Course:FRST370/Projects/Land vs. Ocean: an assessment of the causes and consequences of deforestation on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

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This case study focuses on the State of Queensland, Australia, where forestry practices are having direct impacts on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Due to the magnitude of the reef’s importance, some content and issues discussed expand to the levels of Australia as a country, and some internationally.

Forestry Industry

The evolution of forest governance in Australia is very similar to countries it shares historical and political commonalities with - notably Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and USA (Kanowski 61). “The first series of conflicts between Indigenous peoples and colonists, began with the latter's arrival in 1788 and continued more or less continually until the 1880s, and episodically until 1928. British colonization resulted in the decimation and dispossession of Australian Aboriginal people through much of the continent, with the loss of both lives and a way of life” (Kanowski 61). This has led to the more recent history of what has been present even in to recent years. Currently, the East coast of Australia has one of the highest rates of land-clearing globally, which adds substantial pressure to the surrounding natural wonder (Rodway & Dungey). Predominately utilized for pasture, 1.4 million hectares of remnant vegetation has been cleared since 2010. 'A government report revealed 395,000 hectares of land were deforested between 2015-16 alone' (Rodway & Dungey). Landholders who have planned to clear their land since July 2016, almost 30% are in Great Barrier Reef catchments' (Slezak 2018).

Reef Impact

At the birth of the industry, concerns for the GBR – or any conservation efforts for that matter – were nil. It wasn’t until recent decades that scientific research has shown industry practices having an impact on the natural ecosystem. The rate at which reef degradation occurs has been linked to the levels of watershed-based pollution, having corresponding fluctuations (Forest Conservation). The deforestation causing this causes additional and increased sediment and nutrient run off, which promotes algae growth, killing corals and surrounding sea grass (Disaster 1.5M). “A deforestation surge in Queensland, which the latest government data suggests is about to accelerate dramatically, is heavily concentrated in catchments for the Great Barrier Reef, further undermining plans to improve reef water quality” (Slezak 2018). A Catchments for the Great Barrier Reef – where freshwater rivers and floodplains drain on to the reef, washing any pollution or sediment with it – make up about 10% of Queensland’s area. (Slezak 2018). Environmental experts have warned if these numbers continue unabated the natural landscape of the region risks irreversible damage… gully erosion… "reduces the health of corals and seagrass" by blocking out sunlight and preventing coral growth. In high volume, such sediment can affect the resilience of the reef and "its ability to recover from bleaching events"… hindering photosynthesis ability (Rodway & Dungey).

Tenure arrangements

‘Some 40% of Australia's native forests – mostly woodlands – are managed privately under long term leases from state governments…35% are publicly-owned and managed, half as formal conservation reserves…15% are privately owned and managed…10% are formally owned and managed by Aboriginal Australians’ (Kanowski 57).

The most common form of land ownership across Queensland, the reef catchments and all of Australia currently with active forestry practices is privately owned (Kanowski 57). These land owners can make decisions on what happens with the land on their own, with the approval of a permit from the state. ‘Since 2011, there have been no land-use changes or changes to management practices on a nationally significant scale. Land clearing continues across all Australian states, although at a much lower rate and with far more controls in place than in previous decades. Queensland’s land-clearing rate…exceeds that of all other states and territories combined’ (Nichols 132). The concern with the environment has possibly only made this worse as well as fear of policy change has led to some panic-clearing (clearing in the anticipation of policy change).

Aboriginal Australians, like many similar situations elsewhere, have also not re-established ownership of land that was once theirs. Despite their ‘aspirations and capacity to ‘care for country’ [the] benefits for both them and their country; the corresponding aspirations and capacity of non-Aboriginal Australian landowners to care for their land have been undermined by the transformation of land care from a community-based movement to a program of government’ (Kanowski 60). ‘Australia does not have a system of federally-owned public forests, analogous to the American National Forests and systems in many European countries’ (Nichols 128). This could be another resolution to current issues in the catchment areas, however their voice is not being heard.

Administrative arrangements


The state monitors the development of land by requiring permits from land owners to change the current state of the land in efforts to oversee and mitigate how much is changing and if it is sustainable. However, this becomes difficult with a diversity of interests. ‘The Queensland Labor government tried to pass legislation to halt the land-clearing surge caused by the previous Liberal National party government, but failed when one former Labor MP, now independent, voted against it’ (Slezak 2018). With this not abiding to environmental policy, this is where observation is lacking as not all prior changes have been accounted for. ‘Conflicts over climate change policy and mitigation measures have dominated Australian national politics since 2008, leading to major policy fluxes with successive governments… The legacies of these conflicts are intertwined with those of the agriculture-forests conflict, and mitigate against the integrated, landscape-scale responses necessary to address environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and climate change’ (Kanowski 58).


In this case, national policy has been largely used for mediation between international regulations and state and policy. ‘In its update to UNESCO about the progress of its failing Reef 2050 Plan, it said: ‘The national Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 also regulates actions that are likely to result in a significant impact on the Great Barrier Reef and offers important protections in relation to large-scale land clearing’ (Slezak 2018). This reiterates the dual-sided interests of this case as ‘The only time the federal government did move to force a clearing activity to gain approval under federal law, it caused rebuttal within the Coalition’ (Slezak 2018). In unison with the asking’s of UNESCO, the administrative enforcement on the national level needs to be revamped to have more concrete implementation and drive for achieving better policy, and the goals of the Reef 2050 plan.

Affected Stakeholders


o  Aboriginal people of Australia

Affected community from early days of the industry, evicted and nearly eradicated by colonists, remain an affected group today with limited say over future land use, holding only 10% of land tenure (Kanowski 57)

o  Private & public land owners

Directly affected people who own the acreage which the forest industry operates on, and (for the most part) must abide by the policy put in place. These will also be the people burdened with financial deficits if changes to policy reduce production

Interested Outside Stakeholders


o  Catchment Management Authorities

‘To ensure that regional communities have a significant say in how natural resources are managed in their catchments’ (Nichols 132).

o  Regional Vegetation Committees

Local groups interested in the course of development of the surrounding landscapes near their communities

o  Industry Workers

Industry members who are involved with the industry in the area, however do not reside there and are not directly affected by the outcome of the situation


o  State Government

- Queensland Parliament & labour government

Queensland government has primary responsibility for regulating land-clearing in the reef's catchment areas (Rodway & Dungey 2017).


Federal Government

o  Liberal National Party / Turnbell Government

Party working under the former Australian prime minister Malcom Turnbell, from the time of 2015-2018. Has had controversy over whether it has had environmental concern or made any efforts in preservation of the reef (Rodway & Dungey 2017).

o  Department of Natural Resources

‘Lead agency in attempting to formulate a clear policy. First, through a series of committee meetings of representatives of key stakeholder groups, a draft private native forestry code was devised and was released for public comment’ (Nichols 127).

o  Green Party

Siding with preservation of the reef, the Green Party has a large involvement with shedding light on the negative affects the industry has on the reef


o  UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)

Involved on a national level in efforts to preserve the GBR to maintain international benefits. With its critical condition, UNESCO marked the GBR as a World Heritage Site in 2011, and with a lack of progress in 2014 requested Australia puts implements a plan for better conservation which introduced the Reef 2050 Plan (Richards & Day 2018).  


"It is very much about reducing our carbon emissions, but also delivering habitat benefits for the Great Barrier Reef" (Rodway & Dungey).


As said, the overriding concern here is the environmental impact that the Queensland forestry industry has on the GBR. For this reason, the main pursuit for the future is reducing the impact of the local industry on the world heritage site in efforts to preserve the habitat and quality of ecosystems it holds and that it is surrounded by.

A relocation of practices has been one proposed solution, as a prioritization of land could reduce the direct impact of the forests on the reef. Protecting 2% of forest in one area is almost 500 times more beneficial than protecting 2% in another area, making prioritization essential (Klein 1246). In this resolution, land in the catchment area would be prioritized as more-sensitive and hopefully used less (if at all) for forestry, and land further inland would be used more. Our prioritization approach has made strides toward addressing the complexities of land-sea planning where marine conservation is the primary aim (Klein 1254).

Although in this case, and in many scenarios globally environment and economy are treated separately, the benefits of the great barrier reef largely connect the two. After climate change, poor water quality is the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef and billions of dollars has been spent to try to manage the problem. Another issue with the industry aside from runoff and is the herbicides. This has promoted the industry to transition away from traditional herbicides and towards an ‘alternative’ herbicide suite are now widely advocated as a key component of improved environmental outcomes for the GBR (Davis 81).


As discussed, this crisis is a double-sided issue as the Forestry industry is one of Queensland largest economic incomes. For this reason, environmental efforts have been considered, but not completely pursued as current efforts could have a negative impact on job availability and productivity in the area, reducing the local economy. This has caused economical goals to differentiate from environmental ones as Queensland also has a high unemployment rate, so any reduction in job availability would not be beneficial (Rodway & Dungey 2017).



With private property being the majority in tenure in Queensland, individual have the overriding say of what happens with their land. With this, many individual agendas have cause discrepancies in policy from a lack of enforcement. “Those figures are staggering, and it shows both the need to strengthen the existing laws federally and better enforce what’s already there,” (Cox 2018).


State governance is lacking in that it is not excelling in either realm. With regards to environment, current practices are not sustainable, and nothing is currently being done to change that as the economic factor is not well off either. ‘To reduce environmental pressures on terrestrial and marine environments…sustainable practices may need to be implemented by industry and both federal and state governments’ (Rodway & Dungey 2017). Prioritization of protection areas to better reduce environmental impact (inland being less harmful than coastal) is one outcome that has been researched to be a resolution, and for it to be successful stronger governance is required.


Queensland has some of the highest rates for deforestation nationally (and internationally) as discussed above. With these practices being shown to not be sustainable, national governance is lacking as well for the inadequate changes in enforcing policy to ensure a sustainable economy for Australia, and the longevity of its environment.


Although policy can be recommended and requested on international levels, it is hard to enforce the progress of them, evident here in the lack of success with the current Reef 2050 plan. UNESCO is the currently the most involved organization in the controversy on an international level.


With such tight limitations between economy and environment - with reliance on the industry and its locality and the concern for the reef - neither extreme will be able to be a resolution, there will need to be compromise somewhere. The most ideal situation would be a happy-medium which restricts the local forestry industry as little as possible, however ensures the as much longevity for the reef as possible. Taking from the current ideas and practices, the most logical pursuit would be continuing relocation, and minimizing the use of the land in reef catchment areas.

Following suit with countries of a similar origin (some mentioned above), the current tenure of the land, although not perfect, and still largely lacking in Aboriginal ownership has become fairer than decades past. For this reason, it is less important for a change of tenure than a change in policy and priority in the immediate future.

With the industry-caused consequences to the reef having impacts on an international level, it would be greatly beneficial for organizations – such as UNESCO – to continue, and perhaps further, their involvement in mitigating the issue and enforcing change. Ecosystem benefits that the reef provides reaches waters far and wide being international or other nations and so effected patrons should have an environmental say.


Argent, R. (2016). Inland water: Changing land use and management in Australia. Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy. doi:10.4226/94/58b656cfc28d1

Cox, L. (2018). Half a million hectares of forest bulldozed in great barrier reef catchment. Retrieved from

Davis, A. M., Lewis, S. E., Brodie, J. E., & Benson, A. (2014). The potential benefits of herbicide regulation: A cautionary note for the great barrier reef catchment area. Science of the Total Environment, 490, 81-92. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.04.005

Kanowski, P. J. (2017). Australia's forests: Contested past, tenure-driven present, uncertain future. Forest Policy and Economics, 77, 56-68. doi:10.1016/j.forpol.2015.06.001

Klein, C. J., Jupiter, S. D., Selig, E. R., Watts, M. E., Halpern, B. S., Kamal, M., . . . Possingham, H. P. (2012). Forest conservation delivers highly variable coral reef conservation outcomes. Ecological Applications, 22(4), 1246-1256. doi:10.1890/11-1718.1

Nichols, J. (2007). Evolution and development of a code for private native forestry in New South Wales, Australia. Small-Scale Forestry, 6(2), 127-140. doi:10.1007/s11842-007-9018-y

Richards, Z. T., & Day, J. C. (2018). Biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef-how adequately is it protected? Retrieved from

Rodway, N., & Dungey, G. (2017). Soaring deforestation new threat to great barrier reef. Retrieved from

Slezak, M. (2018). Fears for great barrier reef as deforestation surges in catchments. Retrieved from

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