Barriers 'stifling' pastoral progress

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

The head of the Aboriginal Lands Trust has warned the State Government that its dithering is putting valuable pastoral leases at risk and delaying efforts to return land to traditional owners.

ALT chairman Clinton Wolf said the trust was deeply concerned about breaching legal requirements under pastoral leases and a lack of necessary resources to discharge land to traditional owners.

Mr Wolf said at least two of six leases held in trust were in danger of being revoked because of bureaucratic and ministerial buck-passing on key land management issues, including the control of feral animals.

He expected a rebuke from Government officials for speaking out but said he was fed up with a situation which threatened to deny traditional owners the full benefit of their land and associated employment and economic opportunities.

The ALT has the huge task of managing 27 million hectares of WA - about 11 per cent of the land mass.

It holds six stations: Pippingarra and Walagunya in the Pilbara, Doon Doon and Glen Hill between Kununurra and Halls Creek, and Lake Gregory and Billiluna east of Halls Creek.

The ALT is also responsible for recommending entry permits for any mining activity on the land under its control, giving the go-ahead to 20 permits in 2012-13.

Recent moves to open up live exports to China and signs the Indonesian market is bouncing back have the potential to add millions of dollars to the value of northern cattle properties.

Mr Wolf said the ALT wanted to give the land it held back to the traditional owners in a timely manner, but did not have the resources it needed.

He said the situation on Lake Gregory and Billiluna, where up to 10,000 wild horses were causing animal welfare, community safety and environmental concerns, highlighted the plight.

The ALT has made submissions to a range of departments seeking approval for an aerial cull over the past four years, but still does not know which department or minister has ultimate responsibility for approving a cull.

It is routine and a legal requirement for private interests with pastoral leases to cull feral animals, but the ALT falls into a grey area.

The Department of Lands and its Pastoral Lands Board are responsible for pastoral leases while the ALT falls under the control of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

Lands Minister Brendon Grylls referred questions to the DAA, which confirmed the PLB had issued default notices against the ALT for failing to manage feral animals.

A DAA statement said: "The ALT is working closely with a number of key stakeholders to broker and identify a resolution to this critical issue."

Mr Wolf said bureaucrats spoke a language he did not understand. "In 2015, the PLB is going to look at every lease in WA and if those leases are not up to scratch they can be taken off leaseholders," he said.

"The ALT wants to get rid of feral animals as it is legally obliged to do, put necessary infrastructure in place and hand the leases back to traditional owners.

"We are having discussions with the Kimberley Land Council about that now but it is a bit hard to hand something back when it is going to be taken off you because you are not allowed to carry out statutory duties."

All pastoral leases in WA are due to expire in 2015 and the terms of draft lease being circulated by the Government have caused alarm in the industry. The existing two-page lease is being replaced by a 15-page document with a raft of clauses which can trigger immediate termination.

Lawyers Hunt and Humphry advised clients this week that there were some new substantive obligations in the draft lease, including:

· Broad indemnification and release in favour of the lessor (the Government).

· A lessor right of termination (without avenue for appeal) as distinct from the right to forfeit the lease.

· New grounds of termination including if the lessee becomes insolvent or if any action is commenced under the Animal Welfare Act 2002 against the lessee.

· Requirements for lessee to comply with environmental provision and regulations.

Mr Wolf said two of the pastoral leases held by the ALT were running well but the other four needed attention, with Lake Gregory and Billiluna at the top of the list for action to comply with the law.

"We are holding the leases on trust for traditional owners and for the Aboriginal people of WA as a whole," he said. " We want to make sure they don't lose the right to get those leases and that when the leases are handed back they don't breach any statutory laws."

The ALT has set aside money for infrastructure on the properties but is reluctant to invest with the threat of termination looming large.

We are holding the leases on trust for traditional owners and for the Aboriginal people of WA as a whole. " Aboriginal Lands Trust chairman *Clinton Wolf *

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