“The right to acquire property is enumerated in many, if not all, of the State constitutions as one of the natural, inherent rights of men — one that is not surrendered to government — but which government has no power to infringe —one which government is bound to respect and secure.” Lysander Spooner
Environmentally sensitive areas (ESAs) are declared by the Minister for Environment under section 51B of the Environmental Protection Act 1986. There is a huge number of ESAs in this state – according to government reports there are 98,042 parcels of land that are not Crown Reserves or State Forest which include an ESA. The exact number is sketchy but if you want to check your own property, the location of ESAs can be viewed online using Landgate’s Shared Land Information Platform (SLIP).
Legislation states that a permit must be granted to clear any native vegetation from an ESA. All wetlands and much of Western Australia’s prime agricultural land have been identified by government as ESAs. To make matters worse, many graziers are unaware of ESA boundaries on their land and say they weren’t consulted on the legislation (which was enacted in 2005). It’s estimated the legislation affects 3,000 to 4,000 WA farmers.
This is a case of government control, pure and simple. I’ve written previously on property rights. This is not a new problem we’re facing but the consequences beyond anything we’ve seen before. In 1976 I wrote a paper on the increasing power government had in zoning land. In it I questioned the balance of ownership between the individual and the state. I also pointed out that basic human freedom was to be impacted if ownership shifted too far towards government.
There may be as many as 5000 farms affected by ESA declaration. Take Manjimup farmer Peter Swift. He was charged by the Department of Environment and Conservation in 2009 for removing native vegetation. How did they determine this? Through satellite monitoring of his property. Although acquitted, half his 1200-acre property is now ‘environmentally sensitive’ and cannot be used.
He faced legal fees and losses of $360,000. He also owes a hefty mortgage on the farm. Sadly, the long battle for Peter may soon be over. The bank has also valued his property without acknowledging the fact that only half of it is allowed to be farmed. How does this make sense?
Although government is looking to repeal the legislation that stops him using his land, this is not happening quickly enough.A petition was put forward to the Legislative Council of WA in August 2015. Government responsed to the petition by noting that the Act was “criticized for its complexity” and for “focusing on process rather than outcomes”. Government also stated it was looking at alternative methods but two years later have still not worked anything out.
Although the government is reviewing changes to the Act, these may come too late for WA farmers like Peter who are just trying to make a buck in an already difficult market.