Cotton plans for the Barkly Tablelands referred to EPA in a first for NT land clearing – ABC News

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ABC Rural: Daniel Fitzgerald
Plans to develop a large dryland cropping operation in the Barkly region of the Northern Territory have been referred to the Environment Protection Authority (NTEPA).
The Malcolm Harris-owned Cleveland Agriculture has applied to clear just under 5,000 hectares for growing cotton and sorghum crops on Ucharonidge Station, 800 kilometres south-east of Darwin.
The NT Department of Environment referred the application to the NTEPA because the proposed clearing would result in more than 10,000 hectares of cleared land on Ucharonidge Station — which had previously been given approval to clear 4,916 hectares in 2020 and 317 hectares in 2019.
It is understood this is the first time a pastoral land clearing application has been referred to the NTEPA.
ABC Rural: Daniel Fitzgerald
The Barkly Tablelands is regarded as the engine room of the Northern Territory's cattle industry, with endless plains of Mitchell grass.
According to Ucharondige Station's clearing application, it believes growing cotton and sorghum crops will complement its cattle operations.
"The proposed cropping system is part of an overall drought management strategy that will capitalise on good wet seasons to better manage the dry years by retaining moisture within the soils through incorporation of organic carbon into the matrix," it said.
"The optimal planting time will be wet season to ensure the crop benefits from the higher rainfall months to achieve maximum vegetative growth and yield potential, no irrigation will be required."
The application comes as the NT gets ready to build its own cotton gin, with early construction works now underway at Tarwoo Station near Katherine.
In a business case report into the viability of building a NT cotton gin, PricewaterhouseCoopers reported the Barkly had the potential to produce 120,000 bales of cotton each year, with interest to grow the crop on Ucharondige and also Rockhampton Downs — which is also owned by Malcolm Harris.
It's understood Ucharonidge has been trialling cotton over the past two years, with sources telling ABC Rural that "Malcolm Harris is growing some of the best cotton in the NT".
Environment Centre NT's Kirsty Howey said while plans for large-scale cotton production was concerning, the fact that Ucharonidge's plan had been referred to the NTEPA was a "big win".
"This is a significant bio-region, it might not have trees, but it's got some unique characteristics including cracking clay soils that harbour all sorts of little creatures, some of them threatened," she told ABC Rural.
ABC: Dane Hirst
"And frankly, we haven't seen an application for clearing on the Mitchell Grass Downs of this size and there's a range of reasons why it needs to be scrutinised — including the impacts on threatened species.
"And what are the impacts of the chemicals listed in the land clearing application going to be on the local environment?"
ABC Rural: Daniel Fitzgerald
The EPA's director of environmental assessments Lisa Bradley said the extent of land clearing on Ucharonidge and the "unknown greenhouse gas emissions associated with the clearing" was what triggered the referral.
The EPA will look at the accumulative impact of clearing the entire 10,000-hectare project.
She said it was a large project for the NT, but small compared to the actual size of the Barkly.
"What we're looking at with Ucharonidge Station is that approximately 0.2 per cent of similar habitat in the region would be cleared, so it's a small amount," Ms Bradley said.
"And that 10,000 hectares is only about 4 per cent of the total native vegetation on Ucharonidge Station."
ABC News: Kristy O'Brien
Ucharonidge Station's clearing application includes a 69-page assessment of its potential carbon impact.
It claims the clearing process will actually result in a net carbon gain, as it will "incorporate the existing grass biomass into the clay soils to assist in water retention, significantly reducing release to atmosphere from typical processes of bovine digestion or wildfire combustion".
"The results show the net greenhouse gas emissions would change from approximately 3,400 tonnes in 2019 (before any land transformation events) to -35,00 tonnes CO2 equivalent (positive carbon sink) in 2023, assuming 85 per cent of the total approved area was transformed into rainfed cotton, and the cattle herd increased roughly 30 per cent compared to the current size."
Public consultation on the EPA's referral closes on September 30. After that deadline, the EPA will determine if an Environmental Impact Assessment will need to be undertaken.
Cleveland Agriculture has been contacted for comment.
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