting out of control, causing massive palls of smoke to the detriment of public health.

Yet the DEC has been known to refuse to allow a firebreak to be established until a court ordered it to be allowed."

In the letter Mr Szulc went on to say that having the DEC manage land clearing applications was a conflict of interest.

"In the past, senior departmental staff have been quoted as saying that there should be no more land clearing. It seems that this attitude is still current as applications by farmers are rarely granted. If an individual appeals the refusal the action is held up for unexpected lengthy periods. Private property rights mean nothing to the department."

Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) private property rights policy director Milan Zaklan said under legislation farmers could re-clear land if it had been done within 10 years of the original clearing. But if they were one day over 10 years they could be prosecuted.

"The rule needs changing," Mr Zaklan said.

"The right to individuals to use their land to pursue agricultural activities when the world population is increasing and looking for food has been eroded away in legislation."

The DEC said there was a long history of significant soil management issues on Mr Szulc's property.

It said that in 1994 the Commissioner of Soil and Land Conservation placed a Soil Conservation Notice over the property to mitigate the risk of serious land degradation from water erosion.

The DEC said clearing of native vegetation was an offence unless a clearing permit had been granted under section 51C of the Environmental Protection Act 1986 or an exemption applies.

It said that anyone proposing to clear vegetation was encouraged to contact DEC's Native Vegetation Conservation Branch on 9219 8744 to discuss their plans.

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29/07/2010 8:03:07 AM, on Farm Weekly

There is a well informed party in power in WA, regarding the need for secure tenure of private property, and our farmers are being held to ransom. Making criminals out of good hard working citizens is inhumane. Is there no political party that serves the people? They all seem green and socialist.
Ian Mott
29/07/2010 8:06:48 AM, on Farm Weekly

Max Szulc is a hero, a freedom fighter for an oppressed minority that is being persecuted by government powers. The application of the 10 year rule in regrowth management is a grossly improper exercise of power by way of an "exercise of power according to rule without regard for the merits of the particular case". It is also an exercise of power that is unreasonable, in the context of the difficulty in obtaining permits, and in respect of the failure to consider relevant matters, especially Mr Szulc's duty of care in respect of the "dangerous thing" the trees become in the absence of fire breaks. He is also a victim of a process tainted by misrepresentation of fact. A 26 year old patch of regrowth cannot, under any circumstances, be lawfully described as "pristine". And in the face of such injustice, the hand of God would be entirely justified in burning that bushland to cinders before Mr Szulc gets out of jail.
hate live export cruelty
29/07/2010 8:10:55 AM, on Farm Weekly

Did the crime - do the time and stop doing the national farmer pastime: WHINGING!
29/07/2010 3:57:16 PM, on Farm Weekly

Think some more live export. Jailed for doing nothing more then what any one might do in a suburban backyard only the scale is different.
29/07/2010 4:11:00 PM, on Farm Weekly

This is why we need a Bill of Rights. If the land was sold for agricuture and owned by this man, the government should buy the land back if they want to control what happens to it. It is not acceptable to sell something, not have an interest in the title and then remove the rights associated with the title without compensation. This man needs a medal, not a jail term.
29/07/2010 6:14:49 PM, on Farm Weekly

Couldn't agree more strongly with Ian Mott. Property rights are something that has been taken from us with fair reason. All started by little Johnny. But what an arrogant attitude by the next correspondent whose title tells us that he seems to be against anything that doesn't suit his thinking. Get a life hlec.
30/07/2010 7:21:22 AM, on Farm Weekly

I am not against land clearing bans. I am against selective land clearing bans as we have. If we are to have a land/tree clearing ban, then it needs to be universal over the whole of the state and on land only owned or leased by the govt. If govt wants land clearing ban on private property, they need to lease or buy the rights to the land, become responsible for the rates and fire management as well as the pest and disease that will also need to be managed. It seems to me, you country people have some strong arguments, but have failed to use them.
30/07/2010 8:54:35 AM, on Farm Weekly

Farmers are older than the population average and as such tend to be less radical and more law-abiding. But we are now in a situation where we are being unjustly persecuted by the law. The result of this is that we have little other option other than civil disobedience.
30/07/2010 7:28:43 PM, on Farm Weekly

Oops My second sentence should have read: Property rights are something that have been taken from us withOUT fair reason. I haven't heard anybody putting up reasons as to why only native vegetation will sequester carbon. Fast growing crops will convert far more CO2 than slow growing native veg. Best thing we could do is push out the native veg and plant fast growing crops. Not only will they convert more CO2 but we can also eat them. Native veg is largely unpalatable.
Jillian Spring
30/07/2010 10:26:11 PM, on Farm Weekly

Archibald, We do have a BILL OF RIGHTS...inherited but the powers that be do not want Aussies to know about it. The 1688 BILL OF RIGHTS; read it - A RE-AFFIRMING OF THE MAGNA CARTA! Politicians use the 1688 BILL OF RIGHTS all the time...PARLIAMENTARY PRIVILEGE!
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