Deforestation in Australia: drivers, trends
and policy responses
Megan C. Evans
The Australian National University, Fenner School of Environment and Society,
Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract. Australia’s terrestrial environment has been dramatically modified since European colonisation.
Deforestation – the clearing and modification of native forest for agricultural, urban and industrial development –
remains a significant threat to Australia’s biodiversity. Substantial policy reform over the last 40 years has delivered a
range of policy instruments aimed to control deforestation across all Australian States and Territories. Despite these policy
efforts – as well as strong governance and high institutional capacity – deforestation rates in Australia were nonetheless
globally significant at the turn of this century. Legislation introduced in Queensland and New South Wales during the mid-
2000s was at the time seen to have effectively ended broad-scale clearing; however, recent policy changes have raised
concerns that Australia may again become a global hotspot for deforestation. Here, I describe the deforestation trends,
drivers and policy responses in Australia over the last four decades. Using satellite imagery of forest cover and
deforestation events across Australia between 1972 and 2014, I present a comprehensive analysis of deforestation rates
at a fine resolution. I discuss trends in deforestation with reference to the institutional, macroeconomic and environmental
conditions that are associated with human-induced forest loss in Australia. I provide a detailed history and critique of the
native vegetation policies introduced across Australia over the last 40 years, including recent legislative amendments and
reviews. Finally, I comment on future prospects for curbing deforestation in Australia, including the role of incentive-
based policies such as carbon farming, private land conservation and biodiversity offsets. Despite being a highly active
policy space, very little is known of the effectiveness of policy responses to deforestation in Australia, and whether the
recent shift away from ‘command and control’ policies will necessarily lead to better outcomes. My analysis demonstrates
the need for an effective policy mix to curb deforestation in Australia, including a greater focus on monitoring, evaluation
and policy learning.
Additional keywords: biodiversity, biodiversity offsets, conservation, carbon farming, environmental policy, environ-
mental regulation, native vegetation, remote sensing
Received 6 November 2015, accepted 4 April 2016, published online 6 May 2016
Habitat loss is recognised as a major threat to biodiversity within
the Oceania region (Kingsford et al. 2009). Globally and within
Oceania, Australia is significant for both its megadiversity
(Mittermeier and Mittermeier 1997), and the extent to which its
terrestrial species and ecosystems have been impacted by human
activities (Mittermeier et al. 1999;Myers et al. 2000;Evans
et al. 2011;Williams et al. 2011). Prior to European colonisa-
tion, ,30% of Australia’s terrestrial area was covered in ‘forest’
(Barson et al. 2000;Bradshaw 2012) – defined as forest and
woodland dominated by trees at least 2 m high, with at least
20% canopy cover and a minimum area of 0.2 ha (Furby 2002).
Since that time, ,40% of this original forest extent has been
subject to deforestation: cleared or extensively modified for
agricultural, urban or industrial development (Graetz et al.
1995;Barson et al. 2000;Lindenmayer 2005;Bradshaw 2012).
Much of Australia’s remaining forest, shrubland, grassland and
open woodland ecosystems are now degraded or fragmented
(Kirkpatrick 1994;Norton 1996;Tulloch et al. 2015).
As a developed nation, with strong governance arrange-
ments, a high level of institutional capacity and a relatively
small population, it might be expected that deforestation in
Australia should be slowing towards a ‘forest transition’ – the
cessation and eventual reversal of forest loss (Angelsen and
Kaimowitz 1999;Rudel et al. 2005;Lambin and Meyfroidt
2011). Yet at the turn of the 21st century, Australia’s deforesta-
tion rate was the sixth highest in the world (ACF 2001;FAO
2001), and the latest statistics suggest that Australia’s defores-
tation may again become globally significant (Department of
Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts
2015;Bulinski et al. 2016).
The environmental impacts of deforestation cannot be dis-
puted. Clearing, modification and fragmentation of native
vegetation erodes soil, contributes to salinity, and are key
Pacific Conservation Biology, 2016, 22, 130–150
Journal compilation ÓCSIRO 2016 www.publish.csiro.au/journals/pcb
drivers in the decline of woodland birds, reptiles and mammals
(Saunders 1989;Norton 1996;McAlpine et al. 2002). Land
clearing, the local term for deforestation, has been repeatedly
identified as the most significant threat to terrestrial biodiversity
in Australia (State of the Environment 2011 Committee 2011).
Deforestation is also a major contributor to human-induced
climate change. In the base year of the Kyoto Protocol (1990),
greenhouse gas emissions due to deforestation in Australia
equated to 132 Mt CO2-e, or 25% of the country’s total
emissions (Macintosh 2012;Australian Government 2013).
However, deforestation in Australia is also a deeply political
issue, and has been a prominent topic of debate between
environmentalists, farmers and foresters over the last four
decades (Lindenmayer 2014). The drivers, trends and policy
responses to deforestation cannot be fully understood without
reference to its institutional
and macroeconomic dimensions, in
addition to its ecological impacts and limits.
The history of deforestation in Australia was most recently
examined by Bradshaw (2012), who draws upon the first
systematic nation-wide study of land cover change over 1990–
95 (Barson et al. 2000) and the National Carbon Accounting
System (NCAS) (Australian Greenhouse Office 2003) to docu-
ment the trends in forest loss and degradation across Australia
from European settlement up until 2005. Bartel (2008,2004)
provides the most detailed reviews of Australia’s native vegeta-
tion policies to date, and highlights the importance of the use of
satellite imagery to monitor deforestation and to evaluate policy
effectiveness. However, significant changes have occurred in
the policy landscape since the publication of Bradshaw (2012)
and Bartel (2004,2008). Legislation introduced from 2005 in
the historically high-deforestation States of Queensland and
New South Wales had arguably marked the end of broad-scale
land clearing in Australia (McGrath 2007;Taylor and Dickman
2014). Yet since 2010, a nationwide trend towards the relaxation
of native vegetation regulations may be leading to increased
deforestation (Bulinski et al. 2016), and so an up-to-date
summary of deforestation trends, drivers and policy responses
Notwithstanding the extensive commentary that exists on
Australia’s protected areas (Taylor et al. 2011;Watson et al.
2011), natural resource management (Lockie and Higgins 2007;
Hajkowicz 2009;Robins and Kanowski 2011), and forestry
policy (Norton and Mitchell 1993;Kirkpatrick 1998;Lane
1999), there has been comparatively limited examination of
the policy responses to deforestation (Bartel 2003,2004,2008;
Macintosh 2012). Although the impacts on biodiversity from the
loss and degradation of native forests through commercial
forestry operations are well documented (Lindenmayer 2014),
deforestation due to agricultural, urban and industrial develop-
ment on private land, particularly since the 1970s, has had far
more widespread impacts (Barson et al. 2000;Australian
Here, I provide a comprehensive review of policy instru-
ments aimed to control deforestation in Australia over the last
four decades. I focus specifically from 1970 onwards for three
reasons. First, the early history of deforestation in Australia has
been covered extensively elsewhere (Rolfe 2000;Bartel 2004,
2008;Seabrook et al. 2006;Bradshaw 2012;Bombell and
Montoya 2014), but there has been comparatively limited focus
on its policy dimensions (cf. Bartel 2004,2008), and no analysis
of contemporary policy trends from 2005 onwards. Second, in
the context of Australia’s history since European colonisation,
government regulation of deforestation is only a fairly recent
phenomenon. Deforestation for agricultural development has
historically been incentivised by the Federal and State govern-
ments through low-cost finance, tax concessions, cheap land and
lease conditions that required the removal and management of
native vegetation (Australian Greenhouse Office 2000;Austra-
lian Bureau of Statistics 2002;Seabrook et al. 2006). Most of
these incentives were removed by the 1980s, when public
concern over the environmental effects of deforestation began
to rise (Council of Australian Governments 1992). Finally,
nationally consistent spatial data on deforestation events devel-
oped as part of the National Carbon Accounting System (NCAS)
are now available from 1972 up to 2014 (Australian Department
of the Environment 2015).
I first present a comprehensive analysis of deforestation rates
at a fine resolution, by analysing satellite imagery of forest cover
and deforestation events across Australia between 1972 and
2014. I discuss these statistics by State, land use and land tenure.
Next, I provide a detailed history and critique of native vegeta-
tion policies across Australia, including recent legislative
amendments and reviews. I conclude with an analysis of policy
trends with reference to the broader macroeconomic trends over
the last 40 years, and comment on future prospects for curbing
deforestation in Australia, including the role of a more diverse
range of policy instruments.
Deforestation trends and drivers
Data analysis and methodology
I draw upon the most recent national-scale spatial data to
describe deforestation trends over time (Australian Department
of the Environment 2015). The Australian Government com-
piles fine-resolution data of land cover change as part of the
NCAS (Furby 2002;Lehmann et al. 2013). The NCAS uses over
7000 Landsat MSS, TM and ETMþimages to map forest extent
and change at a 25-m resolution across the Australian continent,
excluding the treeless inland desert areas and grasslands. Note
that these spatial data exclude native vegetation types which do
not meet the height, canopy cover and area thresholds of ‘forest’
as defined by Furby (2002), meaning that the loss of grassland,
shrubland and open woodland is not captured by this analysis.
While I discuss deforestation trends specifically with reference
to data on forest extent and change, I refer to the policy
responses to deforestation as ‘native vegetation policies’, which
recognises that clearing of non-forest vegetation is often (but not
always) regulated in addition to the clearing of forest.
Data on forest extent and change are available for 23 epochs
(instances in time) from 1972 to 2014 in the intensive-land-use
Institutions incorporate formal (laws, property rights) and informal (traditions, cultural and social norms) rules (North 1991). In this paper I focus on formal
institutions, though recognise that cultural factors are also important drivers of deforestation behaviour (Australian Greenhouse Office 2000;Bartel and
Deforestation in Australia Pacific Conservation Biology 131
zone only (Graetz et al. 1995), where most landscape modifica-
tion has occurred. Forest change events were attributed to
human intervention, meaning that ‘natural’ forest change attrib-
utable to factors such as fire (and associated recovery), dieback,
salinisation, drought and seasonal flushing were removed
(Furby 2002). Prior to 2004, annual data on deforestation events
are not available within the NCAS, and are instead captured
within multiyear epochs. For example, the 1972 epoch contains
deforestation events over a five-year period from 1972 to 1977.
Following expert advice (Australian Department of the Envi-
ronment 2015; S. Reddy, pers. comm.), I converted deforesta-
tion events contained within the 23 epochs into annual values
over 43 years from 1972 to 2014. Further details are provided in
the Supplementary Material, available online.
The amount of arable land available to clear has been
highlighted previously as an important factor influencing defor-
estation behaviour (Australian Greenhouse Office 2000;Bartel
2004,2008). In particular, Bartel (2004) suggests that native
vegetation policies introduced in South Australia in the 1980s
may have had little effect simply because there was scarce
primary (remnant) forest remaining on land suitable for agricul-
tural development. As such, an exploration of deforestation
trends in the context of the amount of primary forest remaining
intact is warranted. To derive an estimate of the amount of
primary forest remaining over time, I assume that the forest
extent in 1972 (the earliest epoch in the dataset) is all primary
forest. I then deduct the primary deforestation events each year
from the remaining primary forest extent from the previous year.
This calculation resulted in an estimate of primary forest
remaining from 1972 to 2014. I derive an estimate of deforesta-
tion occurring on reforested land (regrowth deforestation) by
considering deforestation events that occurred on land classified
as non-forest in 1972, as well as land that was deforested, and
subsequently reforested and deforested again over the 1972–
2014 period. In reality, much of the forest extent in 1972 would
in fact be regrowth forest, so the results I present here should be
considered in the context of this simplifying assumption. While
the total amount of deforestation would be unaffected by this
assumption, the primary deforestation statistics should be
regarded as an overestimate, and the regrowth deforestation as
I use the most recent national datasets (Geoscience Australia
1993;ABARES 2010) to summarise deforestation trends by
land use and tenure. Note that land use and tenure data are not
available over the full time series, so these summaries should
therefore be considered only as an estimate. I use the ‘raster’
package (Hijmans and van Etten 2014) in R Statistical software
(R Development Core Team 2014) for all raster processing.
Trends in deforestation
From 1972 to 2014, over 7.2 million ha of primary forest was
cleared across Australia. The total land forested in 1972 was
101 million ha, hence the primary deforestation that has
occurred up to 2014 represents a 7% reduction in this extent. An
additional 9.5 million ha of regrowth forest were cleared over
this period (Fig. 1). Most of this deforestation has occurred in
Queensland, where 9.7 million ha of forest has been cleared, of
which 3.6 million was primary deforestation.
The greatest overall deforestation occurred in the decade of
1980–89, where close to 4.7 million ha of native vegetation
(including 2.4 M ha of regrowth) was cleared across the country
(Fig. 2). Total deforestation has declined in the following
decades; however, regrowth deforestation increased again in
the 2000s, during which time Queensland cleared 1.5 M ha of
regrowth vegetation. The rate of primary deforestation has still
substantially decreased since the 1970s, when extensive tracts of
forest in south-western Western Australia and Queensland were
cleared for agricultural development (Graetz et al. 1995;Barson
et al. 2000).
As indicated by Fig. 3a, most deforestation has occurred for
pasture, with much smaller percentages for cropping, forestry,
urban development and mining. A surprisingly high percentage
of clearing occurred in conservation areas and minimal-use
areas; however, this may not be an accurate representation and
should be regarded as an estimate only, given the use of the
2005–06 land-use layer (ABARES 2010). Only a small percent-
age of deforestation has occurred on public land (2%: Fig. 3b),
with the remainder occurring on freehold (78% over 1972–
2014) and leasehold (20%) land. Deforestation has occurred
disproportionally on freehold land, relative to the percentage of
total land mass held in this tenure (31%: Geoscience Australia
Relative to the amount of primary forest remaining, there
has generally been a decline in primary deforestation in each
State over time (Fig. 4), although an increase in the rate of
deforestation can be seen in several states in the early 1990s and
early–mid 2000s. At the national scale, there is an overall
declining trend in deforestation, and a link to the amount of
primary forest remaining to clear is also apparent (Figs 5a,b).
Data not available
Fig. 1. Distribution of total deforestation events (including primary and
regrowth deforestation) attributed to human intervention from 1972 to 2014.
Forest change attributable to ‘natural’ factors such as fire, dieback, salinisa-
tion, drought and seasonal flushing is not shown. Data are sourced from the
National Carbon Accounting System (NCAS) (Australian Department of the
132 Pacific Conservation Biology M. C. Evans
1970–79 1980–89 1990–99 2000–09
Deforestation (M ha)
Fig. 2. Amount of deforestation (total, primary and regrowth) per decade, during 1972–2014, for all
Australian states and territories (excluding Australian Capital Territory).
1980–89 1990–99 2000–09
Conservation and Natural
Fig. 3. Percentage of total deforestation in each decade, by (a) land use (as of 2005–06, above) and (b) land tenure (as of
1993, below). Data are sourced from ABARES (2010) and Geoscience Australia (1993), respectively.
Deforestation in Australia Pacific Conservation Biology 133
There appears to be some relationships between deforestation in
Australia over time and key macroeconomic and climatic
variables (Fig. 5), though this requires further analysis to
confidently attribute any change in these variables to the rate
of deforestation. Similarly, a rigorous quantitative evaluation is
needed to reliably establish what effect the introduction of
native vegetation policies over the past four decades has had
on deforestation in Australia.
A history of native vegetation policy in Australia
Deforestation is mainly regulated at the State level in Australia
(Bricknell 2010). Land clearing has been listed as a Key
Threatening Process under the Federal Government’s Envi-
ronmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999)
(EPBC Act) since 2001 (Department of the Environment 2001;
Lindenmayer 2005). The Federal Government has limited
jurisdiction over State environmental matters unless there are
impacts on Matters of National Environmental Significance
such as a threatened species or ecological communities, or
activities on Commonwealth land (Peel and Godden 2005). This
means that vegetation communities generally receive no federal
protection until they have already been extensively cleared
(Tulloch et al. 2015).
Nonetheless, several attempts have been made to deliver a
coordinated, national approach to the management of native
vegetation. Since 1997, various commitments to address the
decline in native vegetation have been made through nationally
funded programs and frameworks (Natural Resource Manage-
ment Ministerial Council 2001). The Natural Heritage Trust
funding package aimed to deliver no net loss of native vegeta-
tion within Australia by July 2001. This goal was not met
(Beeton et al. 2006). The most current framework outlines a
target for a net national increase in native vegetation extent and
connectivity by 2020 (COAG Standing Council on Environment
and Water 2012). This framework, like others before it, is not
prescriptive or binding.
The current environmental offsets policy under the EPBC
Act aims to compensate for significant impacts on Matters of
National Environmental Significance relative to a ‘business as
usual’ baseline (Australian Government 2012;Maron et al.
2013b), which as described by Maron et al. (2015) is one of
ongoing biodiversity decline. Although not directly related to
native vegetation policy and management in the State jurisdic-
tion, the declining baseline assumed by the national environ-
mental offsets policy suggests that the national target of a net
increase in native vegetation is not expected to be met.
Protected areas can play a key role in reducing deforestation
if genuine averted losses can be secured, and deforestation is not
simply displaced elsewhere (Andam et al. 2008;Miteva et al.
2012;Pressey et al. 2015). Australia‘s National Reserve System
is focussed primarily on meeting goals for the conservation of
biodiversity (NRMMC 2009;Watson et al. 2011), and it is not
known whether the system as a whole has had an impact on
deforestation in Australia. However, Pressey et al. (2002)
demonstrated that protected areas in New South Wales are
biased towards steep and infertile public land, rather than on
privately managed land where deforestation is generally higher.
State-level policies designed to regulate deforestation on private
1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
1970 1980 1990
Deforestation as % of primary forest remaining
Fig. 4. Deforestation as a percentage of primary forest remaining, with
separate Loess (local regression: Cleveland and Devlin 1988) curves for
primary and regrowth deforestation, for all Australian States and Territories
(excluding Australian Capital Territory). Grey shading indicates a 95%
confidence interval around the Loess curve.
134 Pacific Conservation Biology M. C. Evans
(freehold and leasehold) land are therefore the main focus of
For the remainder of the paper, I focus primarily on policy
reforms that have occurred in the historically high-deforestation
states of Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia,
South Australia and Victoria. Most clearing for agriculture in
Tasmania occurred during the 1970s and 1980s (Kirkpatrick
1991), and was not regulated until 2002 when the Forest
Practices Act 1985 was amended to prohibit non-commercial
clearing of forest for agricultural purposes (Bricknell 2010).
Limited deforestation has occurred in the Northern Territory, as
its rangelands are generally suitable for grazing in their natural
state (Australian Greenhouse Office 2000). Controls were
introduced in 2002 under the Planning Act 1999 and Pastoral
Land Act 1992. With a total area of 2358 km
, deforestation in
the Australian Capital Territory is insignificant relative to other
Australian jurisdictions, and policies dealing specifically with
native vegetation have only recently been introduced (Bricknell
In the following section, I describe how policy responses to
deforestation have evolved in all Australian jurisdictions over
the last four decades. I also provide a comprehensive summary
of major native vegetation policies implemented at the Federal,
State and Territory levels from 1970 to 2016 in Tables 1–4.
The beginnings of reform: 1970–89
The beginnings of policy reform occurred in South Australia,
which by 1975 had cleared 75% of the native vegetation within
its agricultural zone (nearly 20% of the total State area:
Australian Greenhouse Office 2000;Bartel 2004). The State’s
first policy effort in 1980 aimed to provide incentives for the
retention of native vegetation on private property via legally
binding agreements. Heritage Agreements were the first
example of conservation covenants in Australia (Bartel 2004),
and provided financial assistance to cover land, fencing and
management costs, but did not compensate for the opportunity
costs of agricultural production. Landholders who engaged with
Heritage Agreements were those who held conservation-
oriented values, whereas the policy did little to change the
behaviour of landholders who were clearing extensively (Harris
2013). Once it became clear that Heritage Agreements had
failed to reduce deforestation, the State’s first clearing controls
were attached to the Planning Act 1982, which also included an
extensive compensation scheme. In 1983, the requirement under
the Crown Lands Act 1929 to clear vegetation as a condition of
lease was removed (Australian Greenhouse Office 2000). With
the introduction of the Native Vegetation Management Act
(NVMA) 1985, South Australia became the first State in
Australia to restrict the clearing of native vegetation on private
property (Table 1)(Bartel 2004). The introduction of the Native
Vegetation Act (NVA) 1991 removed the compensation
arrangements that were part of the NVMA 1985. Clearing per-
mits are granted under the NVA 1991 on the condition of veg-
etation being compensated elsewhere, making South Australia
arguably the first State to adopt environmental offsetting.
Despite being an early adopter of native vegetation policies,
South Australia may be an example of a State where
2000 2010 96
Primary forest remaining (Mha)
102 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7
log10 total rainfall
Deforestation (M ha)
20 000 40 000 60 000
GDP per capita (USD)
468 120 160 200 240
Agriculture, value added (% of GDP) Farmer’s terms of trade
Fig. 5. Trends in national-scale deforestation and key macroeconomic variables. Data points area shaded by year (1972: dark blue, to 2014: light blue). A
Loess curve is fitted to each plot and grey shading indicates a 95% confidence interval. Plots are total deforestation versus: (a) year; (b) extent of primary
forest remaining; (c) log-transformed total rainfall (Evans 2014); (d) gross domestic product per capita (current USD) (The World Bank 2015);
(e) agriculture, value added (% total GDP; value added is the net output of a sector after adding up all outputs and subtracting intermediate inputs) (The
World Bank 2015); (f) farmer’s terms of trade (ABARES 2015).
Deforestation in Australia Pacific Conservation Biology 135
Table 1. Major native vegetation policies over 1970–89
Jurisdiction Year Policy name Policy intent Instrument type
South Australia 1980 Heritage Agreements under
the South Australian
Heritage Act 1978
To maintain or improve native
vegetation with high conserva-
tion value on private land
Legally binding agreements between the
Crown and individual (current and future)
landholders. Financial incentives provided
to cover fencing costs, management
assistance and advice; State and Local
Government land charges are waived.
1983 Development Control Reg-
ulations under the Planning
Act (PA) 1982
To curb native vegetation
Prescribed vegetation clearance as a class of
development that required consent of the
South Australian Planning Commission.
Applied to clearing for agricultural purposes
and commercial harvesting.
1985 Native Vegetation Act (NVA)
To curb native vegetation
Clearing controls removed from PA 1982 and
placed under NVA 1985. Compensation is
paid to those refused clearing approval, and
offered financial assistance to landholders
prepared to enter a Heritage Agreement to
protect remnant native vegetation.
Western Australia 1978 Country Areas Water Supply
Act (CAWSA), Part IIA, 1976
To protect quality of water supply
Vegetation clearance controlled in six south-
western catchments (,5% of rural parts of
1986 Soil and Land Conservation
Conservation of soil and land
resources, and mitigation of the
effects of erosion, salinity and
In 1986, it became a requirement under the
SALCA 1945 to obtain a notice of intention
to clear for areas of 1 ha or more.
Victoria 1989 Amendment S16 to the State
Section of the Planning
Scheme (SSPS) under the
Planning and Environment
Nature conservation and land
management (soil, watercourses,
greenhouse carbon loads,
groundwater, dryland salinity
End of broad-scale clearing
Planning permits are required to remove,
destroy or lop native vegetation. Applied
statewide to freehold, leasehold, Crown land
(except Crown land used for forestry, and
national parks). The Act specifically rules
out the payment of compensation.
136 Pacific Conservation Biology M. C. Evans
Table 2. Major native vegetation policies over 1990–99
Jurisdiction Year Policy name Policy intent Instrument type
Commonwealth 1999 Environmental Protection and
Protection of matters of national
Limited remit over vegetation clearance, only
if ‘significant impact’.
South Australia 1991 Native Vegetation Act (NVA)
To retain native vegetation. End
of broad-scale clearing in South
End of compensation payments under NVA
1988. Applies to freehold and leasehold
land, with exception of certain urban areas.
Harris 2013;Slee 1998
New South Wales 1995 State Environmental Planning
Policy (SEPP) No. 46 under
the Environmental Planning
and Assessment (EPandA)
To prevent inappropriate native
Clearing of native vegetation (.2 ha per
annum) prohibited except with development
consent of the Director-General of the
Department of Land and Water Conserva-
tion (DLWC) and National Parks and
Wildlife Service (NPWS)
Bombell and Montoya
1998 Native Vegetation Conserva-
tion Act (NVCA) 1997
Conservation and management
of native vegetation in in accor-
dance with the principles of
Brought all the clearing of all native vegeta-
tion in NSW under one regulatory regime
(including leasehold land in Western Divi-
sion). Regional vegetation management
plan specified where clearing could occur.
Provided some financial incentives for
landholders to protect native vegetation.
Bombell and Montoya
Queensland 1995 Land Act 1994 Sustainable resource use and
Control of vegetation clearing on leasehold
and State lands.
AGO 2000;Slee 1998
Victoria 1997 Victoria’s Biodiversity
Biodiversity conservation Voluntarism,
State-wide target of ‘no net loss’ of native
vegetation by 2001 (baseline 1999). ‘Net
gain’ target from 2002.
Department of Natural
Deforestation in Australia Pacific Conservation Biology 137
Table 3. Major native vegetation policies over 2000–09
Jurisdiction Year Policy name Policy intent Instrument type
(Gunningham and Sinclair
Commonwealth 2001 National Framework for the
Management and Monitor-
ing of Australia’s Native
To reverse the long-term decline
in the quality and extent of
Australia’s native vegetation
cover by June 2001
Voluntarism, information Provided the framework for the implementation
of the Natural Heritage Trust Partnership
Agreement between the Commonwealth and the
State and Territory Governments.
South Australia 2002 Native Vegetation Act (NVA)
Permitted clearing conditional on
achieving ‘significant environ-
Command and control,
Landholders could apply for financial assistance
for delivering ‘significant environmental
benefits’, enter into a Heritage Agreement or
pay into a Native Vegetation Fund.
New South Wales 2005 Native Vegetation Regulation
2005 under the Native
Vegetation Act (NVA)2003
To end broad-scale clearing
except where the clearing will
improve or maintain environ-
End of broad-scale clearing
in New South Wales
Command and control,
Permits required to clear vegetation, granted on
condition of improving or maintaining
environmental outcomes. Approval not required
to clear regrowth vegetation or for routine
2008 BioBanking under Threatened
To address the loss of biodiversity
values from habitat degradation
Economic Createda market where biodiversity credits could
be bought and sold.
et al. 2009
Queensland 2000 Vegetation Management Act
To preserve endangered ecosys-
tems, prevent land degradation,
Command and control Regulates the clearing of vegetation on freehold
land. Clearing of regrowth vegetation still
2003 Vegetation (Applications for
Clearing) Act 2003
To restrict vegetation clearing Command and control Imposed a moratorium on applications to clear
remnant vegetation on freehold and leasehold
2004 Vegetation Management and
Other Legislation Bill 2004
Command and control Kehoe 2009;
2006 Vegetation Management and
Other Legislation Bill 2004
To end broad-scale clearing of
remnant vegetation. End of
broad-scale clearing in
Command and control A ballot for clearing of 500 000 ha was held in
September 2004. All clearing permits issued
under the ballot expired on 31 December 2006.
Development applications guided by State
Policy for Vegetation Management (2006).
Provided $150 million of financial assistance
over five years.
138 Pacific Conservation Biology M. C. Evans
2008 Queensland Government
Policy (QGEOP) incorporat-
ing the Policy for Vegetation
Management Offsets (2007)
To counterbalance unavoidable,
negative environmental impacts
that result from a development.
Command and control,
A vegetation management offset may be secured
to meet the performance requirements of a
Regional Vegetation Management Code under
the Vegetation Management Act 1999.
Proponents may directly secure and manage an
offset, engage a third party, or pay into an offset
2009 Vegetation Management and
Other Legislation Amend-
ment Act 2009
To regulate clearing of regrowth
Command and control Amendments to the VMA 1999 to protect ‘high
Victoria 2003 Victoria’s Native Vegetation
Management – A Frame-
work for Action (2002)
To achieve a state-wide Net Gain
in the extent and quality of native
Command and control,
Given regulatory force in 2003 when changes
were made to the Victoria Planning Provisions
(VPP). Framework must be considered when
assessing proposals to clear vegetation.
2006 BushBroker To facilitate achievement of state-
wide Net Gain target
Economic Created a market where native vegetation credits
could be bought and sold.
Nemes et al. 2008;
Stoneham et al.
Western Australia 2004 Environmental Protection
(Clearing of Native
2004 under the Environmen-
tal Protection Act 1986
Conservation, preservation, pro-
tection, enhancement and man-
agement of the environment
Command and control Amendments introduced provisions for regulat-
ing the clearing of native vegetation on all land
in Western Australia via a permit system.
Approval conditions may include establishing a
vegetation offset or contribution to an offset
2006 Environmental Offsets Posi-
tion Statement no. 9
To achieve a ‘net environmental
benefit’ from new developments
Command and control,
Formalised offsetting provisions in Western
Australia after being considered on an ad hoc
basis since at least 2000.
Tasmania 2002 Forest Practices Act 1985 To regulate non-commercial
Command and control Amendments in 2002 prohibit non-commercial
clearing of forest for agricultural purposes.
Northern Territory 2002 Land clearing guidelines 2002
under the Planning Act (PA)
1999 and Pastoral Land Act
To minimise the impact of land
clearing on natural resources
Command and control Clearing on freehold, Crown and indigenous land
regulated by PA 1999, where landholders are
required to obtain a permit to clear more than
1 ha of native vegetation. Consent required to
clear on pastoral land under the PLA 1992.
and the Arts 2005
Deforestation in Australia Pacific Conservation Biology 139
Table 4. Major native vegetation policies over 2010–16
Jurisdiction Year Policy name Policy intent Instrument type
Commonwealth 2012 Australia’s Native Vegetation
To deliver a net national increase
in native vegetation extent and
connectivity by 2020
Framework to guide actions across govern-
ment strategies, policies, legislation and
programs related to native vegetation
Council on Envi-
2012 EPBC Act Environmental
To maintain or improve viability
of matters of national environ-
Limited remit over vegetation clearance, but
relevant as assumed baseline trajectory of
biodiversity decline runs counter to goal of
2012 Native Vegetation Framework.
New South Wales 2013 Native Vegetation Regulation
2013 under the NVA 2003
To deliver a balanced regime of
environmental protection and
Self-assessable codes to be made for certain
common clearing activities without the need
for a permit.
Byron et al. 2014;
Stoner and Parker
2014 NSW biodiversity offsets
policy for major projects
To achieving long-term conser-
vation outcomes while enabling
Currently applies only to State significant
development and infrastructure, but recom-
mended for expansion to all development
activities by Byron et al. 2014.
Byron et al. 2014
Queensland 2011 Queensland Biodiversity
Offset Policy (Version 1)
To ensure that there is no net loss
Offsets may be provided directly, through a
third party, or as a payment to a trust fund.
2012 Vegetation Management
Regulation 2012 under the
Framework Amendment Act
To reduce red tape and regulatory
burden, simplify vegetation
management framework, and
maintain sustainable vegetation
clearing practices to protect
Introduced a series of self-assessable codes
for vegetation clearing, removed regulations
on ‘high value’ regrowth clearing, intro-
duced permitted clearing for necessary
environmental clearing, high and irrigated
high value agricultural clearing.
2014 Queensland Environmental
Offset Policy Version 1.0
and Version 1.1 under the
Regulation 2014 and Envi-
ronmental Offsets Act 2014
To counterbalance significant
residual impacts on matters of
National, State or local environ-
Offsets may be provided directly, through a
third-party, or as a financial settlement.
140 Pacific Conservation Biology M. C. Evans
2016 Vegetation Management
(Reinstatement) and Other
Legislation Amendment Bill
To reduce deforestation rates and
consequential carbon emissions
If passed, the Bill would reinstate the Vege-
tation Management Act 1999 as per the 2009
amendments. The protection of high-value
regrowth would be extended to three
additional Great Barrier Reef catchments,
and environmental offsetting would be
required for all residual impacts on pre-
scribed environmental matters rather than
only significant residual impacts.
State of Queens-
Victoria 2013 Permitted clearing of native
vegetation – Biodiversity
To improve and strengthen the
regulatory system to deliver
better outcomes for the environ-
ment and the community
Replaces ‘Victoria’s Native Vegetation – A
Framework for Action’ as incorporated
document in the Victoria Planning
Provisions (VPP). Permit required to clear
vegetation only where there is a ‘high risk’
South Australia 2013 Native Vegetation (Miscella-
neous) Amendment Act 2013
To deliver more flexible arrange-
ments for managing native
Amendments to the NVA 2011 to introduce
the Third Party Significant Environmental
Benefit Offsets Scheme.
Western Australia 2011 WA Environmental Offsets
To ensure that economic and
social development may occur
while supporting long-term
environmental and conservation
‘Like for like’ no longer required, offset must
be ‘proportionate’ to the significance of the
environmental value being impacted.
2013 Environmental Protection
(Clearing of Native Vegeta-
tion) Regulations 2004 under
the Environmental Protec-
tion Act 1986
To reduce unnecessary regulatory
burden without compromising
significant environmental values
Amendment in 2013 allows landholders to
clear up to 5 ha per year on individual
properties, and maintain cleared areas for
pasture for up to 20 years without requiring a
Deforestation in Australia Pacific Conservation Biology 141
deforestation rates have declined simply because there was little
land left to clear (Bartel 2004;Fig. 4).
Early policies in Western Australia were focussed on soil
conservation and the control of salinity (Table 1)(Australian
Greenhouse Office 2000). Statewide controls on the rate and
extent of clearing were introduced in 1986 under the Soil and
Land Conservation Act (SALCA) 1942, which required land-
holders to obtain a permit to clear 1 ha or more of native
vegetation (Slee 1998). In Queensland, deforestation was still
strongly encouraged by Government. Concerns were raised by
scientists in the early 1980s about the extent of vegetation loss in
the Brigalow Belt regions and its impacts on biodiversity, but
this had little effect on the rate of deforestation (Bailey 1984;
Seabrook et al. 2006).
In 1989, the Victorian Native Vegetation Retention (NVR)
controls under the Planning and Environment Act 1987 intro-
duced the requirement that landholders acquire a permit to
remove, destroy or lop native vegetation. This arguably marked
the end to broad-scale clearing in Victoria (Department of
Natural Resources and Environment 2002).
High rates of loss: 1990–99
In response to rising public concern about environmental deg-
radation and biodiversity loss (Council of Australian Govern-
ments 1992), several State governments initiated major policy
reforms to control deforestation (Table 2). In 1995, the
Queensland Land Act 1994 was introduced to control vegetation
clearing on leasehold and State land (Rolfe 2000). At this time,
clearing on freehold land was still regulated by local govern-
ments under the Local Government Act (LGA) 1993 and the
Planning and Environment Act 1990 (Slee 1998).
Controls were also implemented in 1995 in New South
Wales, with the introduction of the State Environmental Plan-
ning Policy no. 46 (SEPP 46). The SEPP 46 aimed to ‘prevent
inappropriate native vegetation clearance and to ensure that
native vegetation is managed in the environmental, social and
economic interests of the State’ (Slee 1998;Bombell and
Montoya 2014). SEPP 46 was soon replaced by the Native
Vegetation Conservation Act (NVCA) 1997, which came into
force in 1998. Under the NVCA, landholders were required to
gain approval to clear native vegetation (Productivity Commis-
sion 2004). In 1997, the Victorian government announced a
Statewide target of ‘no net loss’ of native vegetation by 2000 as
part of the State’s biodiversity strategy (Department of Natural
Resources and Environment 1997).
Despite these reforms, deforestation rates remained high
(Fig. 3). In 1999, the Queensland and New South Wales
governments permitted the clearing of over 730 000 ha of native
vegetation (Australian State of the Environment Committee
A decade of reform: 2000–09
The high rates of deforestation seen in Queensland continued
well into the 2000s. Regulations on vegetation clearing on
freehold land came into force under the Vegetation Management
Act (VMA) 1999 in 2000. However, the deforestation rate
increased after the introduction of the VMA to 528 000 ha
over 2001–03 (Department of Natural Resources and
Mines 2005). It was not until 2006 that amendments to the VMA
phased out broad-scale clearing of remnant vegetation. A mor-
atorium on clearing applications in May 2003 signalled the
Government’s intention to end broad-scale clearing of vegeta-
tion by 2006 (McGrath 2007;Kehoe 2009). This policy change
has been credited with the national drop in deforestation from
2007 onwards (ABARES 2014). An offsets policy was released
in 2007 to assist proponents in meeting requirements under the
amended VMA, which was incorporated into a broader envi-
ronmental offsets policy in the following year (Environmental
Protection Agency 2008). Further amendments to the VMA
came into force in 2009, which created protection for ‘high
value’ regrowth (vegetation not cleared since 31 December
1989) in ‘priority’ Great Barrier Reef catchments (Macintosh
2012)(Table 3), after a temporary moratorium earlier in
In 2005, the New South Wales Native Vegetation Act (NVA)
2003 came into force, which prohibited clearing vegetation
unless it could be demonstrated that it would ‘improve or
maintain environmental outcomes’ (Gibbons and Lindenmayer
2007). An offset policy was formalised in 2008 with the
introduction of the BioBanking scheme, which aimed to create
a market for vegetation offsets in New South Wales (Gibbons
et al. 2009). The NVA 2003 has been credited with the dramatic
decline in approved clearing in New South Wales after 2005
(Taylor and Dickman 2014). However, exempted and illegal
clearing likely still occurred at a high rate (Bricknell 2010;
Gibbons 2012) although these statistics are not publicly reported
(Taylor and Dickman 2014). A statutory review of the NVA
2003 in 2009 concluded that the Act remained valid and that no
fundamental changes were necessary, though some stakeholders
expressed concerns about lack of flexibility in restrictions,
policy overlap and complexity, and the level of Government
enforcement (Department of Environment, Climate Change and
Water NSW 2009;Bombell and Montoya 2014).
Victoria revised its Statewide ‘no net loss’ goal in 2003 with
the introduction of the Victorian Native Vegetation Manage-
ment Framework, which aimed to achieve a Statewide net gain
in vegetation extent and quality (Department of Natural
Resources and Environment 2002). However, the objective for
‘permitted clearing’ on private land was still to achieve a ‘no net
loss’ (Department of Sustainability and Environment 2012).
Subsequent evaluations have indicated that neither the State-
wide nor permitted clearing goals have been met (Dart and
Grossek 2007;Department of Sustainability and Environment
2008). Amendments in 2006 to the Victoria Planning Provisions
(VPP) aimed to simplify the permitting process for local
councils and to provide consistency across the State (Depart-
ment of Sustainability and Environment 2010). The BushTender
and BushBroker programs were initiated in 2007 to provide
landholders opportunities to sell and purchase vegetation cred-
its, respectively (Stoneham et al. 2003;Nemes et al. 2008;
Reforms also occurred in Western Australia, with the amend-
ment of the Environmental Protection Act 1986 (WA) to provide
stricter and more consistent controls for clearing native vegeta-
tion across the State (Squelch 2007). The Western Australian
government also formalised an environmental offset policy in
2006 after releasing several guidance and position statements in
the preceding years (Hayes and Morrison-Saunders 2007).
142 Pacific Conservation Biology M. C. Evans
The decade of reform saw the introduction of significant
controls on deforestation in Queensland and New South Wales,
and ambitious commitments in Victoria. Primary deforestation
was substantially reduced across the country (Fig. 2), and many
heralded this time as the end of land clearing in Australia
(McGrath 2007;Squelch 2007;The Wilderness Society 2007).
However, landholders have generally been opposed to top-down
regulation (Australian Greenhouse Office 2000;Bartel and
Barclay 2011), and concerns about policy duplication, incon-
sistencies and inefficiencies became more prominent over time
(Productivity Commission 2004).
Contemporary policy responses: 2010–16
While the previous decade was marked by increasingly tight
restrictions on deforestation across Australia, policy responses
from 2010 have followed a trend of relaxing these controls
In 2011, the newly elected government of New South Wales
announced a statutory review into the Native Vegetation Regu-
lation 2005 made under the Native Vegetation Act 2003 (Parker
2011) in an effort to ‘strike the right balance between sustainable
agriculture and protecting the environment’. Following the
release of the review’s independent report in 2013 (Lane
2013), the NSW government introduced self-assessable codes
that permitted landholders to undertake ‘low impact clearing
activities’ such as clearing of paddock trees, removal of invasive
native species and native vegetation thinning without requiring
approval. Concerns about the relaxation of native vegetation
policies were raised by the environmental sector (Taylor and
Dickman 2014), while the changes were reported as generally
welcomed by landholders (Condon and Bryant 2013). A com-
prehensive review of the NVA 2003 and related biodiversity
policies was announced in mid-2014, and the final report
released December 2014 (Byron et al. 2014). In their report,
Byron and colleagues recommended the repeal of the NVA 2003,
and combining native vegetation regulations with other biodi-
versity policies under a single Biodiversity Conservation Act.
They also argued that the ‘improve or maintain’ test under the
NVA 2003 is ‘unnecessary and burdensome at the site scale’, and
that offsite, third-party biodiversity offsetting should be applied
to all environmental impacts (rather than only to threatened
species and communities), along with increased investment in
conservation on private and public lands. At the time of writing,
it appears that the reforms recommended by Byron and collea-
gues have yet to be drafted into legislation (Druce and Foley
The Victorian government initiated a review of the Native
Vegetation Management Framework in 2012, in an effort to
improve regulatory performance through the reduction of ‘red
tape’ (Department of Sustainability and Environment 2012).
The reforms introduced in 2013 provided a risk-based
approach to the regulation of vegetation clearing, whereby
only ‘moderate’ or ‘high’ risk clearing required on-site
assessment, and offsetting of ecological impacts (Department
of Environment and Primary Industries 2013). The Statewide
goal for native vegetation was again revised, this time to ‘No
net loss in the contribution made by native vegetation to
Following a series of reviews from 2009 to 2011, Western
Australia’s native vegetation regulations were amended in late
2013 (Department of Environment Regulation 2014). Land-
holders are now permitted to clear up to 5 ha per year on
individual properties, and maintain cleared areas for pasture
for up to 20 years without requiring a permit. The report from a
recent senate inquiry into the gazetting of environmentally
sensitive areas (ESAs) in Western Australia argues that the
State’s native vegetation regulations are ‘confusing’ and ‘com-
plex’, and financially disadvantage landowners (Standing Com-
mittee on the Environment and Public Affairs 2015).
Perhaps the most environmentally significant policy change
since 2010 has occurred in Queensland, where the latest data
indicate that 266 191 ha of forest was cleared in 2013–14
is the highest deforestation rate recorded in Queensland since
the end of broad-scale clearing permits in 2006 (Department of
Science, Information Technology and Innovation 2015;
Bulinski et al. 2016). Amendments to the Vegetation Manage-
ment Act 1999 in 2013 permitted landholders to clear remnant
native vegetation to establish for ‘high value agriculture’,
removed restrictions on clearing ‘high value’ regrowth, and
removed the requirement to obtain a permit under the Water Act
2000 to clear native vegetation in watercourses. Existing inves-
tigations into alleged non-compliance with the VMA were put
on hold (Cripps 2012). In response, prominent Queensland
ecologists issued a public statement that argued against the
removal of clearing restrictions (Maron et al. 2013a), and the
World Wildlife Fund has warned that Australia may again
become a global hotspot for deforestation (Taylor 2013,2015;
WWF International 2015). In 2015, the newly elected Queens-
land Government promised to reinstate the provisions of the
Vegetation Management Act 1999 that were removed as part of
the 2013 amendments by the previous government led by
Premier Campbell Newman. At the time of writing, the Vegeta-
tion Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation
Amendment Bill 2016 (State of Queensland 2016) has not yet
been passed by the Queensland Parliament, but is due to be
reintroduced later in the year. In an effort to prevent a surge in
deforestation before the passage of the tightened regulation (so-
called ‘panic clearing’), clearing restrictions would be applied
retrospectively to 17 March 2016 – when the Bill was first
introduced to Parliament (Chambers 2016).
From the preceding discussion of native vegetation policy
reform over the last 40 years, some trends emerge. Up until the
late 1980s, policies aimed to restrict deforestation were pri-
marily framed around soil conservation and salinity prevention,
rather than the protection of native vegetation itself (Table 1)
(Slee 1998). However, increasing public concern for the envi-
ronment in the 1990s saw a shift in focus to regulating native
vegetation primarily to reduce environmental degradation and
Note that this estimate is provided by Queensland’s SLATS program (Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation 2015), which considers
a broader definition of ‘forest’ and has historically reported higher estimates of deforestation than the NCAS (Macintosh 2012;Bulinski et al. 2016)
Deforestation in Australia Pacific Conservation Biology 143
biodiversity loss (Table 2). From 2000, regulation in most States
became increasingly ‘command and control’, and the use of
satellite imagery for monitoring and compliance more wide-
spread (Bartel 2005,2008). Offsetting arrangements, either as
complementary policies or as conditions of approved clearance,
were in place within most States and Territories by the mid-
2010s (Table 3)(Maron et al. 2015).
Over the decade of reform, there was a sense of optimism that
Australia’s globally significant rates of deforestation had come
to an end. However, within 10 years of what was celebrated as
the end of broad-scale land clearing, major legislative changes
have been made that relax clearing regulations. This new
wave of policy reform is being mirrored in all of the high-
deforestation States except South Australia, where only minor
amendments have been made (Table 4). Although not clearly
reflected in the NCAS data presented in this paper, the most
recent data from the SLATS (Statewide landcover and trees
study) program in Queensland suggest that there has been a
sharp rise in deforestation since the government first signalled
legislative changes (Department of Science, Information
Technology and Innovation 2015;Queensland Audit Office
2015). In the absence of a robust quantitative evaluation, it is
not yet clear whether deforestation rates have significantly
changed following other recent policy changes in New South
Wales, Victoria and Western Australia.
The relaxation of State-level native vegetation policies from
2010 has marked a shift in emphasis from ‘command and
control’, to voluntary compliance and self-regulation. This
change has occurred in parallel with Federal-level efforts to
reduce ‘red tape’ in environmental approvals under the EPBC
Act (Australian Government 2014a;Standing Committee on the
Environment 2014), the ‘opening up’ (and subsequent reclos-
ing) of National Parks to cattle grazing (Beilharz and Taylor
2015;Tlozek 2015), as well as possible amendments to the
EPBC Act to redress what is perceived by some as an imbalance
between environmental protection and economic opportunity
(Senate Legislation Committee Environment and Communica-
tions 2015). The most recent announcement by the Queensland
Government to revert back to ‘command and control’ regulation
may suggest that the days of voluntary compliance and self-
regulation are numbered (State of Queensland 2016). However,
no other State Government has so far indicated any intention to
reinstate strict regulatory controls on deforestation. In no other
State has such a significant increase in deforestation occurred
over 2012–14 as it has in Queensland, which has resulted in the
release of carbon emissions almost equivalent to the amount
secured through the Australian Government’s Emissions
Reduction Fund (Bulinski et al. 2016). The scale of deforesta-
tion and its contribution to climate change has provided the
Queensland Government a policy platform to reinstate the
Vegetation Management Act 1999 in its previous form, with
the intent to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and agricultural
runoff into the Great Barrier Reef (State of Queensland 2016).
It is important to consider the broader macroeconomic
environment when discussing trends in deforestation and policy
responses over time (Fig. 5). The drivers of deforestation are
highly context specific, and cannot be easily generalised (Geist
and Lambin 2002). Many of the factors described by the
international literature on deforestation, such as population
growth, access to roads and shifting cultivation, are not relevant
in Australia (Australian Greenhouse Office 2000;Lindenmayer
2005). Angelsen and Kaimowitz (1999) emphasises macroeco-
nomic variables and policy instruments as key ultimate drivers
of deforestation. Importantly, and rarely discussed in the litera-
ture, is the availability of suitable land, which ultimately limits
the amount of primary forest that can be cleared (Australian
Greenhouse Office 2000;Bartel 2004).
Rainfall, commodity prices and terms of trade are widely
known to influence landholder clearing decisions (Rolfe 2002;
Macintosh 2012;Australian Government 2013). The effects of
rainfall are complex, however (Fig. 5c), as deforestation may be
driven by high rainfall as well as drought conditions – the latter
due to the increased production required to be profitable
(Australian Greenhouse Office 2000). The relationship between
deforestation rates and farmer’s terms of trade has been used to
estimate historical clearing from 1940 to 1970 (Commonwealth
of Australia 2014), as well as to predict deforestation rates up to
2030 (Australian Government 2013).The Australian economy
has undergone a restructure over the last several decades,
leading to an increased contribution of the mining sector to
economic growth, and unfavourable economic conditions for
the agricultural sector (Gregory 1976;Connolly and Lewis
When considered in the context of these broader policy
trends and the decline of the agricultural sector (Fig. 5), the
recent relaxation of native vegetation policies is not altogether
surprising. ‘Command and control’ regulation is deeply unpop-
ular amongst many rural landholders (Australian Greenhouse
Office 2000;Bartel and Barclay 2011), who had historically
held the right to clear vegetation without restriction, and indeed
had been encouraged by Government to do so. Perceived and
real impacts on farm productivity, inequitable impacts on land-
holders, and a large distance between the values and norms held
by landholders and that of the Government and its policies mean
that, at least at the present time, strict regulations on deforesta-
tion are politically unpalatable (Productivity Commission 2004;
Bricknell 2010;Chambers 2016).
Future prospects for native vegetation policy in Australia
It is not yet apparent whether the current trend in deregulation
will continue, or if it is simply a temporary pushback in the
context of a long-term trend of clearing decline, worsening
economic conditions, and the increasing scarcity of primary
forest available to clear (Fig. 5). As highlighted by the previous
section, relying too heavily on regulation can be politically
costly, and may ultimately lead to policy failure (Bartel and
Barclay 2011). Acceptance and compliance with native vege-
tation policies has proven to be extremely difficult to achieve in
Australia (Bartel 2003;Bricknell 2010).
A key recommendation made within recent reviews of
State-level native vegetation policy is the need to consider
incentive-based and educational policies in addition to regula-
tory enforcement, in order to achieve positive environmental,
social and economic outcomes (DSE 2012;Byron et al. 2014).
Arguments in favour of using a diversity of instruments to meet
environmental policy goals are not new (Bartel 2008;Common-
wealth of Australia 2009;Bricknell 2010;Dovers and Hussey
144 Pacific Conservation Biology M. C. Evans
2013), but the strengths and weaknesses of all policy options
must be clearly considered (Gunningham and Sinclair 1999b).
The recent increased emphasis on policies such as biodiversity
offsetting, private conservation agreements and carbon farming
is analysed below.
Biodiversity offsetting has been increasingly emphasised as an
approach that can deliver environmental outcomes in a more
flexible and efficient manner (Commonwealth of Australia
2009;Byron et al. 2014), and policies are now in place at the
Federal and State level. While offsetting can provide efficien-
cies over regulatory approaches, generally it can only maintain
existing trajectories of deforestation and biodiversity loss, rather
than slow or reverse the decline (Maron et al. 2015). As
highlighted by Maron and colleagues, all Australian offset
policies aim to achieve a ‘no net loss’ of biodiversity relative to a
business-as-usual scenario. In fact, most policies assume a
background rate of loss that is far higher than the existing rate of
deforestation, meaning that offset policies have the potential to
exacerbate biodiversity loss. This issue is one of a range of
perverse outcomes that can occur as a result of widespread
adoption of biodiversity offsetting (Gordon et al. 2015), hence
regulation will still be necessary if deforestation is to be reduced
or reversed. Indeed, regulation effectively sets the ‘cap’ on
permitted environmental impacts, and thus is required to create
the demand for a functioning environmental market (Salzman
and Ruhl 2000).
Private conservation agreements
The importance of providing incentives to protect native vege-
tation, wildlife and associated ecosystem services on private
land is also regularly highlighted by commentators (Common-
wealth of Australia 2009;Byron et al. 2014;Fitzsimons 2015;
Hardy et al. 2016). Private land stewardship is a critical com-
ponent of Australia’s biodiversity conservation efforts, given
that the majority (74%) of the continent is freehold, leasehold or
under Indigenous management (Geoscience Australia 1993). It
should be made clear, however, that increasing the area of land
privately (or, indeed, publicly) managed for conservation does
little to reduce the overall deforestation rate if they do not pre-
vent the loss of forest (McDonald-Madden et al. 2009;Maron
et al. 2013b). As was the case in the early South Australian
Heritage Agreements, landholders who enter into voluntary
conservation agreements are generally already sympathetic to
nature conservation, and the incentives provided are not enough
to change land-use decisions at a large scale. Landholders whose
values do not align with conservation are not likely to change
land practices unless it is economically profitable to do so – and
even then, social and cultural norms can provide an additional
barrier to participation (Bartel and Barclay 2011). As with other
incentive-based programs, private conservation agreements are
usually small-scale, prone to adverse selection (Ferraro 2008),
and subject to short-term funding cycles (Senate Environment
and Communications References Committee 2015). The effi-
cacy of private conservation areas can also be compromised
where land-use conflicts are not resolved (Adams and Moon
Carbon farming also offers potential benefits for native vege-
tation protection and restoration, assuming there is a market
price on carbon emissions (Crossman et al. 2011;Lin et al. 2013;
Evans et al. 2015) and perverse impacts on biodiversity are
avoided (Lindenmayer et al. 2012). Similar to private conser-
vation agreements, factors such as high transaction costs, policy
complexity and cultural norms can act as barriers to landholder
participation in carbon farming projects (Macintosh 2013). A
key difference is that carbon farming can be more profitable than
existing agricultural land uses, particularly in marginal areas
where significant economies of scale exist (Evans et al. 2015).
While unlikely to be influenced by reforestation and afforesta-
tion projects, the rate of deforestation can be reduced where
genuine avoided loss can be secured. As with other incentive-
based schemes, carbon farming can only genuinely prevent or
reverse forest loss if regulatory controls on deforestation exist.
At present, the Australian Government’s carbon farming policy
(Australian Government 2014b) provides incentives for land-
holders to undertake avoided deforestation and reforestation,
while State-level native vegetation policies have all recently
been relaxed. This inconsistency in policy approach means that
the environmental benefits generated by the Federal policy have
largely been negated by recent increased deforestation
(Department of Science, Information Technology and Innova-
tion 2015;Bulinski et al. 2016) and creates significant policy
uncertainty for landholders (Elks 2016).
The need for an effective policy mix
Incentive-based policies such as those outlined above are
attractive as they can afford flexibility and efficiencies that
traditional regulation cannot provide. Although it is sensible to
consider the potential benefits offered by a range of policy
instruments, there can be a temptation to recommend them as
alternatives, rather than complements to regulation, or without a
clear assessment of their likely efficacy (Gunningham and
Sinclair 1999a). A combination of ‘command and control’
regulation, self-regulation, incentive-based and educational
instruments will generally perform better than any single
instrument in meeting a policy objective (Gunningham and
Sinclair 1999b;Dovers and Hussey 2013). On the basis of the
most recent deforestation trends and the history of native veg-
etation policy in Australia, it appears that a coordinated and
mutually supportive policy mix has yet to be achieved with
respect to effectiveness, equity and social and political
Very little is actually known of the effectiveness of the
various policy responses to deforestation over the last 40 years.
Few Government-sponsored evaluations are available (but see
Dart and Grossek 2007;Department of Sustainability and
Environment 2008), and available data are often inadequate to
conduct a rigorous evaluation (Byron et al. 2014). Environmen-
tal policies are notoriously difficult to evaluate, as environmen-
tal problems are generally complex, involve considerable
uncertainties, and require detailed measurements and specialist
methods to attribute a policy intervention to an observed
response (Mickwitz 2003;Ferraro 2009;Keene and Pullin
2011). The efficacy of policy responses to deforestation can
Deforestation in Australia Pacific Conservation Biology 145
only be reliably evaluated by considering observed deforesta-
tion rates (including regulated, exempted and illegal clearing),
in addition to the other drivers of land management behaviour
While it is recognised that macroeconomic, environmental
and institutional arrangements all have an effect on deforesta-
tion rates (Angelsen and Kaimowitz 1999;Geist and Lambin
2002), how these variables interact and ultimately drive defor-
estation in Australia is poorly understood. Nonetheless, the
reduction in deforestation since the 1990s has been attributed
to government intervention in several instances (Garnaut 2008;
Department of Environment and Resource Management 2010;
Australian Government 2013). Macintosh (2012) argues that
such suggestions are misleading, or at least incomplete, without
explicitly considering the effects of commodity prices, terms of
trade and rainfall on deforestation rates. A comprehensive
evaluation of the impact of native vegetation policies on
deforestation in Australia over time is needed, but this would
require adequate data, appropriate methods and a willingness by
relevant stakeholders to conduct such an analysis.
The lack of clear evidence for the historical effectiveness of
Australia’s native vegetation policies is extremely problematic,
given the time and effort devoted to their design, implementa-
tion and review. Despite the introduction of a raft of policies
aimed to reduce deforestation over the last 40 years, monitoring,
evaluation and enforcement have been hampered by a lack of
resources and information (Bartel 2003;Bricknell 2010;Nicol
et al. 2014). The advent of satellite imagery was at one stage
heralded as a new beginning that would enable greater monitor-
ing and evaluation, and encourage compliance with clearing
regulations (Bartel 2005;Purdy 2010). We have, however, yet to
see a revolution in our understanding of native vegetation policy
effectiveness in Australia. A key step required to deliver a more
effective policy mix for addressing deforestation is therefore to
invest a greater proportion of resources into monitoring, evalu-
ation and compliance.
Native vegetation policy has been an extraordinarily active
policy space in Australia over the last 40 years. Initially moti-
vated by concerns around soil conservation and salinity, a
growing interest around biodiversity conservation and ecolog-
ically sustainable development drove a wave of policy reforms
over the 1990s and 2000s, which placed strict regulations on
deforestation. An interest in providing landholders with flexi-
bility and economic incentives to retain and restore vegetation
saw the proliferation of offset policies from 2000 onwards.
Since 2010, several Australian States have amended their native
vegetation policies to place greater emphasis on self-regulation
and voluntary compliance, in an effort to restore ‘balance’
between meeting environmental, social and economic objec-
tives. The most recent increase in deforestation in Queensland
has triggered a potential shift back to ‘command and control’,
but at present it does not appear that the other States will soon
Other than in Queensland, it is not yet clear whether this shift
to self-regulation has preceded an increase in deforestation.
Deforestation results as a combination of institutional,
macroeconomic and environmental factors; hence a change in
the rate of deforestation cannot be attributed to any particular
event without a rigorous evaluation. The long-term trend in
Australia over 1972–2014 is of a gradual decline in the rate of
deforestation relative to the amount of primary forest available
to clear on suitable land. Faced with worsening economic
conditions and the expansion of agriculture into increasingly
marginal areas, deforestation for agricultural, urban and indus-
trial development will likely cease being economically viable
before all of the remaining primary forest is cleared. However,
the raft of policies implemented over the last 40 years illustrates
that there is a desire in the Australian community to limit
deforestation for a range of environmental objectives. To be
effective, native vegetation policies therefore need to induce a
‘forest transition’ before deforestation meets its economic and
environmental limits (Angelsen and Kaimowitz 1999;Rudel
et al. 2005;Lambin and Meyfroidt 2011). Ultimately, Australia
has the means to achieve this goal – it is a question of whether it
is socially and politically feasible.
Environmental policy is made in the context of broader
socio-political and economic trends. The recent shift towards
self-regulation, flexibility and economic instruments reflects
these broader societal trends – but this shift in focus on policy
instrument type does not necessarily mean there will be a change
in policy effectiveness. All environmental policy instruments,
regardless of whether they are ‘command and control’, self-
regulation, economic or informational, require monitoring,
evaluation and enforcement if they are to be effective (Gunning-
ham and Sinclair 1999b). Historically, these crucial steps in the
policy process have been poorly executed with respect to
Australia’s native vegetation and biodiversity (Bartel 2003;
Bricknell 2010). Ensuring that there is far greater capacity to
monitor and evaluate the impacts of native vegetation policies
will assist in delivering more effective, efficient and equitable
This research was supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award, a CSIRO
top-up scholarship, and the Australian Government’s National Environ-
mental Research Program. I thank Stephen Dovers, Peter Burnett and three
anonymous reviewers for their suggestions that improved the final manu-
script. Stuart Whitten and Karen Hussey provided valuable input into earlier
drafts. This manuscript has benefited from many helpful discussions with
Phil Gibbons, Andrew Macintosh and Grace Chiu. I thank Shanti Reddy
from the Australian Department of the Environment for providing advice on
the forest change and extent dataset. Tim Doherty provided generous
assistance with the plots. I am grateful for the supervision of Karen Hussey,
Stuart Whitten, Grace Chiu, Andrew Macintosh and Stephen Dovers during
my Ph.D. candidature.
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