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Queensland forest clearings spell bad news for Great Barrier Reef

The expected bulldozing of 2,000 hectares of forest is likely to result in soil pollution in the Reef -- the last thing it needs.

Close-up of a Turtle swimming underwater, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

Getty Images/Sean Scott

After huge amounts of coral bleaching and rising carbon emissions, the Great Barrier Reef could really use some good news. Sadly, that's not what it got this weekend.

A draft report from the Department of Environment and Energy recommends forest clearing should go ahead at northern Queensland's Kingvale Station, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Prospective clearing was first authorised in 2014, and its purpose would be to make way for cropping and other activities.

Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg will rule on the matter, and if it goes forward it'll mean 2,000 hectares of forest areas right next to the Reef will be cleared. And that would almost certainly mean a soil pollution problem for the Reef.

The Reef isn't looking so great. Global warming has pushed ocean temperatures 0.68 Celsius over the past century. That may not seem like much, but it was enough to drive two major bleaching events that wracked the Reef in two consecutive years, leaving chunks of it dead. Algae provide coral with nutrients through photosynthesis, but if the algae becomes heat stressed or overexposed to sunlight, it instead produces a toxin. The coral will then expel the algae, causing the coral to bleach. Bleaching, depending on severity, can be fatal.

Not only is too much heat and light a problem, so is lack of sunlight. Sediment washed from the land into the Reef blocks sunlight onto the coral, restricting the necessary process of photosynthesis. It can also damage or kill some of the fauna supporting the ecosystem.

"Declining marine water quality, influenced by land-based run-off, is one of the most significant threats to the long-term health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef." Ironically, that's a quote from the Queensland Government's State of the Environment page

In a significantly more expensive instance of irony, the Federal Government in April announced AU$500 million would be invested into improving the Reef's health -- AU$201 million of which would go to improving its water quality.

"The draft report proposes strict conditions and mitigation measures to reduce erosion and sedimentation impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, and provide protections for nationally listed threatened species," said a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment and Energy.

These measures include a restriction on clearing mapped areas with a gradient greater than two percent, the retention of vegetated buffers and the seeking of expert advice on designing contour banks and other infrastructure, the spokesperson added. 

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