On the day the Mount Emerald wind farm was officially declared open, Steve Nowakowski felt a heady optimism.
It was winter 2019, the sky was clear and a slight breeze ruffled Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s hair as she spruiked Queensland’s clean, green energy future.
Steve, a renowned wilderness photographer and veteran environmental campaigner, listened in fierce agreement.
“We know we need a very quick transition to renewables and this was a part of a solution,” he says.
Steve had photographed the gigantic blades as they wound their way up the Palmerston range to a high elevation plateau, less than 100km south-west of Cairns.
His images were so striking, he had been commissioned by the energy company building the wind farm to photograph the completed project.
So after the opening ceremony, he walked to the top of Mt Emerald to get aerial shots of the site.
Steve had bushwalked through Mt Emerald’s native scrub years earlier and knew the landscape well.
Back then, it was an untouched wilderness of scraggly trees, open grasslands and rocky ridges.
Now, as he looked down, he was shocked at what he saw.
Broad roads carved snaking pathways through the scrub, connecting large circular clearings at the base of over 50 towering wind turbines.
“I thought, ‘Geez, there’s a lot of destruction here. They’ve transformed what was a really great, pristine area … into a really industrial area’.”
For a time, Steve ignored those misgivings.
The Mt Emerald Wind Farm would power 80,000 homes with renewable energy, and he was proud of that.
“I thought, well, Mt Emerald, that’s the price we had to pay. That landscape will never come back. It’s now basically a quarry site.
“But, you know, we’re punching above our weight in terms of renewable energy in North Queensland.”
He had no idea at the time that Mt Emerald would become just one of many wind and solar projects proposed, or already under construction, in this part of Queensland, some on significant tracts of unspoilt wilderness.
“It’s really out of control,” Steve says. “And no one knows about it.”
While environmental campaigners like Steve Nowakowski remain committed to renewable energy, a Background Briefing investigation has found growing community backlash over the locations chosen for projects in North Queensland.
Local conservation groups and peak climate bodies are sounding the alarm over plans to build green energy projects in forests that predate white settlement, along corridors bordering World Heritage Areas, and on properties previously targeted for conservation protection, rather than on cleared and degraded land.
If all current proposals were to be approved, an estimated 13,332 hectares of remnant vegetation would be cleared statewide. Around 90 per cent of the land clearing will be in North Queensland.
There are currently 48, large-scale renewable energy projects that have been completed, commenced or slated for Queensland, with some of the largest facilities to be built along the electricity transmission networks that traverse the Coral Sea coast.
These transmission lines provide convenient access to the national energy grid but sometimes cut through ecologically valuable land.
“We’ve got this big wall of steel coming through along the transmission line along the western side of the Great Dividing Range, hugging the western side of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area,” Steve says.
According to James Cook University adjunct professor and evolutionary biologist, Dr Tim Nevard, Far North Queensland is one of Australia’s most biodiverse regions and many of the sites chosen for wind farms are “wholly inappropriate”.
“Biodiversity is the buffer at the end of the tracks that stops the runaway train of climate change from bursting through,” Dr Nevard says.
“Destroying biodiversity in order to have greater amounts of wind energy is a complete oxymoron. It’s ridiculous. So we shouldn’t be doing it.”
‘This is massive’
A year after standing atop Mt Emerald, Steve Nowakowski received a phone call from a well-connected friend about another wind farm in the works.
It was at a place called Kaban.
Located about 48 km south of Mt Emerald, the Kaban wind farm is currently being built by the Australian arm of French energy company Neoen.
It’s set to start operations in 2023 and will produce enough energy to power 96,000 Queensland homes a year.
The entire project area is 1,300 hectares and will disturb 172 hectares of ground. Most of the site is grassy woodlands and open forest.
The project area includes 129 hectares of threatened species habitat and is home to greater gliders and magnificent broodfrogs.
In the past, some of the property was used for grazing cattle, and like National Parks in the area, parts have been used for military training.
Steve’s friend asked him to get out to the site to photograph a little-known endangered species called the magnificent broodfrog.
But Steve didn’t go.
“I had faith in the system that the frogs would be identified on the site, they’d be protected on the site,” he says.
He has since lost faith that state and federal environmental protection regimes are adequately applied to approvals for renewables projects in biodiverse areas.
A few months later, Steve’s friend called again and implored him to go to Kaban, where bulldozers were now clearing land.
The friend said local residents were distraught and it seemed important to document what was happening.
This time, Steve grabbed his camera gear and made the 90-minute trip to the Kaban site from his home in Kuranda.
When he arrived, he couldn’t believe what he saw.
“I thought, ‘Oh, this is huge. This is massive’.”
There were roads and turbine pads that were like “big shearer’s blows across the landscape”.
The massive clearing and excavation works required to create the flat pads for the wind turbines were beginning.
A “fish skeleton” network of roads was taking shape that would soon fragment the forest and create a corridor for feral animals, weeds and disease in a once intact ecosystem, as seen in this video taken by another concerned local some time after Steve’s first visit.
As Steve was leaving Kaban, he worried about the impact of construction on the threatened species in the area.
It’s a concern shared by ecologists and conservationists in the region who say federal environmental survey guidelines aren’t thorough enough to protect some threatened species.
One local conservation group is doing its own survey of the rare and endangered magnificent broodfrog in an attempt to cover the shortfall.
Environmental regulatory experts say Queensland’s planning guidelines for wind farm proposals are out of date and don’t take into account new technological developments.
“How do we define a reasonable impact to flora and fauna? What does that mean under the regulation?” asks Dr Madeline Taylor from the Climate Council.
“We haven’t done that appropriately in the Queensland case, at least.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Queensland Department of State Development and Planning said that state guidelines required wind farms to avoid, or minimise and mitigate, adverse impacts on the natural environment.
The state Environmental Protection Act works in conjunction with other legislation to provide environmental protection in Queensland, the spokesperson said.
Neoen, the company behind the Kaban wind farm, told Background Briefing in a statement that they went through an extensive approval process and were minimising potential impact on species and habitat in the project area.
However, Dr Tim Nevard calls the ecological survey work and government guidelines that allowed Kaban to be approved “pathetic”, in light of the biodiversity in the area.
“It’s not the wind farms’ fault, they’ve done it in accordance with the guidelines. I don’t think you can blame them,” Dr Nevard says.
“State and federal systems, both of them, they both need reform.”
A spokesperson for the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, said the government was committed to the highest environmental standards in assessing all projects.
Federal laws establish a transparent and rigorous regulatory framework for the protection of listed threatened species, and World and National Heritage places, the spokesperson said.
They said the assessment process for Kaban was rigorous and that the Commonwealth imposed 41 conditions on approval, including a fauna-management plan and offsets, consistent with the department’s policy.
For Steve Nowakowski, what he saw on the ground was alarming. His first inkling of doubt on Mt Emerald was now turning into hardened opposition.
When he got back from his trip to Kaban, he started sharing the videos and photos he took of what was happening at the site with friends online.
One of the people who came across his video was Joyce Bean.
When traditional owner Joyce Bean first heard about the Kaban wind farm project at her Aboriginal native title organisation board meeting, she had a bad feeling.
She visited the country, along with the rest of the administration of Wabubadda, the native title organisation, before development started and she remembers it fondly.
“We had lunch out there and it was beautiful. [We] couldn’t get over how beautiful it was,” Joyce says.
When she visited the site soon after construction had started, she broke down and cried at the damage she saw.
“I didn’t think that they were going to make such a big mess out there in the country,” she says bitterly.
Joyce says that, if she had known what was going to happen, she would never have approved of the wind farm in the first place.
“But we didn’t have a say in it,” she says.
Traditional owners such as Joyce don’t have veto rights over projects on lands they claim native title over.
Often, the best they can do is negotiate hard for any kind of resource that might benefit their community: jobs, vehicles, scholarships for children or training.
Other traditional owners welcome the wind farms and say they are critical to upskilling young Jirrbal people into better-paying jobs.
Many are sick of seeing their community struggle economically, and say the current system has grossly failed them.
Wind farms offer rare opportunities for work and a glimmer of hope.
What Joyce saw at Kaban left her so disheartened it became one of the key reasons she quit the Wabubadda board after 10 years of service.
When Joyce stumbled on Steve’s images of Kaban online, she picked up the phone.
“She said, ‘Steven, I’ve just been out to the site and I’ve been crying’,” Steve recalls. ”‘I saw your video and we need to do something’.”
Steve was doing presentations about the environmental impact of the wind farm construction at Kaban and had previously offered to do one for the Wabubadda board.
Joyce told him they had to call a whole-of-community meeting to discuss what was happening at Kaban, and what might happen at other proposed wind farm sites.
The two of them mobilised. They met at a cafe in Atherton where Steve gave Joyce and her sister a clutch of flyers, which they handed out to everybody they knew.
In September, dozens of people filed into the Ravenshoe Town Hall, most of them white, along with half a dozen Jirrbal people.
When Steve stood up to give his presentation, he had no idea what to expect, fearing many in the audience might have much-needed jobs out at the Kaban site.
“It was a bit scary,” he recalls. “I didn’t know if I was going to get eggs thrown at me because the people wanted it.”
He showed videos of land clearing for the haulage roads and maps demonstrating the scale of the proposed developments.
“It didn’t take long into my presentation to realise that everyone was on the same page and they were opposed to the industrialisation of this area.”
‘Just blows my brain’
When traditional owner Georgina Wieden saw Steve’s videos of Kaban at the Ravenshoe Town Hall meeting, she was “in complete shock”.
Unlike Joyce, who was heavily involved in Wabubadda board meetings, Georgina had heard about Kaban but hadn’t thought too much about it.
She had assumed she would be kept informed of significant developments on Jirrbal land.
Georgina hadn’t realised how much damage was being done to the forest.
As the presentation went on, Steve kept dropping bombshells about more renewable projects planned across the region in the near future.
Steve explained how, further south of Kaban, a new wind farm was proposed for a site near Chalumbin, which would disturb an area nine times larger.
The proposed site lay snug along the western boundary of World Heritage-protected rainforest. More than 1,100 hectares of vegetation would be cleared for the project.
There were plans for 94 turbines and 146km of roads, some more than 100m wide during the construction phase.
With 90m-long blades, the turbines would generate enough electricity to power 350,000 Queensland homes when the wind farm was completed.
In his presentation, Steve showed videos of the remnant riverine forest where Chalumbin would be built.
“Chalumbin just blows my brain,” Steve says. “It’s greater glider habitat, you’ve got a red goshawk nest that was found there last year – [and] they’re critically endangered.
“And the scientists, environmental consultants, have found magnificent broodfrogs on that site as well.”
Then Steve showed the group plans for an even bigger wind farm further south at Upper Burdekin, which would stretch 37 kilometres end to end, according to the proposal.
When he lay the wind farm plan over a map, it stretched the length of Cairns and all its suburbs.
As the presentation went on, Georgina says she really lost it. She walked out.
“I couldn’t do it. I was a mess,” she says.
Georgina’s mood quickly turned to anger as she struggled to comprehend why, as a traditional owner, she hadn’t heard about Chalumbin from the Prescribed Bodies Corporate (PBC) organisation that represents her family’s Native Title interests, Wabubadda.
She discovered at the meeting that Jirrbal negotiators had been meeting with Epuron, the energy company behind the Chalumbin project, for some time.
“You are meeting with an energy company and it’s a meeting that relates to the Jirrbal land – why aren’t the people informed?” asks Georgina.
Prescribed Bodies Corporate such as Wabubadda have a difficult job to do.
They have to consult beyond their narrow membership with the wider native title group, run meetings, decide on a mode of decision-making, and negotiate with multinational companies with very little money and few resources.
Even former board members such as Joyce Bean, who are critical of Wabubadda, concede that it can be difficult to get everybody to meetings, and that people fall through the cracks.
Background Briefing sent questions to Wabubadda, but members were advised not to speak to the program.
In an interview, Epuron told Background Briefing that the company was minimising the environmental impact of the Chalumbin wind farm and was conducting ecological surveys in line with state and federal guidelines.
“We surveyed this site over the last 18 months – a number of times – and we’ve designed the site to minimise impact on everything that we can,” Epuron development director Paul Stangroom says.
“We appreciate a lot of people say, ‘Why can’t you just go and build wind farms in degraded land further away, that’s already been cleared?’
“And the answer often is they’re just not suitable for wind farms. Wind farms need [a] good, strong wind resource, good access to the grid and this is one of those.”
Mr Stangroom went on to say that it was never Epuron’s intention to split communities nor “create heartache and problems for anybody”.
“We are keen to liaise with anybody and everybody who wants to come forward,” he says, while emphasising that the company is respectful of traditional processes and whom they speak to and in what order.
“At no point are we trying to hold anything back and, again, we do feel that this is a very positive opportunity for traditional owners in the group.”
Benefits for the region
Not all traditional owners share Joyce and Georgina’s horror over the destruction of country.
Joyce’s cousin, Joe Brooks, who was on the Wabubadda board until recently, says while he dislikes seeing the country torn up, he accepts that Native Title holders have no veto power over these projects.
He also sees enormous benefits: plenty of jobs.
Joe agrees that Wabubadda failed to keep people updated on negotiations with Epuron, but he says that Jirrbal negotiators have worked hard to secure well-paid jobs for people at Kaban at least.
Joe himself has benefited.
He used to work in the cane industry and in mining but when the Kaban wind project started, he took a group of young adults out to the site and they walked the property, surveying for artefacts.
He worked hard and transitioned into a job for a contractor out at the site.
“I make 1,800 bucks a week,” Joe says. “Very happy with that. And so can anyone else who goes out there and wants to work.”
Some traditional owners say there were awful massacres across the land proposed for the Chalumbin site, and that important cultural locations in the area are already protected in the National Park and state forests nearby.
They believe that, if their community is to claw back any hope of everything they’ve lost, then wind farms like Chalumbin can play a big role in that.
The only alternative, they say, is to sit back and watch the turbines go up with no benefits coming their way.
But the location of these wind farms in high biodiversity areas is unacceptable to conservationists in the region.
“This is utter madness, clearing high biodiversity forests for wind farms,” Steve Nowakowksi says.
“It’s just insane. You know, I’ve been involved with environmental activism for most of my life and I’ve been arrested for less than this.”
The Climate Council’s Dr Taylor is supportive of a rapid push for renewables but says the emerging conflict over land use in the region could have been avoided.
“We have so much land that we could use that won’t actually impact multiple land users, sensitive ecological zones and environmental zones,” Dr Taylor says.
“Instead of doing that, it seems like what we’re doing is going for the low hanging fruit here.”
Dr Nevard, who also supports a rapid transition to renewable energy, says there are better places for wind farms than in uncleared forests.
He blames a “one-size-fits-all approach” to renewable energy projects by state and federal governments.
“If you’re going to put a wind farm in an area of significant biodiversity, you cannot do it in the same way as you would in an open paddock in South Australia,” Dr Nevard says.
It’s not just locals and ecologists keeping an eye on the energy projects, either.
The Wet Tropics Management Authority says that, while upcoming wind farm projects – including Chalumbin and Upper Burdekin – are outside the World Heritage Area, they “may require significant clearing of remnant native vegetation and, accordingly, we would welcome a proper assessment of the potential impacts”.
“If these wind farm developments are to proceed, the proponents need to demonstrate a gold standard of planning, construction and ongoing management of the areas,” the authority’s executive director, Scott Buchanan, says.
Steve Nowakowski may have lost his optimism about Queensland’s green energy plans, but he still believes a win-win scenario is possible.
“It just needs to be done with the environment in mind,” he says. “It needs to be done in the right places.”
Story: Mayeta Clark
Photography: Mayeta Clark
Maps and animation: Jack Fisher
Supplied photography: Steven Nowakowski, Martin Willis, Anastasia Klose, Dominic Chaplin
Digital production: Matt Henry
Odyssey format by ABC News Story Lab
[pictures and video available at source]
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