Queensland underwent a dramatic surge in tree clearing – with the heaviest losses in Great Barrier Reef catchments – in the year leading up to the Palaszczuk government’s thwarted bid to restore protections.

Figures released on Thursday showed a 33% rise in clearing to almost 400,000 hectares in 2015-16, meaning Queensland now has two-thirds the annual rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

The latest Statewide Landcover and Trees Study (Slats) report showed a 45% jump in clearing in reef catchments, where 40% of all clearing took place.

The deputy premier, Jackie Trad, said the rise of 100,000 hectares to 395,000 hectares cleared was “incredibly alarming”.

“We know that the current rates of land clearing in Queensland are unsustainable. Australia has become one of the deforestation hotspots in the world – the only advanced economy to be named in the 12 deforestation hotspots in the world.

“[It’s] because Queensland has returned to the bad old days of bulldozing hundreds of thousands of hectares of woody and remnant vegetations in order to make way particularly for pasture for cows,” she said.

map of clearing

Rates of clearing surged when Campbell Newman promised to scrap restrictions, which his Liberal National party (LNP) government did in December 2013. Rates then reached a plateau of about 300,000 hectares for several years.

The minority Labor government tried to reverse the legislation last year, but was blocked at the 11th hour in August 2016 when its former MP turned crossbencher Billy Gordon sided with the LNP.

The Newman changes included wiping out protections for high conservation value regrowth, which made up about a third of clearing in 2015-16. The resurgence of clearing shown in the latest figures raises concerns about a fresh bout of “panic clearing” by rural landholders – primarily graziers – in anticipation of Labor’s changes going through.

Labor has promised to push through protections if returned to office with a majority at the upcoming election, while the LNP and One Nation – which could hold the balance of power – have said they will scotch reforms.

The environment minister, Steven Miles, said the latest report was “nothing short of devastating” because of the effects on wildlife, reef waters and coral, and Australia’s carbon emissions.

chart of land clearing

“It’s even worse than my worst fears for this next round of land clearing data,” he said.

Miles said that “most concerningly” 35% of clearing was of remnant bushland, “138kha of old growth native forest, the most important habitat for native species”.

“We know that each year in Queensland 900,000 mammals lose their lives due to this loss of habitat.”

Drone footage shows significant land clearing in Queensland

Miles said 40% of clearing was driving “more sediment into the Great Barrier Reef, literally suffocating our coral”.

“That’s not to mention the 45m tonnes of additional greenhouse gas emissions caused by this clearing.”

Deforestation in Queensland represents a hurdle not only to Australia’s priority goal of lifting water quality for the ailing reef but also its Paris climate commitments because it represents about 90% of the nation’s carbon emissions from land use.

Recent clearing for suburban development in the state’s south-east has also been linked to escalating pressure on koala populations from habitat destruction.

“We need a parliament in Queensland that recognises this is an unsustainable problem that needs urgent redress,” Trad said.

Tree protections in Queensland were the critical factor in Australia meeting its Kyoto commitments on emissions cuts before the LNP wound them back after years of disquiet in the state’s rural areas.

Previous protections had brought clearing rates down from 500,000 hectares a year to 50,000. But Trad said they had subsequently “quadrupled” since the year before the Newman LNP government took office.

Conservation groups said the renewed surge belied claims from the LNP and the farm lobby that opposition to deregulation amounted to scaremongering.

Gemma Plesman, from the Wilderness Society Queensland, said the “shocking” figures showed a “hidden environmental crisis” that put Queensland “up there with the world’s worst offenders for forest destruction”.

Queensland Conservation Council coordinator Tim Seelig said the state’s “tree clearing crisis just got a whole load worse”. He called it “a catastrophe for wildlife and a catastrophe for the reef”.

Miles said the figures showed the state was “still suffering the devastating effects of decisions made by [LNP leader] Tim Nicholls and the LNP both when in government and since then in opposition, blocking our responsible legislation”.

He said the federal government had stalled after initially launching investigations into allegations of illegal clearing in north Queensland, and the National party had responded “so violently”.

He stated: “The Turnbull government since then have failed to have any interest in assisting Queensland to protect our forests [or] to implement our long term sustainability plan for the Great Barrier Reef, which of course is incredibly disappointing.”

Miles said clearing statewide was the “single biggest threat” to koala populations and that a ban on developer donations, promised by Labor on the recommendation of the corruption watchdog, would help conservation efforts.

According to deputy premier Trad, most land cleared statewide was for pastoral land, with a spike in “fodder harvesting” and “tree thinning”.

Protections would remove landholders’ scope for “self-assessment” and apply the “rigour of science” to clearing applications, she said, and the surge in clearing ahead of Labor’s touted reforms last year showed it was “landholders doing the wrong thing”.

Asked if a tree clearing ban was a “vote-winner” in rural Queensland, Trad replied: “This is the right thing to do, whether it’s in the bush or whether it’s in the southeast Queensland corner.”

Contributor

Joshua Robertson

The GuardianTramp

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