How saving a rare historic tree has cost farming family a fortune

The Conway family wanted to plant feed crops for cattle but the discovery of a vulnerable tree led to further environmental restrictions being placed on their land.

Aug 06, 2020, updated Aug 06, 2020
An ooline tree. (Photo: Source: Australian National Botanic Gardens)

An ooline tree. (Photo: Source: Australian National Botanic Gardens)

Denis Conway, Jill Conway and Olivia Martin (née Conway) bought a grazing property, Tecoma, near Taroom in central Queensland, where they intended to plant crops to fatten cattle.

In 2014, the Conways and gas company APLNG signed an agreement leading to a pipeline being constructed across part of the property. The company also had mining exploration leases, and in June 2017 issued an entry notice to further inspect the land.

Two environmental scientists inspected the land and found what they thought to be an ooline tree. But it wasn’t until Mr Conway complained about the spread of weeds around the pipeline that the scientists took a sample of the tree and sent it to the Queensland Herbarium for analysis.

Ooline trees are considered a relic of an extensive rainforest vegetation that covered much of Australia in the past.

While the Conways were already aware of ooline trees on other parts of the property – one of the paddocks was even called Ooline – they were not officially subject to the Flora Survey Trigger Maps that apply environmental restrictions to such land. Confirmation from the herbarium that an ooline tree existed led to everything within a 2km radius of the tree being declared high-risk vegetation.

With the grazing value of their property affected by the declaration, the Conways sought $700,000 compensation from APLNG for the impact of their intrusion. Conway told the Land Court “it distresses me and my family that such ill-considered decisions are made in the absence of reliable scientific data and without any appreciation for the inconvenience, cost and heartache it causes for us as landowners”.

But Land Court member Peta Stilgoe last week dismissed the claim, noting that it was unusual to have a case where a gas company has been accused of protecting the environment.

While Stilgoe was critical of several witnesses who gave evidence on support of the Conways, she agreed APLNG could have gone about its business differently. But the company was still within its rights to do what it did.

“The Common Provisions Act does not permit this Court to compensate parties for hurt feelings, disappointment, or anger at an environmental protection regime,” Stilgoe found.

“The Conways’ application must fail.”

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