Grazier's Fight For 'Justice' After Clearing Trees To Feed Cattle During Drought
A Queensland grazier is making a last-ditch attempt to clear his name after being convicted for pushing over trees on his property to feed starving cattle.
Dan McDonald and his family of five run a cattle breeding operation on their 34,000-hectare property northwest of Charleville, which he says has been impacted by severe drought since 2012.
In 2017, he was convicted of six counts of carrying out "development" on his property without a permit when he pushed over 1,800 hectares of native mulga trees between 2013 and 2015.
He was ordered to pay $112,000 in fines and penalty costs -- an amount he said is likely to force him off the land.
Two years later, and with an appeal in the Brisbane District Court already dismissed, McDonald appeared at the Brisbane Court of Appeal to overturn his conviction and sentence.
He told reporters outside court on Tuesday he had travelled almost 1,000 kilometres to "seek justice" from the "heavy hand of the law".
"I believe at all times, I had the right to do what I have done," he said.
"Consequently, relying on the integrity of the law has essentially led me to this situation where I am now being charged as a criminal and dealt with in a rather unjust manner."
McDonald maintains he pushed over mulga trees on his land so that his cattle could reach the leaves.
Graziers will typically use the shrub-like vegetation to feed their stock during drought conditions. He said the so-called land clearing was more akin to "mowing your lawn", where the cut-down vegetation soon regrows.
"What I've done, what I've always done, is what we in the Mulga lands have done since European settlement. The physical title to the land has vested in us the right to use that vegetation to feed our animals," he said.
McDonald is appealing his conviction on the grounds the Department of Natural Resources and Mines failed to inform him his activities were in breach of the relevant act despite making inspections of his property during the two-year period.
Inside court, the self-represented grazier pleaded with a full bench of the Court Of Appeal to not underestimate the impact of severe drought.
"Imagine living through a fire or a flood or cyclone that tears you apart and destroys you continuously for seven years," he said in a tearful presentation to the three judges.
"It's crushing and it goes on and on and on.
Please, in the interests of humanity, do not underestimate the meaning of drought.
McDonald questioned the $112,000 fine and cost order, saying it was disproportionate to a similar case and likely to force him off the land.
He said a 20-year order prohibiting further clearing and use of the feed had been placed on the land following his conviction.
The court also heard years of drought had depreciated the value of the grazier's property to $220,000, and that his family were receiving Commonwealth benefits.
Court of Appeal President Walter Sofronott asked the department's lawyer, Ben Power, how McDonald was expected to pay the fine and costs.
"It's prima facie oppressive," Justice Peter Flanagan added.
Power acknowledged mulga was an important resource for the state's west, and that requirements were in place around how much could be cleared in a given time, how that was to be done, and what other habitat needed to be preserved.
"The question is how best to ensure that resource is available in the future," he said.
The court has reserved its decision.