Leave the Trees

Last month the WA Department of Conservation announced a review of WA’s native vegetation clearing legislation. This is aimed at improving the processes and environmental outcomes. WA State Environment Minister David Templeman said,
wild creek by Andy Graham on Flickr

The review will examine the Environmental Protection (Clearing of Native Vegetation) Regulations 2004, and those parts of the Environmental Protection Act 1986 that were introduced in 2004 and which make it an offence to clear native vegetation unless a permit is granted or an exemption applies…While Western Australia has a rapidly growing economy, we need to ensure that future generations can enjoy the lifestyle benefits of an environment that is healthy and robust.

Minister Templeman promises the review will:

minimise the loss of our vital natural resources while ensuring we encourage the responsible developments that give our economy its life and strength…and address the concerns of industry and local government about red tape.

It’s the “giving life and strength to our economy” that bothers me. Our economy doesn’t need any more help – it’s our trees and critters that could do with a break. The concerns of industry and local government are not the same as concerns for our environment. Industry and local government would like to end all red tape, so they could clear with impunity whatever they want. I can imagine these words from some CEO’s mouth,

I paid good money for this land, I’ll do what I want.

Last November during the federal election campaign I read C.M. Gray’s views on a Getup Election Blog. He said,

In WA land clearing is out of control and the new state clearing regulations under the Environmental Protection Act have failed to reduce clearing and protect our unique biodiversity. They have failed to work towards the national objective of “reducing the national net rate of land clearance to zero.” In fact clearing has greatly increased in the last three years.

The Commonwealth has failed to protect nationally significant wetlands (classed as “Conservation Category Wetlands” by the State) at Perth Airport where hundreds of hectares have been cleared. The federal Howard government’s Airport privatisation under the Airports Act has been a disaster for WA’s rich biodiversity; both Perth Airport and Jandakot Airports are the top two out of the top three sites for fauna habitat in the region but are being cleared for non-aviation commercial developments ie. for money-making.

Perth Airport includes past habitat for the critically endangered Western Swamp Tortoise (Pseudemydura umbrina). The tortoise has been recorded only from scattered localities in a narrow strip (3km to 5km wide) of the Swan Coastal Plain, running roughly parallel with the Darling Scarp, from Perth Airport at Guildford to near Pearce Royal Australian Air Force Base at Bullsbrook [1]. During the 1960s numbers were estimated at around 300 within Twin Swamps and the Ellen Brook Nature Reserve, with the tortoise also still occurring near Midland, at Perth Airport, near Caversham and near Pearce [2]. Numbers have now declined to less than 50 mature individuals.

Anecdotal information suggests that the species’ past stronghold was the clay soils of the Swan River Valley, the first part of Western Australia developed for agriculture. Almost all this land is now cleared and either urbanised, used for intensive agriculture, or mined for clay used in brick and tile manufacture. [1]

In 1970 a single juvenile was found at Five Mile Swamp in the southern part of Perth Airport. This was the third remaining population of Western Swamp Tortoises. No further evidence has been found indicating the presence of a population at Perth Airport, despite extensive surveying [1]. Gray suggested that a population could have been established in this location. The population at Ellen Brook Nature Reserve is the only one with naturally occurring mature individuals. The population at Twin Swamps Nature Reserve has been supplemented since 1994 with captive-bred individuals after the species was considered to have become pretty much extinct there during the 1980s. A third population was established at Mogumber Nature Reserve in August 2000 using captive-bred juvenile stock [1]. Obviously the land at Perth Airport was too good as a development site to consider introducing any Western Swamp Tortoises or saving potential habitat of this critically endangered species.

The loss of habitat was and still is a critical cause of decline in numbers of Western Swamp Tortoise. Their long life, but slow reproduction rates, combined with highly specialised habitat requirements compound the problem [2].

marri tree by Andy Graham on Flickr Gray proposed the ending of all clearing and developments focused on lands already cleared – easy to do in our already over-cleared landscape.

The Terms of Reference of the review are available from Naturebase. Hopefully the review committee will be as independent as Minister Templeman promises. The committee will report at the end of September.


Photo credits

Wild creek by Andy Graham on Flickr
Marri tree by Andy Graham on Flickr


  1. Commonwealth Department of the Environment (2007) Pseudemydura umbrina (Western Swamp Tortoise).
  2. Burbidge & Kuchling (2007) “The Western Swamp Tortoise: 50 years on” Landscope, vol.22, no.4, p.24-29.

One thought on “Leave the Trees

  1. I’ve lived in Tuart Hill for the last 13 years and watched, helpless, while the last remaining tuart trees were felled. There’s one still standing at Tuart Hill primary school, but its future looks bleak, as it drops a branch every now and then…

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