Record penalty for illegal clearing of wetland
14 October 2004
Gwydir Ramsar Wetlands - Penalty decision
In 2004 the Federal Court of Australia imposed a record $450,000 penalty on a NSW farmer and his company for illegally clearing and ploughing a wetland of international importance. This is the heaviest penalty yet to be imposed on an Australian landholder for damage to the environment and is the first civil prosecution against a party in relation to a matter of national environmental significance under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
The penalty followed a Federal Court decision of 11 June 2004, which found that Mr Ronald Greentree and AUEN Grain Pty Ltd had contravened the EPBC Act as a result of clearing, ploughing and wheat-cropping activities conducted within the Gwydir Ramsar Wetlands, near Moree, in New South Wales.
The court fined Mr Greentree $150,000 and his company, AUEN Grain Pty Ltd, $300,000 for significant impacts caused to the wetlands and awarded costs to the Australian Government.
The court issued an injunction preventing Mr Greentree from taking any further agricultural activity on the land, and also from running livestock on the site until at least 2007. Mr Greentree was also ordered to rehabilitate the site.
Windella Ramsar wetland before clearing
Windella Ramsar wetland after clearing
The EPBC Act
The EPBC Act was introduced in July 2000. Under the Act, actions that have or are likely to have a significant impact on the matters of national environmental significance are prohibited unless prior approval is granted by the Minister for the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.
The Gwydir Wetlands are one of Australia's wetlands of international importance, listed under the Ramsar Convention. Ramsar listed sites are representative, rare or unique wetlands, and are important for conserving biological diversity. They provide seasonal breeding and feeding grounds for close to 500,000 colonial water birds, including rare and migratory birds, such as magpie geese, glossy ibis and brolgas.
Summary of reasons for the Federal Court's decision
In making his decision, Justice Sackville found that Mr Greentree instructed the farming operations manager of Greentree Farming to clear and plough land on the Windella property in preparation for a seed bed. By 30 July 2003, virtually the whole of the Ramsar site on Windella had been cleared and ploughed. By 16 August 2003, approximately 30 percent had been sown with wheat.
Justice Sackville found that 'the contravening conduct by Mr Greentree and Auen was deliberate' and that 'Mr Greentree (and, through him Auen) was well aware that any unauthorised action on his part that had significant impact on the ecological character of Windella Ramsar site would constitute a contravention of the EPBC Act.'
'Mr Greentree was well aware of the approximate boundaries of the Windella Ramsar site when he gave instructions for the clearing and ploughing of virtually the whole site and the sowing of wheat on a substantial part of the site. When giving the instructions, Mr Greentree knew that whatever ecological character the site retained as a wetland would be largely destroyed, at least for a lengthy period, once his instructions were carried out.'
Justice Sackville also found that 'the contravening conduct took place over a period of time' and that 'the deliberate conduct was more than an isolated act of the kind that might occur as the result of an impulsive error of judgment. It was planned conduct.'
The actions of Mr Greentree and Auen caused significant ecological damage to the Windella Ramsar site. 'The native vegetation remaining on the site in February 2003 was almost entirely removed. Moreover, the capacity of the site to regenerate as a wetland refuge for native plants and as a habitat for native fauna has been severely impaired.'
In setting the pecuniary penalty, Justice Sackville noted that neither Mr Greentree nor Auen has shown contrition for their conduct. Nothing has been said on their behalf that amounts to an unqualified acknowledgment that their conduct was wrong. Nor have they expressed regret at the environmental damage that their conduct has caused. Justice Sackville rejected the contention that the conduct was the result of an honest but mistaken belief.
Working with farmers
A focus of the Australian Government since the introduction of the EPBC Act has been to work with farmers to increase understanding of the Act and help landholders meet their obligations. Most farmers are good environmental managers keen to use whatever resources are available to protect both the natural and economic value of their land. The Government will continue to help them work within the legislation.
As an example of the assistance that is provided, the government funds an officer who works with the National Farmers Federation to provide advice and assistance to farmers who think they may be impacted by the legislation.
Staff from the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts often work with farmers who have endangered communities on their land to develop farm management strategies that allow property development while protecting important parts of the environment. The Department has negotiated a number of conservation agreements with farmers to help them with the process of protecting important habitats on their farms.
Resorting to legal action to enforce the Act is not undertaken lightly and used only in the most serious cases, and only after cooperative or alternative approaches to resolving disputes have failed. Landholders who do the right thing by the environment and the law can see that others who seek advantage by disregarding environmental regulations will be called to account.
For more information on the penalty decision see: