Pastoralists in legal lease stoush

Rueben HaleThe West Australian

Station owners have been urged to join a legal fighting fund to stop the further release of private financial data in a Government report into pastoral land.

A fortnight ago it was revealed a buried State Government departmental report evaluated the majority of the State's current pastoral leases as unviable.

The revelation came after State Labor MP Chris Talentine unearthed a report called the Viability of Pastoral Leases in the Northern Rangelands and Southern Rangelands Region Based on Biophysical Assessment, under the Freedom of Information Act.

The December 2010 report projected viability of pastoral leases across the regions by assessment of biophysical parameters.

The report, in particular, analysed the inherent landscape productivity and its capacity to be managed in an ecologically sustainable manner, and the impact of current rangeland condition on grazing capacity.

Of the 446 WA pastoral leases across the northern and southern rangelands assessed, applying a threshold viability level of a potential carrying capacity of 4000 cattle but ignoring reduced carrying capacity caused by degraded rangeland condition, only about 26 per cent were considered viable.

In anticipation of the massive financial losses potentially faced by the pastoral industry if the full report is made public, Pastoralists and Graziers Association president Tony Seabrook has announced the lobby group was in the process of establishing a fighting fund to try to block the naming of the pastoral leases that had been deemed unviable in the report.

"The further release of this private and confidential information could cause massive financial destruction to the affected pastoralists and cost the WA industry hundreds of millions of dollars in losses," he said. "It could impact their capacity to borrow and also have an impact on their capacity to buy and sell.

"On the back of this report, the unviable leases, many worth around $2 million to $3 million, could suddenly become worthless."

Mr Seabrook said it was a mistake by the department to "let the cat out of the bag" and the body, in conjunction with pastoralists, should fight harder to block information.

"Last week, the department's director-general, Rob Delane, claimed his department had not done the report," he said.

"But now we have to focus on preventing further damage that will be done if full details of the report are released.

"We would like the department's assistance with research information and guidance but we don't need their help to run our industry."

One furious pastoralist, Leanne Corker from Ashburton, said the department needed to withdraw the report immediately.

Mrs Corker and husband Digby run about 4000 Droughtmaster cattle on their 188,000ha property, Red Hill Station, which they have managed viably for the past 28 years.

"The report's conclusions about our viability make me angry," Mrs Corker said.

"I am not concerned about the report being released, but it must be challenged and refuted by the pastoralists who disagree with their viability rating.

"Our situation in 2011 was not dire and our viability classification has no validity."

Mrs Corker said she also found it hard to believe that Mr Delane knew nothing about the report. "This report is ludicrous, damaging and unnecessary." she said.

"It has caused irreversible damage to the relationship between the department and pastoralists."

Mrs Corker said the report lacked professionalism.

"I have no respect left for the integrity of a department which authors such unprofessional fiction based on biased assumptions and parameters," she said.

"This report is the most ludicrous, damaging and unnecessary report I have come across in all my years involved with the pastoral industry."

But DAFWA assistant director John Ruprecht said the report's work gave an assessment of baseline ecological capacity of the rangelands for pastoralism, and contributed to work looking at more flexible tenure arrangements for pastoral leases.

"It was provided to other agencies involved in the rangeland reform process, including the then Department of Regional Development and Lands and the then Department of Environment and Conservation," he said.

"A comprehensive presentation of the report's finding was provided to all member agencies of the Rangelands Reform Senior Officers Group.

"It is important to note that the assessment considered leases individually for the purpose of stand-alone pastoral businesses - i.e. the effect of multiple leaseholdings or access to any non-pastoral income was not assessed."

Mr Ruprecht said the work was not intended to be an assessment of businesses in the WA rangelands.

"DAFWA wrote to 41 Pilbara pastoralists in October 2014 to inform them that as part of an FOI process, a copy of the report had been requested which included their property assessment," he said.

"Pastoralists were also provided with an opportunity to respond through the FOI process."

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