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SoE 2003 > Biodiversity > 6.2 Native vegetation clearing

Chapter 6: Biodiversity

6.2 Native vegetation clearing

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6.2 Native vegetation clearing

While vegetation clearing rates are down, they are still significant, especially in poorly conserved areas

Between 60,000 and 100,000 hectares of native vegetation are estimated to be cleared each year in NSW. The area approved for clearing generally decreased each year between 1998 and 2002 to approximately 58,000 hectares in 2002. Much of the clearing is occurring in areas where the loss of native ecosystems and biodiversity has been highest.

Net loss of native vegetation is continuing despite efforts to revegetate. Outside of reserves, the estimated regeneration of native vegetation is equivalent to between 50% and 85% of the area being cleared each year.

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NSW Indicators


Status of Indicator

6.3 Clearing rate of native vegetation

The high rate of clearing of native vegetation reported in State of the Environment 2000 continues.

6.4 Area revegetated

Fragmented information suggests that revegetation is increasing, but that it is still well below the area cleared each year in NSW.

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Importance of the issue

The loss and decline of native vegetation can lead to a substantial reduction in terrestrial habitats and is a major threat to biodiversity. As many areas have already been extensively cleared, even small amounts of additional clearing can have a relatively high impact on biodiversity. The clearing of native vegetation is also strongly linked to soil degradation, such as erosion and salinity, a decline in aquatic ecosystem health and water quality, and climate change. For more information on these issues, see Land 4.1, Land 4.2, Land 4.3, Water 5.1, Water 5.3 and Atmosphere 3.2.

The rate of native vegetation clearing has slowed in recent years following the high rates of the 1960s and 1970s. However, recent studies show that considerable areas of native woody vegetation are still being permanently removed each year. The methodologies for estimating clearing rates are complex, producing a range of values.

Recent studies suggest that around 25,000–33,000 hectares of native woody vegetation was permanently removed each year in NSW in the early to mid-1990s and between 12,000 and 15,000 hectares in the late 1990s (AGO 2002; DLWC 2002). Figure 6.1 shows estimated rates of clearing each year between 1988 and 1998. These studies are based on satellite-image analysis and do not report clearing in lower-density ecosystems.

Other estimates of all native vegetation cleared in NSW range from around 60,000 hectares per year (Benson 2001) to 100,000 hectares per year (ACF 2001).

Figure 6.1: Clearing rates of native woody vegetation in NSW

Figure 6.1

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Source: AGO 2002

Notes: An initiative of the Australian Greenhouse Office, the National Carbon Accounting System land-use change measurement is based on a definition of forest that has a minimum 20% canopy cover; is potentially at least 2 metres in height; and has a minimum area of 0.2 hectares. Commercial forestry activity is excluded, unless post-harvest activity involves a change in land use, such as conversion to pasture or cropping.

In some regions, clearing levels are estimated to be 8–10 times higher than the satellite-data studies suggest (Bedward et al. 2001; Cox et al. 2001). There is often an association between higher clearing rates and areas of more productive soils and less rugged terrain. For example, in the central NSW wheatbelt, poplar box woodlands are being cleared rapidly. Some vegetation communities with only a small amount of vegetation remaining are also being cleared at a rate greater than the annual average for the State. Examples include the mallee and myall woodlands. According to Bedward et al. 2001, if the present rates of loss continue in some parts of the central wheatbelt, all remaining unprotected remnants of native vegetation will disappear in those areas within 50 years.

Based on studies by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), Figure 6.2 shows estimates of the percentage of native vegetation cleared in bioregions of the State. Results show that over 50% of native vegetation has been cleared in the NSW South-western Slopes, Nandewar, Brigalow Belt South, South-eastern Highlands and New England Tableland bioregions. In contrast, much of the native vegetation has been retained in the Australian Alps, Simpson Strzelecki Dunefields, Mulga Lands, Channel Country and Broken Hill Complex bioregions. These results are also supported by the National Land and Water Resources Audit, although there are some differences in the estimates of vegetation cleared as the audit includes data on bioregions extending beyond the State borders.

Figure 6.2: Native vegetation cleared and retained in NSW bioregions

Figure 6.2

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Source: NPWS data, as at November 2002

Notes: The bioregions are defined under the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation of Australia (Environment Australia 2000). Does not include the Australian Capital Territory.

Clearing data presented at a State or bioregional level can obscure significant local impacts. For example, it is known that up to 100% of the original native vegetation has been cleared in some subregions (Pressey et al. 2000). A recent study found that the majority of areas most severely affected had a high clearance of structural vegetation formations, particularly sclerophyll grassy woodlands, grasslands, swamp sclerophyll forests and semi-arid woodlands (Keith 2002; see also Biodiversity 6.1). In most areas more than 70% of the original grassy woodlands have been lost to clearing (Keith 2002).

Grasslands, shrublands and sparse woodlands support a rich and diverse array of native species and currently contain a large proportion of the State's threatened plants and animals. Clearing and unsustainable timber extraction may lead to a scarcity of ecologically well-structured woodlands. The ecosystems near major population centres are also under considerable pressure, particularly those close to rapidly expanding coastal settlements (see Human Settlement 2.1).

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Response to the issue

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Reducing the clearing of native vegetation

A number of approaches are being used to address clearing of native vegetation:

  • legislation to control clearing
  • protection of native vegetation in conservation reserves
  • conservation covenants and financial incentives for the protection of native vegetation on private land
  • policies for the sustainable management of public native forests.

Australia has targets for managing native vegetation under a national framework. States and Territories are required to have measures in place by 2003 to prevent clearance of ecological communities currently below 30% of their pre-1750 level (Environment Australia 2001b; NRMMC 2000). The NSW Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources (DIPNR) is preparing a discussion paper on establishing a system for reporting on the condition of native vegetation. In addition, the NSW and Commonwealth governments have agreed to an objective of no net loss of native vegetation under the Natural Heritage Trust Bushcare Agreement (Benson 2001).

The Native Vegetation Conservation Act 1997 is the main legislative tool in NSW for managing native vegetation. Under the Act, the Native Vegetation Advisory Council has developed a draft Native Vegetation Conservation Strategy (NVAC 2000). The Act aims to prevent inappropriate clearing of vegetation by requiring approval from DIPNR to clear vegetation where the land is not otherwise exempted (DLWC 1999b). Applicants are frequently required to agree to conditions before an approval is granted. These generally require the retention and replanting of vegetation within the approved area to preserve habitat and protect against land degradation (see Figure 6.3).

The NSW Government has accepted the model for native vegetation management put forward by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists (Wentworth Group 2003) and is committed to ending broadscale clearing of remnant vegetation in a two-stage process beginning in 2003.

At December 2002, DIPNR had received over 3000 applications to clear native vegetation since the introduction of the Native Vegetation Conservation Act 1997. The total area of applications and the rate of approval varies from year to year. Figure 6.3 shows that annual approvals for clearing ranged from 58,000 to 175,000 hectares between 1998 and 2002.

Figure 6.3: Total applications for clearing, 1998–2002

Figure 6.3

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Source: DIPNR Public Register of Clearing Applications data, as at December 2002

Note: The regions used are based on DIPNR operational regions, with the 'Far West' corresponding to the Western Division of NSW.

The majority of the approvals have been for western NSW, mainly for agricultural activities. Over 90% of all clearing approvals for agriculture are west of the Great Dividing Range, whereas over 90% of all approvals for private forestry-related clearing occur east of the divide (DIPNR Native Vegetation Clearing Report data, as at December 2002). This data shows that, at the level of bioregions, many approvals are still occurring in areas of the State with high or intermediate conservation priorities (NPWS in press). The extent that these negative correlations occur at a local level is not yet clear.

Approvals for clearing do not give a complete picture of the loss of native vegetation and ecosystems. The main reasons for this are:

  • not all vegetation clearing requires approval
  • actual on-ground clearing may not occur for some years after approval has been granted, or may not occur at all
  • many clearing applications are not specifically for the removal of high quality native woody vegetation but may, for example, relate to clearing of native pastures, which involves thinning or lopping rather than complete removal
  • approximately a quarter of the clearing allowed each year is granted for management purposes, such as clearing of invasive native species, removal of exotic species on State protected land, managing the burning of woody weeds in western NSW, and selective logging on the eastern seaboard
  • vegetation may be cleared illegally.

There is little information on illegal clearing, although one estimate puts it at more than 36,000 hectares per year (NCC 2001). There has been a progressive increase in the number of alleged breaches of native vegetation clearing controls since the enactment of the Native Vegetation Conservation Act 1997 (Audit Office 2002).

Exemptions under the Act were reviewed between 2000 and 2002, in consultation with the community. The review found that the exemptions allowing native vegetation to be cleared without the need for DIPNR approval were complex, inconsistent and difficult to interpret, use and enforce (Community Reference Panel 2001).

Another key aspect of the Act is the Native Vegetation Management Fund. This provides financial assistance to landholders to implement a management strategy for native vegetation on their properties. By January 2003, the fund had paid over $10 million in grants to 735 landholders to protect 78,407 hectares of native vegetation. In addition almost $750,000 went to the NPWS for Voluntary Conservation Agreements with 61 landholders to protect over 5000 hectares of native vegetation. Another $500,000 has been paid to 40 landholders involved in Voluntary Conservation Agreements to protect about 4000 hectares of private property (see also Biodiversity 6.1).

The Native Vegetation Conservation Act 1997 also established a system of community-based Regional Vegetation Committees who prepare Regional Vegetation Management Plans. These plans identify areas of high conservation value that are to be maintained, areas of native vegetation which require approval to clear, and where regional exemptions will apply. Plans are in place for the mid-Lachlan region and the Riverina highlands.

Australia's National Forest Policy Statement sets out a framework for addressing the conservation of forests on public land (Commonwealth of Australia 1995). Under the policy, Regional Forest Agreements between the Commonwealth and state governments address the long-term management and use of forests. Comprehensive Regional Assessments of forests identify areas that could contribute to a comprehensive, adequate and representative ('CAR') reserve system (see Biodiversity 6.1).

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Revegetation of cleared areas

Another key policy response to native vegetation decline is to revegetate cleared areas and thus restore biodiversity values. There is widespread community participation in revegetation activities across NSW. Local government, NPWS, Catchment Management Boards, Regional Vegetation Committees, Conservation Volunteers Australia, Dunecare, Coastcare, Landcare, Rivercare, Bushcare, Greening Australia and Clean-Up Australia all rely on the input of volunteers to restore and maintain native vegetation remnants. However, there are no current comprehensive estimates of the amount of revegetation in NSW by year, area or type of activity. DIPNR administers the Native Vegetation Change Measurement Program, which will address this information gap in the future.

Table 6.2 provides information on reported revegetation for private and public forestry, as well as planting on private farms from 1995 to 2001. There has recently been a significant increase in revegetation on privately owned properties. When public and private plantations and farm forestry plantings are excluded (because they are intended for subsequent harvest), revegetation is now estimated to be around 40,000 hectares per year. This increased activity, however, is less than the annual average clearing rates reported above, suggesting the 'no net loss' objective is not yet being achieved (see also Benson 2001).

Table 6.2: Reported revegetation across NSW, 1995–2001

Reason for planting

Area planted ('000 ha)

Before 1995–96(a)







Revegetation on private farms (non-forestry purposes)








Private forestry

Timber or pulp production: hardwoods(c)








Farm forestry(d)

> 1


> 1




> 1








Public forestry (State Forests of NSW)

Timber or pulp production: hardwoods(c)








Timber or pulp production: softwoods








Source: ABS 1998a; ABS 1998b; ABS 2000; ABS 2001; ABS 2002; State Forests 2002

Notes: Data presented in italics has been estimated by extrapolation from incomplete NSW or national data.
(a) Agricultural year: 1 April–31 March
(b) Financial year: 1 July–30 June
(c) Local and non-local species, for example the Tasmanian bluegum is widely used in plantations but is not native to NSW.
(d) Includes trees and shrubs planted as fodder or for plant products, such as bush food, oils, etc.
(e) Calendar year

Some types of plantation forestry, especially hardwood rather than softwood, can provide benefits for biodiversity. While these are not comparable to uncleared native forests, even plantings established with the aim of maximising timber yield tend to have more diverse sets of species than semi-cleared paddocks (Lindenmayer et al. 2003). This is especially so for plantations growing local species. Plantations can also have other environmental benefits that are indirectly related to biodiversity, such as improving hydrology and absorbing atmospheric carbon. However, from a carbon containment perspective, stopping land clearing is around 24–50 times more effective than equivalent areas of a plantation (AGO 2002).

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Effectiveness of responses

In 2002, the Audit Office of NSW investigated the performance of the State Government's system for regulating the clearing of native vegetation. The Audit Office criticised both the framework for native vegetation reform and its implementation (Audit Office 2002). Some of the key findings of its report were:

  • the Native Vegetation Conservation Strategy required under the Native Vegetation Conservation Act 1997 had not been finalised after well over four years and only one of the planned 22 Regional Vegetation Management Plans had at that time been approved
  • information about the status of native vegetation and changes to vegetation across the State was inadequate
  • the likelihood of breaches of the Act was high, the number of known or reported alleged breaches was steadily increasing, and compliance and enforcement efforts were limited.

Programs that encourage community participation in revegetation activities, such as the Natural Heritage Trust, have been criticised for promoting revegetation but failing to address land clearing and degradation issues (CIE et al. 1999). Replanting is not sufficient to offset the biodiversity losses created by clearing because of lags in species becoming established and sustained differences in species composition (Buckney & Morrison 1995; Wilkins et al. in press).

Timber plantations have been established more quickly than expected, which reduces the need to clear native forests for timber production (ABARE 2002). However the benefits of this for biodiversity are limited, as only a small proportion of current clearing is carried out for timber production on private lands.

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Future directions

Government needs to complete the Native Vegetation Conservation Strategy and reform the system of clearing approval and enforcement. A continued strong focus on retention of native vegetation, not just replanting, is also needed. The NSW Government has accepted the model for native vegetation management proposed by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and is committed to ending broadscale clearing of remnant vegetation and protecting re-growth areas across NSW.

Government, landholders and the community should continue to work together to better record and recognise the extent of private replanting. This includes improving data collection, monitoring and incentive programs to ensure and measure the success of these activities.

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Linked issues

2.1 Population and settlement patterns

4.1 Land-use changes

4.2 Soil erosion

4.3 Induced soil salinity

5.1 Freshwater riverine ecosystem health

5.3 Surface water quality

6.1 Terrestrial ecosystems

6.3 Terrestrial species diversity

6.6 Aquatic ecosystems

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