Land-clearing in New South Wales has risen nearly 60% since the state relaxed its native vegetation laws in 2017, new government data shows.
The report shows 60,800 hectares of woody vegetation was cleared in 2018, up from 58,000 hectares the previous year and an average of 38,800 hectares between 2009 and 2017.
Of this clearing, 73% was unexplained, meaning it wasn’t referred to the state government for an environmental assessment, either because an approval was not required or the clearing may have been conducted unlawfully.
The 2018 data signals a jump of 57% on the long-term average for the state and follows the government’s introduction of more lenient land-clearing laws in August 2017.
About half (29,400ha) of the 2018 woody vegetation clearing was for agriculture, 23,300ha for forestry and 8,100ha for infrastructure projects.
The amount of agricultural clearing in the state was more than double the 2009-17 average of 12,300 ha.
Guardian Australia sought comment from the environment minister Matt Kean, whose department is responsible for the report, and was told to contact the NSW Local Land Service for a response – the service is a network of regional offices that administers land management, but is not responsible for policy.
The state’s north-west and central west each recorded huge rises in the amount of unexplained clearing. In the north-west region, unexplained clearing of both woody and non-woody vegetation (grasses, small shrubs and ground cover) increased from 3,666ha in 2017 to 22,310ha in 2018. In the central west, it grew from 2,270ha to 14,088ha.
The independent MP Justin Field called on the government to investigate, saying the data showed biodiversity and land-clearing reform in the state had resulted in “rampant deforestation”.
“There is little wonder we face the extinction of the koala in NSW if this level of deforestation is being allowed under the Berejiklian government,” he said.
He said the government had ignored a Natural Resources Commission report from early this year that labelled NSW’s land-clearing laws a “state-wide risk to biodiversity”.
Field said the government should investigate the large increase in unexplained clearing and suspend the two-year statute of limitations on prosecutions for illegal land-clearing.
“I’m calling for the statute of limitations on prosecutions for illegal land-clearing to be suspended until the public can be reassured that investigation and enforcement is able to proceed unhindered,” he said.
“It would be too easy for those landholders who have done the wrong thing to try to drag out the investigation process to avoid prosecution.”
Guardian Australia reported last week on WWF analysis that found more than a million hectares of land had been cleared in NSW and Queensland without referral to the federal environment department for assessment.
Stuart Blanch, a conservation scientist at WWF Australia, said the rise in unexplained clearing was also identified in the NSW government’s previous land clearing report a year ago.
“They’ve got what they wanted,” he said. “They wrote such weak laws it’s caused a land clearing tsunami.
“I don’t think the Nationals want to know about it. Because if they did monitor and attribute it and found out there was a lot of illegal clearing they would have to prosecute it.”
A scathing report by the Australian National Audit Office noted that agricultural clearing was rarely being referred to the federal department for an assessment under national environmental law.
The interim report from a statutory review of Australia’s national environmental laws is due shortly.