Red tape stifling progress

11 Aug, 2004 10:00 PM
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AGRICULTURE could be a short-term interest for Gingin grazier John Fernie, who took up his first farm in 1980 and fears an unsustainable future due to government environmental policy.

Mr Fernie's plight is the latest to come to light in a series of setbacks confronting farmers who are getting frustrated at the way progress on their properties is being hampered by bureaucratic red tape.

Mr Fernie lodged an application in 2002 to clear 570 of his 1750 hectares, which was to support 1.2 million pines to ensure the long-term viability of his enterprise.

The proposal was approved by the Soil and Land Conservation Commissioner but rejected by the Department of Environment (DOE) following an Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) recommendation.

Mr Fernie said his farm was unlikely to survive on its current scale.

"Like most things you've got to get bigger ‹ instead of running 10 cattle, you've got to run 1000 cattle, machinery gets bigger, everything gets bigger," he said.

He said the only alternative to keep the farm viable would be to allow his stock, including cattle, sheep and goats, to graze regrowth and native vegetation, which had been normal farm practice for many years.

He said planting trees was a better outcome for WA and the farming community.

Mr Fernie purchased his property on the condition he immediately cleared the area to be used for agricultural production.

"I pleaded with the Lands Department at the time to allow me to leave the clearing for when it became necessary but they said no," he said. "In the end we had to clear so much that we couldn't keep it cleared."

He had installed water points across the property, which were likely to be wasted, as he could not re-clear areas for more livestock production.

Mr Fernie's clearing application was refused on the grounds the selected area contained native vegetation and would threaten biodiversity.

He was previously allowed to plant pines on 90ha cleared at purchase.

He said the proposed new area was part remnant vegetation, part regrowth and of little conservation value.

"I've got these areas of jarrah and marri. I could try to put pines in there but it would be stupid to replace those with pines," he said. "The area I want to use is mainly banksia country, or what I'd call useless."

He said the EPA always spoke in terms of what may, rather than would, happen if the land was cleared, such as soil degradation and loss of biodiversity.

He said Agriculture Department officials found no risk of soil erosion or salinity in earlier inspections and the property was surrounded by bush.

"There's 26,000ac of CALM reserve at the back of me ... one of my neighbours has 100pc of bush remaining, the other's got about 50pc, there's no shortage of trees around," he said.

He said the EPA underreported the amount of native vegetation on his property in its assessments.

"They said we'd only have 10pc left after the clearing, but that's not accurate," he said.

It was likely to be 15 or 16pc, but up to 20pc was possible.

"They want us to have 55pc. If anyone in Perth wants to give up 55pc of their property I'd be very surprised, I certainly don't want to," Mr Fernie said.

He said the EPA had also identified as cleared, areas that contained little understory plants but a large number of trees.

He said compensation had to be paid if he was denied the right to farm his land and provide for his family's future.

"It's probably not for me even, it's more likely to be a legacy for me to leave," he said.

"I've got three children and seven grandchildren who would probably benefit as much as their parents ‹ then you've got the flow-ons to saw-millers and tree-loppers."

Mr Fernie said he didn't mind leaving two-thirds bush if the government paid for it.

"I don't even mind having to swap properties ‹ if they can find another property and they want to keep this as bush then fine, I'm flexible, I just want to keep farming."

Mr Fernie said compensation needed to be fair and not the insignificant biodiversity incentive schemes the WA government promoted.

"They're not willing to pay market value, they want to pay bargain rates ... I want the full market value," he said.

"I guess we should also be claiming what we've been losing off that land by not being able to clear it, which is about $45,000 a year."

The application is still in appeal and Mr Fernie said he was prepared to go to court to defend his right to farm.

EPA chairman Wally Cox said he could not comment on applications that were in the appeal stage.

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