There have been mixed reactions to new proposed land tenure reforms in Western Australia, that will see millions of hectares of land unlocked for renewable and economic diversification projects around the state.

Key points:

  • The WA Land Administration Act only permits pastoral and unallocated crown land to be used for grazing livestock

  • Lands Minister Tony Buti says proposed reforms would allow for a more flexible form of land tenure 

  • Reforms would allow renewable projects to co-exist with grazing activities, as well as opening up more land for carbon farming, horticulture projects and cultural tourism 

Currently, the Land Administration Act only permits pastoral and unallocated crown land to be used for grazing livestock, with a cumbersome and costly permit system in place for landholders looking to diversify.

The proposed changes announced this week by Lands Minister Tony Buti would allow for a more flexible form of land tenure called a “diversification lease”.

The reforms would see wind and solar farms needed for hydrogen production able to coexist with grazing activities, as well as opening up more land for carbon farming, horticulture projects and cultural tourism.

Carbon farming a winner

The expansion of carbon farming across WA’s rangelands, is an exciting prospect for Dave McQuie, a pastoralist at Bulga Downs in the northern Goldfields.

He was amongst a small group of pastoralists given the green light by the state government to participate in a carbon farming trial in 2018.

“Last year was our first year of actually seeing an income from it and it has changed our bottom line dramatically [and] it gives us the ability to put more money into looking after the rangelands.”

A bush on a red dry plain

A small number of WA pastoralists have already turned to carbon farming to better utilise unproductive land in the Southern rangelands.(ABC: Chris Lewis)

A lack of security over land tenure has been a major barrier for the WA pastoral industry to participate in the Commonwealth’s $2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund, which requires a minimum 25-year commitment.

However, Mr McQuie said the proposed amendments, which include the ability to extend lease terms to 50 years, would make more stations across the rangelands eligible for the scheme.

Reforms lacking detail

Kimberley pastoralist David Stoate, who runs Anna Plains Station 250 kilometres south of Broome, agreed this would be a positive outcome from the proposed reforms, as would the government’s commitment to overhaul the pastoral rent model.

However, he was disappointed with the long-awaited reform package announced this week and doubts the “average pastoralist” would get much benefit from the proposed diversification lease.

“But for your average pastoralist who is looking for a much more modest project, it’ll be hard to justify that expense.”

“The automatic right of renewal which the government previously talked about isn’t in this package, so it’s unfortunate that’s missed out.”

Pastoralist in green shirt kneeling in fodder

David Stoate has a small, irrigated fodder crop growing on Anna Plains Station.(ABC Rural: Courtney Fowler)

Mr Stoate, who also heads up the Kimberley Pilbara Cattleman’s Association said pastoralists in the north-west would prefer to be able to use their existing tenure for a broader range of agricultural purposes, like their counterparts in the Northern Territory.

He urged the state government not to rush the new land reforms through parliament without extensive consultation.

Fears of large-scale clearing

These are calls are shared by lobby group, Environs Kimberley, which has accused the state government’s land reform measures as a knee-jerk policy reaction to mining billionaire Andrew Forrest moving his green hydrogen project to Queensland.

The comments come after Mr Forrest indicated it was red tape around land tenure which had deterred him making the multi-billion-dollar hydrogen investment in his home state of WA.

“There’s obviously a serious need for renewable energy in the world but we don’t think that clearing vast areas, particularly of the southern Kimberley, is the way to go.”

A grey-haired Andrew Forrest in a bright yellow work shirt speaks with a mine site behind him.

Mining billionaire Andrew Forrest says WA’s land tenure legislation has been a barrier to further investment in the hydrogen industry.(AAP: Justin Benson-Cooper)

Minister says reforms strike a balance

Lands Minister Tony Buti rejected those claims, saying the McGowan government’s reform package had been in the works for several years, and insisted any land clearing would still need to go through the relevant approval process.

Importantly, he said all diversification leases would require the establishment of an Indigenous land use agreement with native title holders and would not allow any one user to have exclusive tenure.

“Global demand for clean energy is increasing and Western Australia will be better placed to capitalise on this demand under these updated land tenure rules.”

A tight head and shoulders shot of Labor MP Tony Buti in a suit talking outside the WA Parliament.

Lands Minister Tony Buti says any land clearing will still need to go through the relevant approval process.(ABC News: Jacob Kagi)

Hydrogen industry welcomes reform

The head of Province Resources, which is developing the HyEnergy Project along the Gascoyne coast near Carnarvon, agrees land tenure has been a barrier for growing the state’s hydrogen industry.

Chief executive David Frances is hopeful the proposed reforms will give all landholders more certainty going forward.

“There is an existing pathway through to development but it’s quite convoluted, involving various land acts and licenses,” he said.

“I think what it will do is show that Western Australia is serious about developing these projects and the government’s got really behind that.

“We’ve been involved from a very early stage in discussions with the government to get to something that’s workable and we believe this is.”

Partnership for the Outback manager Will Baston said the reform package also offered significant conservation and biodiversity opportunities.

Cattle on the Lawrie property.

It’s hoped new land reforms could help drive a boom in carbon farming, which can offset the world’s greenhouse gases and generate income for landholders.(ABC News: Isabella Higgins)

He was cautiously optimistic the right balance could be struck between working with nature and landholders enjoying new, viable sources of income.

There will be public information sessions on the proposed land tenure reforms held in Perth next month.

What could WA’s new land reform package mean for you?
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