In recent years the Department of Environment and Conservation in Western Australia has acquired millions of hectares of land for the creation of conservation parks and nature reserves. Many of the protected areas are afforded the greatest degree of protection as they are classified as “Class A” reserves due to their high conservation or high community value. The mining industry has expressed concern that the reservation of land as “Class A” reserves will significantly impact on current and future tenement holders from exploring and mining within these areas.

Reserves

The reservation of land is the setting aside of Crown land for the protection and conservation of biodiversity and related natural or cultural heritage values.

Under section 41 of the Land Administration Act 1997 (WA) (LAA) the Minister may set aside Crown lands by Ministerial Order in the public interest. It does not include private land set aside for conservation purposes under a conservation covenant or similar instrument.

Reservation of land is normally initiated by the Department’s State Land Services branch following community or Government request, land planning decisions, or as a result of subdivision of land. Approximately 16% of the State is held under a reserve of some description.

Classification

The Minister for Lands may by order classify land as a “Class A” reserve. These reserves are the most protected type of Crown (public) land in Western Australia, as parliamentary approval is required to amend the reserve’s purpose or area, or to cancel the reservation. Once a class A reserve is created it cannot be used for anything other than that purpose, unless a proposal to change the use is laid before both Houses of Parliament.

The ‘A’ classification of a reserve is problematic for the mining industry as there are a number of restrictions on mining activities within conservation reserves, including:

  • a mining lease or a general purpose lease cannot be granted over a class A reserve without the consent of both Houses of Parliament, and
  • mining can only be commenced in a class A reserve with the approval of the Minister for Mines and Petroleum and the Minister for Environment and Conservation.

Despite these restrictions, a mining lease or a general purpose lease may still be granted on a class A reserve, but in granting consent, Parliament may impose several conditions on the terms of that lease.

Co-existence of mining leases and class ‘A’ reserves

The creation of a class A reserve over land that is subject to existing mining leases does not automatically affect mining activities on that area of land, as those areas are generally excluded from the reservation.

In addition, areas that are identified as supporting advanced development projects (i.e. where mining is likely to proceed in the near future) will have the area of the approved footprint of the mine site (or in some cases the granted mining tenement) excluded from the reserve.

Hence, existing mining and petroleum tenements will co-exist following the change in land tenure but upon the conclusion of all mining activities and subsequent rehabilitation in that area, the land may be added to the reserve.

Conclusion

Despite Western Australia enjoying unprecedented prosperity, the Government is still committed to establishing a conservation reserve system and it is likely that they will continue to reserve more land over the coming years. This means that the mining industry will be faced with more restrictions when prospecting, exploring and mining in areas with high conservation value.