A proposal to turn up to 500,000 hectares of Australia’s largest woodland into farmland would release up to 40m tonnes of stored carbon dioxide and contradict the federal government’s Direct Action policy, green groups say.
The Great Western Woodlands spans 16m hectares in south-eastern Western Australia, ranging from the wheatbelt west of Kalgoorlie to Esperance and stretching toward the Nullarbor.
It is the largest remaining area of temperate woodland in the world, but just 12% is protected in conservation reserves.
About 60% of the woodland is made up of unallocated crown land. Emails from shire chief executive Matthew Scott, obtained under freedom of information by the Wilderness Society, identified 500,000 hectares of that land that might be suitable for farming.
A map released under Freedom of Information laws from the shire of Esperance, identifying up to five 100,000 hectare pockets of unallocated crown land that it says the government should consider converting into farmland. Photograph: Wilderness Society
Wilderness Society WA campaigner Peter Robertson said the environmental cost would be much greater than any economic benefit and might result in 40m tonnes of carbon being released into the atmosphere.
“It would undermine any effort that Direct Action has in terms of net greenhouse gas deficit,” he said.
Dr Heather Keith from ANU’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, who co-wrote a 2009 study on the woodland’s carbon value, said it would be “reasonable to say that most of the carbon in the vegetation would be lost”.
“If an area has been ploughed for agriculture, getting back that stored carbon takes many, many decades.”
Robertson said the woodland boasted 20% of all Australian plant species and 25% of all eucalypt species.
The Great Western Woodlands is said to be home to 20% of all Australian plant species and 25% of all eucalypt species. Photograph: Barbara Madden/Wilderness Society
“The south-west of WA has lost thousands of hectares of woodland … the bits that are left are too valuable now and contain too many rare and vulnerable species that are even more vulnerable because other areas were cleared,” he said.
The West Australian government was briefed on the proposal when the cabinet visited Esperance in June.
In a letter to Scott dated 12 September, released as part of the FOI documents, premier Colin Barnett said he looked forward to “exploring” the “agricultural land opportunity” presented in the briefing.
“As you suggest, a whole-of-government effort is needed to undertake such an agricultural land release feasibility study and to that end I have sought the support of the minister for regional development in coordinating a number of portfolios,” Barnett wrote.
Barnett said local government should seek to get “industry and traditional owners” involved in the endeavour.
But Esperance shire president Malcolm Heasman told Guardian Australia traditional owners had not yet been consulted because the governing body of the area’s Indigenous Land Use Agreement was not formally established.
“At this stage we can’t speak with anybody because the body that manages it has not been incorporated,” he said.
Esperance’s unallocated crown land is covered by native title, which would be nullified if it was converted to freehold land.
In emails from July, the Department of Regional Development said it was “definitely interested” in the proposals and asked the shire to put forward 10,000 to 20,000 hectare lots for a “trial” program.
Most of the lots the shire subsequently put forward were in the Cascade region, on the north-west edge of the shire, and have previously been surveyed for release.
Heasman said every 100,000 hectares of crown land could potentially host 25 viable farms. He said the cost of existing agricultural land meant young farmers could not afford to buy into the area, and the town needed to do something to preserve its population.
“We need to keep our young farmers on these farms. It’s getting to the point where they can’t afford to come back to the community at all.”
A spokesman for the WA regional development minister, Terry Redman, said the government had received no formal request to convert any areas of the Greater Western Woodlands into farmland.
first image credit: https://www.wilderness.org.au