Absurd Kimberley red tape is strangling station owners

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Ben HarveyThe West Australian
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Damian and Kirsty Forshaw with Lochee and Digby of Nita Downs.
Camera IconDamian and Kirsty Forshaw with Lochee and Digby of Nita Downs. Credit: Simon Penn

You would need quite a few Gatorades in your backpack to walk across Nita Downs Station. At 210,000ha, the station south of Broome is the kind of place Europeans struggle to comprehend.

Finding an A380 on this station would be hard. Finding a small plant with a specific purple flower harder still. Finding a small plant with a specific purple flower when the plant isn’t flowering is well ... you get the drift.

That’s exactly what Damian and Kirsty Forshaw, who bought the station in 2005, were asked to do to satisfy the then Department of Environment Regulation that the world wouldn’t end if they irrigated a patch of land to grow feed for their cattle.

The Forshaws’ battle with red tape, which is documented in a Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen’s Association submission to a Senate inquiry, began in 2009 when they acquired a clearing permit for 250ha. They wanted to install five “pivots” — an irrigation system with steel arms that rotate around a central piece of infrastructure, feeding water into sprinklers.

There is a fair bit to do at Nita Downs. Besides looking after thousands of head of cattle, the Forshaws contend with Mother Nature and things such as export bans to Indonesia. So it took them seven years to get around to installing the first pivot, by which time the DER said the permit had expired.

They were asked to complete a new flora and fauna survey, which they did. Six months later they got a response to their application and have since been living in bureaucratic purgatory somewhere between the DER and the Department of Parks and Wildlife.

The DER ordered the flora and fauna study to be conducted and sent in within 28 days. That’s 7500ha investigated per day. As part of that process they had to tell DPAW what methodology would be used by their flora and fauna consultants. That guidance wasn’t received within the 28- day window, so the Yes Minister pantomime continued.

You can’t help thinking that the Forshaws’ cattle will have died of old age before they get a feed, especially when you consider that if and when the clearing permit is granted, the station owners will have to get a water licence.

To get that they have to spend $100,000 sinking a bore, hoping blindly that it will be deemed suitable because there’s no guidance on whether the bore will be approved before you sink it. You really are rolling the dice. Expensive dice.

Oh, and before they put in the bore they need approval from the local shire. The Forshaws aren’t alone in their battle with bureaucracy.

Their neighbours at Wallal Station wanted to increase the amount of land under irrigation from 285ha to 600ha. That sounds like a lot but Wallal is 200,000ha, so the increase meant going from 0.1 per cent of land being watered to 0.3 per cent.

Staff at Wallal spent last July chasing bilbies around the property as part of their own flora and fauna study.

You can’t help thinking that the Forshaws’ cattle will have died of old age before they get a feed, especially when you consider that if and when the clearing permit is granted, the station owners will have to get a water licence.

Bilbies accounted for, Wallal was also thrown into bureaucratic purgatory, with the DER advising that a hold-up with the licence to take water (issued by the Department of Water) was holding up the clearing permit (issued by the Department of Lands).

They got the increased licence to take water in February but the DER was still worried about those recently counted bilbies.

Thinking laterally, as station people are often forced to, Wallal suggested that the “Bilby Management Plan” being used on nearby Pardoo Station would be a suitable way to address the DER’s worries.

Pardoo is 50km away, which in the Kimberley is the equivalent of being in your lounge room, so Wallal was confident a solution was found.

Nope.

Apparently the bilbies on Wallal are different from the ones on Pardoo so a new plan was ordered.

Wallal is still waiting to get feedback from the management plan they submitted in March.

Clearly the wheels of bureaucracy move slowly, and often in different directions.

The good news for people like the Forshaws is that they have a pretty formidable ally in the form of Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan. MacTiernan hates inefficiency and is not an apologist for a recalcitrant bureaucracy.

Don’t be surprised to see her in the red dirt digging bores herself to speed things along.

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