Sydney Morning Herald, December 21, 2011
Soaring numbers ... an area equivalent to 138,400 football fields was cleared in NSW's bushland last year. Photo: Pat Scala
THE amount of bushland being cleared by logging in NSW soared last year to the highest level since state-wide records began in 1988.
An area equivalent to 138,400 football fields was cleared for crops, forestry or infrastructure, says a government report.
The Office of Environment and Heritage said the rise in logging was probably cancelled out by regrowth, leading to no net loss of trees, though its most recent survey took place in 2008, before the land clearing spike. It said the reasons for the logging increase were unclear.
"[The] most likely factors relate to market demand and favourable climatic conditions and [they] can be expected to fluctuate over time," a department spokesman said. "It is also possible that recent changes in forestry methods are more readily detectable by satellite monitoring."
Environment groups said the annual vegetation report was evidence that logging companies were operating in an unrestrained manner.
Bushfires remain the biggest destroyer of forests in the state, leading to a net loss of 48,300 hectares in 2010, the report said.
But logging activities now come a close second, accounting for the removal of 42,700 hectares of trees in 2010. This is up from 31,000 hectares the previous year, and an average of about 21,000 hectares a year since 1988.
About 21,200 hectares of bushland was cleared in 2010 to make new areas for crops and grazing, while 5300 hectares were cut down to make way for roads, factories and housing.
"The NSW government is currently conducting a review of native vegetation controls," said the chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, Pepe Clarke. "They should take this report as a warning - what is required are stronger land- clearing laws that do more to protect the environment, not weaker ones."
The Wilderness Society said the government had "failed in its promises to restrain land clearing, resulting in rapid and accelerating degradation of wildlife habitat and water catchments."
The most recent State of the Environment report found that there had been no net loss of "woody cover" across NSW between 2003 and 2008.
"This is because, although clearing has occurred over that period, there has also been an equivalent amount of regrowth including government sponsored environmental and forestry planting programs conducted by private landholders and state forests, within crown forests areas," the department said.
"Notwithstanding no net loss over the whole state, some regions have experienced net declines in woody cover."
The report uses the international definition of "woody cover", which includes land at least 20 per cent covered by the crowns of trees higher than 2 metres, a description which would include relatively open country.
The introduction of a satellite monitoring system for land clearing last year appears to have increased the level of prosecution for illegal land clearing on private property. On crown lands, the number of prosecutions has increased threefold, from a low base, since 2007.
In 2010, the government received 471 reports of suspected illegal land clearing.