THE Nationals WA have claimed credit for changes to the Environmental Protection Act 1986 which will see WA's 98,000 environmentally sensitive area (ESA) declarations reassessed.
The Nationals WA MLC Martin Aldridge moved an amendment in State Parliament in November that would see "all existing ESA declarations rescinded and replaced by new declarations made under regulation".
Mr Aldridge said landholders with an ESA declaration would be notified by the government and landholders offered the opportunity to comment.
"The minister must take into account any landholder comment about the proposed regulations - a failure to do could be contested in the courts," Mr Aldridge said.
The Nationals WA environment spokesman Shane Love backed the amendments saying more than 98,000 ESA declarations were issued by ministerial notice in 2005 across WA, but they were declared without due process and were unjustified in many circumstances.
"These declarations were made without the landholder's knowledge and consequently landholders going about normal farming practices were, potentially breaking the law,'' Mr Love said.
"It was very difficult to find out if you had an ESA declaration on your land - even if you had high-speed internet and a reasonable degree of computer literacy it was virtually impossible."
Debate around the amendments in Parliament last week noted the need to acknowledge, expose and explain ESAs, with all ESAs to be created under regulation, rather than ministerial notice following consultation with the affected landholder.
Mr Love said another positive step was that any ESA affecting a land title was to be placed on a property interest report which could be readily purchased from Landgate.
"Where there is an existing ESA in place, the chief executive officer of the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) will contact each affected landholder or occupier, notifying them of the ESA and seeking comment in relation to that ESA," Mr Love said.
"The landholder has the opportunity to comment and the minister is duty bound to take account of the landholder's feedback."
A report tabled by the Standing Committee on Environment and Public Affairs in August 2015 found there was significant confusion and concern about ESAs and their impact on landowners, occupiers and persons responsible for the care and maintenance of ESA land.
The committee considered it "extraordinary that the government when passing the ESA Notice 2005, did not formally notify affected landowners".
Environment Minister Stephen Dawson said amendments have been made to ensure native vegetation clearing provisions are efficient, targeted, flexible and transparent while ensuring the protection of areas with important environmental values.
"I made amendments to the EP Act in Parliament which will ensure the owner or occupier of land is notified of any potential future ESAs intersecting with their property," Mr Dawson said.
"As Environment Minister, I must consider their comments when deciding whether to declare an area as an ESA under regulations.
"I have committed to that notification occurring in 2020-21.
"This amendment clarifies that this comprehensive notice and consultation process must occur before a new ESA is placed on a property - through regulations."
A DWER spokesperson said "there has been ongoing stakeholder and community commentary about environmentally sensitive areas, or ESAs, particularly their transparency and effect on land use".
"The effect of ESAs is that the exemptions in the Environmental Protection (Clearing of Native Vegetation) Regulations 2004 do not apply and a clearing permit is required," DWER said.
"Environmentally sensitive areas will now be declared through regulations, rather than by the minister under a notice, following the recent amendments to the Environmental Protection Act 1986 which passed through Parliament on November 12, 2020.
"ESAs are now included in Landgate's property interest report, available to the public online.
"Stakeholders have been informed and the department has updated its website and guidance.
"To make sure the ESAs in these property interest reports remain up-to-date, the Amendment Bill also requires the chief executive officer of the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation to provide information about ESAs to Landgate for inclusion in the property interest report."
Pastoralists and Graziers Association WA (PGA) private property rights committee chairman Gary Peacock said the PGA congratulated Mr Dawson on "finally accepting the recommendations of a number of reviews".
"While it allows landholders to appeal and they need to notify landholders of the ESA declaration, the PGA is still concerned about the process that led to it," Mr Peacock said.
He said the Environmental Protection Act was "draconian" and a "blight on our democracy".
"It's like appealing to Caesar," he said.
"In this case it allows people to appeal, but there's no independent appeals process.
"There's still no clarification on the protections afforded landholders so we have to be a bit pessimistic about the appeals process."
Mr Peacock asked if there was "help available for landholders to present their case?"
"This is a good start but we would encourage landholders to seek competent legal advise before rushing in to appeal," he said.
Mr Dawson said "these amendments represent the most significant improvements to Western Australia's Environmental Protection Act since it was introduced in 1986".
"It helps ensure protection for our precious environment through efficient environmental legislation working to support a sustainable economy," Mr Dawson said.
"This is particularly important as part of the State's recovery response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"These improvements simplify and reduce unnecessary regulation, while maintaining strong environmental protection and standards.
"This will result in reduced costs to industry and government, encourage business development and create jobs, while protecting Western Australia's precious environment."
Mr Dawson said the reforms in the Amendment Act included streamlining the environmental impact assessment process, improving the pathway for regulation of native vegetation clearing, improving the efficiency of regulating emissions and discharges, modernising and improving investigation and enforcement powers, and increasing penalties for certain environmental offences.
Amendments have been made to ensure native vegetation clearing provisions were efficient, targeted, flexible and transparent while ensuring the protection of areas with important environmental values.
The Bill would facilitate an approvals bilateral agreement with the Commonwealth that will remove duplication for proposals assessed by the Environmental Protection Authority, including major resources projects.
Mr Dawson said this will reduce timeframes and costs while maintaining the highest environmental standards.
The amendments in the Bill were drawn from reviews and recommendations by expert advisory groups to deliver a modern Act to simplify and reduce unnecessary regulatory obligations on industry, while maintaining strong environmental protection and standards.
By improving regulatory processes, the amendments would support investment, employment and business creation, and ensure WA's environmental values remained protected.
The public consultation process generated 101 submissions and found broad support for the amendments.