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Conservation Covenants

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Tags: Biodiversity, Forests, Environment

Conservation Covenants Motion, Cassy O'Connor MP, 16 September 2020


Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens - Motion 343) - Madam Speaker, I move -

That the House -

(1) Acknowledges conservation covenants established under the Nature Conservation Act 2002 make a critical contribution to protection of natural values, ecosystem services and biodiversity.

(2) Notes there are 890 conservation covenants on private land, covering approximately 110 000 hectares.

(3) Further notes with concern that, as a result of changes to the planning system, the Gutwein Government is seeking to have all covenants on private land zoned Rural Use.

(4) Further notes this zoning allows for resource extraction, including logging and mining.

(5) Further notes the new Landscape Conservation zoning category prohibits resource extraction such as logging and mining.

(6) Further notes the Department of State Growth is writing to councils tasked with rezoning conservation covenants under the State Planning Provisions (SPP) urging rejection of Landscape Conservation zoning, on the basis it would have a 'sterilising effect on rural land … and potential to limit future resource use and development'.

(7) Recognises each established conservation covenant was agreed between private landowners and the Crown, represented by the Minister for Environment and Parks, Hon. Roger Jaensch MP on the basis of protection in perpetuity.

(8) Further notes there has been no engagement by the Environment Minister with covenant land holders in relation to this proposed weakening of protections, and agrees this is disrespectful at best.

(9) Agrees the most appropriate zoning for all land under conservation covenant is Landscape Conservation.

(10) Calls on the Minister for Planning, Hon. Roger Jaensch MP, who is also the Minister for Environment and Parks, to issue a Planning Directive to ensure covenanted land is protected from resource extraction through Landscape Conservation zoning across all municipalities.

We are moving to ensure that conservation covenants in Tasmania receive the protection in perpetuity which we believe most Tasmanians would understand them to already have, but of course, as we have discovered in recent times, there are question marks over those protections that now sit over conservation covenants in Tasmania.

Conservation covenants are established under the Nature Conservation Act 2002. They are a legally binding agreement between landowners and the Crown, which is represented by the minister for the environment. They make a critical contribution to the protection of natural values, ecosystem services and to biodiversity.

In Tasmania there are 890 covenants on private land that cover an area of about 111 000 hectares. Late last week we visited Peter Tuft, a landowner at Kettering, who has one of the most beautiful properties I have ever seen in Tasmania. Up on the hill looking over Storm Bay, Bruny Island, you can see all the way down to the Tasman Peninsula. At the foot of Peter Tuft's property is this beautiful patch of intact forest, and there is a conservation covenant on the Tuft's property. Of course, a question now hangs over the protected status of his covenanted property, as well as the other 889 conservation covenants in Tasmania.

This has come about as a result of changes to the Tasmanian planning system, which has seen, under interim planning schedules, conservation covenants zoned as Rural Resource. Now of course, each municipality is going through a formalised rezoning process, and those conservation covenants are by default being declared rural.

The issue here is that zoning would allow for extractive industries on covenanted land, including forestry and mining. We need to make sure that the guidance provided by the Tasmanian Planning Commission in its guidelines on state planning provisions is adhered to as part of this rezoning process. The Planning Commission has made it clear that the most appropriate zoning for covenanted land is Landscape Conservation zoning. This would ensure that there are no extractive industries - that is, logging and mining - on land which should be protected in perpetuity.

One of the problems we have here, though, is the Department of State Growth. The Department of State Growth wrote to the Tasmanian Planning Commission and its chair, Mr John Ramsay, on 20 December 2019, expressing a very strong view about what zoning should be applied to conservation covenants in Tasmania. It is the department's view that covenanted land, which we can think of in many ways as having national park protections on private land, the department's view is that those covenanted areas should be available in future for potential extractive industries, including forestry and mining.

The Department of State Growth, presumably on the part of Government, was lobbying the Tasmanian Planning Commission to ensure that covenanted land was zoned Rural Use, which means that it would be available potentially in future for extractive industries. The letter that the Department of State Growth wrote to the Planning Commission really is something, it is internally contradictory, but it is also dangerous in that it suggests that all those protections, which are over covenanted land, can be thrown out the window for some extractive industry that wishes to take place on an area of covenanted land. One of the most disturbing paragraphs is this one -

State Growth is concerned that the application of the landscape conservation zone in this manner could have a sterilising effect on rural land, well beyond the land parcels to be rezoned, which has the potential to limit future resource use and development.

That is why you establish a conservation covenant over a particularly special area of land, in order to limit what can happen on that land in future to protect the values which underpin the covenant. We go to internally contradictory statements in this letter. One says here -

The more sensitive uses there are across the rural landscape, the more difficult it is for extractive industries, which are considered appropriate in this environment, to gain approval. If the landscape conservation zone was to apply as proposed by the section 35F report, there is greater potential for a sterilising effect.

Then it goes on -

While it is understood there may be merit in protecting some land parcels from resource extraction activities, conservation covenants have traditionally been used for this purpose. Covenants provide appropriate protections without the need for different zoning, but may, inadvertently, exclude other activities into the future.

The application of the landscape conservation zone over land that is already the subject of a conservation covenant does not provide any additional protections.

This is a government agency contradicting itself in its advice to the Tasmanian Planning Commission. If the landscape conservation zoning did not provide additional protections from extractive industries, why is the department so opposed to it?

It is very clear that the 890 conservation covenanted parcels of land in Tasmania should have the strongest possible protections.

Dr Woodruff - Hear, hear.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Dr Woodruff.

Conservation Land Holders Tasmania is working to represent covenant holders in Tasmania. It has been contacting covenant land owners to inform them about the rezoning of their property to rural or agriculture, and encouraging them to request rezoning to landscape conservation during their local draft planning provisions exhibition period.

There is a big problem when you have a government department trying to undermine protections for covenanted land. But the other issue here is that the Crown, in this case the minister for environment and parks, has made no attempt to contact covenant holders in Tasmania. A covenant is a legally binding agreement between a land owner and the minister for environment and parks, but the minister for environment and parks is wholly conflicted on this matter because he is also the minister for planning. He has not endeavoured to engage with covenant holders on the issue of zoning as we move through these planning system changes.

When preparing their draft local provision schedules, planning authorities are mostly rezoning these areas as rural and agricultural, and covenant holders have been finding out about it through notices in the newspaper and that is it - other than the work now of Conservation Landholders Tasmania. So we are very concerned that this is an attempt to weaken the protections around covenanted land by stealth.

The Planning Commission has been very clear that the most appropriate zone for properties with conservation covenants is landscape conservation. We should be making sure that in a time of significant biodiversity decline those remarkable and very diverse areas of Tasmania that are protected by covenants are truly protected in perpetuity. We raised this issue at one point in the debate with the minister for Environment, and Planning, earlier this year and he got that far-off look in his eyes as if he did not know what we were talking about.

The minister for Environment, and Planning, knew exactly what we were talking about at that time. He knows now that it is a serious concern to have a government agency undermining the advice put forward in Guideline No. 1 by the Tasmanian Planning Commission, in order to make available potentially 111 000 hectares of Tasmania for extractive industries, for logging and mining.

The notion that these extractive industries should always have pre-eminence over any other land use and particularly over the protection of areas of land is offensive, ridiculous and is potentially very destructive. Hopefully the minister will respond during this debate and he can explain the motive for weakening the protections of covenanted land; what he sees his legal responsibilities are as a co-signatory to these covenants; and how he can explain to covenant holders why he has completely left them in the lurch because the conflict the minister has here is manifest and it is corrupting a process of re-zoning covenanted lands.

The minister who represents the Crown as the legally bound co-signatory to a covenant, that is, the minister for the Environment, is also the Minister for Planning who is overseeing an attempt to weaken the protections on covenanted land. Another very concerning aspect of all of this is that the process of negotiating covenants and agreeing covenants has all but stopped.

The Private Land Conservation Program was established in 2006 under DPIPWE. Information from their website is that it provides a single point of management for all the department's conservation programs that focus on private land. The program works with landowners to sustainably manage and conserve natural values, that is, native flora and fauna, natural wetlands, geo-conservation areas on private land. The department goes on to say - and I do wonder if the minister reads any of these things:


Capable land stewardship conserves the natural environment, providing benefits for future Tasmanians and visitors while enabling landowners to maintain market access and capitalise on new opportunities.

[The department's land conservation program seeks] to achieve high level recognition of the biodiversity value of natural systems and the need to appropriately protect them, and to support individuals who voluntarily manage these systems for conservation outcomes.

But the bad news is that the protected areas on private land program has been the principal, long-term convenanting program but currently is not accepting new applications. Instead, the PLCP staff are compiling a list of inquiries for future assessment:


Our focus is supporting current covenant owners and Land for Wildlife members.

That is an interesting statement. I wonder how many staff are left in the Private Land Conservation Program, because the covenant holders we have engaged with or heard from have not been told about this attempt to change the zoning and weaken the protections on covenanted land.

An agency that was working with landowners to establish conservation covenants is now no longer taking applications from private landowners as far as we know, and according to their own website. This is an accumulation of underfunding and under-resourcing of this area of government, to the detriment of the protection of natural values.

The Non-Forest Vegetation Project has now closed. The Forest Conservation Fund has now closed. The Private Forest Reserves Program has now closed. The Protected Areas on Private Land Program is not currently accepting new applications for covenants.

Dr Woodruff and I have been in here long enough to get used to this Government's constant undervaluing of natural systems, and prioritisation of developments and resource extraction in those parts of Tasmania that are unique and special and contribute towards our biodiversity.

This is a new low, because it has been done in such an underhand way. The minister owes covenant holders in Tasmania not only an explanation, but an apology. It is unacceptable to be the representative of the Crown, which is the signatory to covenants - I am not saying Mr Jaensch's signature is on those covenant agreements, because he has been the minister for a relatively short period of time. However, he is the representative of the Crown regarding these legally binding agreements, and these 890 landholders in Tasmania have not heard a word from him. Not only that, he, as part of Government, has overseen a rezoning process that will weaken protections, but is also no longer accepting covenant applications.

Many Tasmanians would be mortified to know that those areas they understood to be protected in perpetuity are not potentially protected - and if the Government, through its Department of State Growth, gets its way will be open to logging and mining. They would be really concerned to hear that this Government has stopped entering into covenant agreements with private landowners.

That is confronting, and it points to a real lack of appreciation for what the protection of natural values is all about. A real contempt for the natural environment, and a deep-seated philosophical belief that every part of Tasmania, possibly bar the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and Parks - but remember initially when the Hodgman government first came to office, they wanted to allow logging and mining in the World Heritage Area but there is this belief in Government that every part of Tasmania should be available to make coin from, that every part of Tasmania should be open to potential future resource extraction.

Places like Peter Tuft's little patch of forest at Kettering are unique in the world. This is a beautiful little forest with some big old eucalypts on it. It will be a haven for native species. The day we were there - during the day - there were wallabies near the forest grazing. Yellow tailed black cockatoos flew overhead. This is a special place, and all over Tasmania there are these special places that should effectively be like national parks on private land.

We are just the custodians of this beautiful island, that is all we are. We do not really own any part of it. Our job as parliamentarians - or ministers, as the case may be - surely is to leave the place in better shape than when we arrived - but not this Government, and that is heart-breaking.

I will digress briefly to talk about the logging coupe that we went up to last Thursday in the Denison Valley behind Geeveston. The Minister for Resources tells us that Forestry Tasmania does not log giant trees. There was a massive Eucalyptus obliqua, a swamp gum, and its girth was at one point about 4.5 metres and at another point of its sawn-off trunk around 5 metres. The tree was enormous, in fact so big that three attempts were made to fell it - you could tell from the cuts on the wood - and chop it into pieces, but it was too big so it was left on the ground to burn. In that single example we understand everything we need to know about this Government's attitude to the natural environment. A massive, old habitat tree was felled and left to burn. What a tragic waste, but it is emblematic of the same philosophy that allows a government to strip away through a rezoning process those protections in perpetuity which must sit over covenanted land.

It is damming of this Government and this minister, who is talking out two sides of his face on this issue, to strip away protections on covenanted land with one fell stroke through the planning system changes. We will not let it stand. We will work with Conservation Landholders Tasmania to try to make sure that those protections are strengthened, not weakened.

I have a letter here from Tasmanian creators Peter Timms and Robert Dessaix, who wrote to the minister, Mr Jaensch, in May this year concerned about the weakening of the protections on covenanted land. They wrote to him in his capacity as Minister for Environment and Parks, but perhaps they should have written to him in his capacity as Minister for Planning, concerned about what the changes to the planning system would mean for their little patch of covenanted land. They write:

As the owners of land on the east coast which is covered by a conservation covenant we are very disturbed to have received correspondence from Mr Mick Purvis, planning officer with the Glammorgan Spring Bay Council, which appears to throw into doubt the validity of conservation covenants in this state. We are hoping you will be able to clarify this matter both for us and for all other covenant holders.

Briefly, a letter dated 27 April from Conservation Landholders Tasmania informed us that changes to the Tasmanian Planning Scheme have resulted in conservation properties being rezoned as rural and agricultural. Our land near Orford has been rezoned by the council as agricultural without our knowledge or consent. As we understand it, this leaves our land vulnerable to future agriculture grazing and forestry.

Mr Purvis told us that, 'Conservation covenant landowners were not contacted by council and invited to participate in the public exhibition period. Planning schemes operate with two basic functions. Land use is governed by zones, in your case a rural resource zone. This was a result of a range of matters that are set out in the state planning provisions in guideline no. 1. Biodiversity issues such as you mentioned are principally managed though the waterway and coastal protection of priority vegetation overlays under the natural assets code. The rural zone was supported for your property due to the structure of these provisions, as they must be used under the state planning provisions and consistent with advice under guideline no. 1.

As I mentioned earlier, it is not consistent with advice under guideline no. 1 issued by the Tasmanian Planning Commission. The Tasmanian Planning Commission made it clear that the most appropriate zoning for areas of land that are all or partially covered by conservation covenance and not suitable for agricultural use should be zoned landscape conservation.

I understand that Labor may be proposing an amendment to our motion but I am not sure, there has been no communication from Labor to us. If there is no amendment being proposed I gather Labor will be voting against this. That is quite dispiriting for the conservation covenant holders in Tasmania but, to be honest, completely unsurprising.

My understanding was that there was a concern expressed by Ms Dow that potentially our motion was a bit too broad brush and there was a concern that it may exclude agriculture uses on some covenanted land. We would have been very happy to talk to you, Ms Dow, about making some adjustment to our motion so the effect was to ensure that most covenanted land areas were zoned landscape conservation zone and there was a provision made for covenance or part covenance over land where there are agricultural uses. Given Labor's inability to work constructively with the Greens or anyone else in this House, it does not appear that there will be any adjustments to get the right outcome for covenant holders in Tasmania.

It is just breathtaking. I ask myself on a daily basis on a sitting day why are they even here? It is so true. Stakeholders engage with Labor in good faith hoping there will be some outcome for them, but because of the resistance to working constructively with the Greens it would appear that Labor, in this place again, will let down stakeholders, although I am sure that Ms Dow said all the right things to the stakeholders.

I will just go back to the original motion briefly. We think the House should vote to support landscape conservation zoning over areas of land that were set aside for conservation purposes. We think that is the decent thing to do. Given that the Minister for Planning, who will stand up soon, is working with the Department of State Growth to make sure that protecions of covenanted land are being weakened, I do not know that is going to happen.

It is worth saying in closing that each established conservation covenant is a legally binding agreement between a private landholder and the Crown. It is a fact that those legally binding agreements place much stronger obligations on the private landowner than they do on government. Now we understand that government is undermining those legally binding agreements through a rezoning process.

Conservation covenance is an important part of the National Reserve Estate. It is how we achieve protections on private land and assist private landholders to look after their little patch of Tasmania. This whole parliament should be working constructively to help private landowners look after the covenanted areas of land. That is the only decent way to respond to this issue. We call on the Minister for Planning, who is also the Environment minister to issue a planning directive to ensure covenanted land is protected from resource extraction through Landscape Conservation zoning across all municipalities.

There is still half an hour to go before we call a vote on this notice of motion. I hope members on both sides of the House take this opportunity to reflect on their responsibility to the people of Tasmania, and their ethical responsibility to leave this place in a better state than it was when we arrived.

That is a responsibility Dr Woodruff and I take extremely seriously, as is evidenced by the matters we bring forward to this House, and indeed the way we vote, because we have the courage of our convictions and our values - which, regrettably, is a lot more than I can say for some of my colleagues.