Queensland underwent a dramatic surge in tree clearing – with the heaviest losses in Great Barrier Reef catchments – in the year leading up to the Palaszczuk government’s thwarted bid to restore protections.
Figures released on Thursday showed a 33% rise in clearing to almost 400,000 hectares in 2015-16, meaning Queensland now has two-thirds the annual rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
The latest Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (Slats) report showed a 45% jump in clearing in reef catchments, where 40% of all clearing took place.
The deputy premier, Jackie Trad, said the rise of 100,000 hectares to 395,000 hectares cleared was “incredibly alarming”.
“We know that the current rates of land clearing in Queensland are unsustainable. Australia has become one of the deforestation hotspots in the world – the only advanced economy to be named in the 12 deforestation hotspots in the world.
“[It’s] because Queensland has returned to the bad old days of bulldozing hundreds of thousands of hectares of woody and remnant vegetations in order to make way particularly for pasture for cows,” she said.
Rates of clearing surged when Campbell Newman promised to scrap restrictions, which his Liberal National party (LNP) government did in December 2013. Rates then reached a plateau of about 300,000 hectares for several years.
The minority Labor government tried to reverse the legislation last year, but was blocked at the 11th hour in August 2016 when its former MP turned crossbencher Billy Gordon sided with the LNP.
The Newman changes included wiping out protections for high conservation value regrowth, which made up about a third of clearing in 2015-16. The resurgence of clearing shown in the latest figures raises concerns about a fresh bout of “panic clearing” by rural landholders – primarily graziers – in anticipation of Labor’s changes going through.
Labor has promised to push through protections if returned to office with a majority at the upcoming election, while the LNP and One Nation – which could hold the balance of power – have said they will scotch reforms.
The environment minister, Steven Miles, said the latest report was “nothing short of devastating” because of the effects on wildlife, reef waters and coral, and Australia’s carbon emissions.
“It’s even worse than my worst fears for this next round of land clearing data,” he said.
Miles said that “most concerningly” 35% of clearing was of remnant bushland, “138kha of old growth native forest, the most important habitat for native species”.
“We know that each year in Queensland 900,000 mammals lose their lives due to this loss of habitat.”