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Environment Analysis

Federal and NSW governments focus on spin instead of saving koalas

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The NSW Government is failing to save koalas from a catastrophic fate (image by Dan Jensen)

The Berejiklian and Morrison governments must alter their approach and enact policies that protect koalas to ensure their survival, writes Sue Arnold.

THE NSW GOVERNMENT announced a 'budget bonanza for the State’s biodiversity' with:

' ... more than $193 million over five years to deliver on our goal to double koala numbers in NSW by 2050.'

At first glance, that looks great. Except, it's just spin. Exactly how the Government intends to 'double koala numbers by 2050' is unclear.

What we do know is that koala numbers are dwindling so rapidly that it's more likely koalas will be a distant memory by 2050 except for a few kept in zoos.

Given that Environment Minister Matt Kean made the same commitment in 2018 prior to the bushfires which incinerated thousands of koalas on the mid-north coast, his renewed commitment completely fails to take into account the bushfire losses.   

The Government has consistently refused to undertake any population estimates or surveys despite the documented evidence that 25.9 per cent of all moderate to very highly suitable koala habitat had been lost.

Most of the loss occurred on the Northern Tablelands and North Coast, with the native forests in these regions providing critical habitat.

With no legal protection of habitat, industrial logging of remaining forests and massive infrastructure and urbanisation projects destroying remaining habitat, it will take more than propaganda to ensure extinction is not the outcome of the Government’s current term of office.

In a letter to Australians for Animals, the Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment and Veterans states:

Minister Kean remains committed to doubling the numbers of koalas in NSW by 2050. The release of a whole-of-government strategy to help achieve this goal will serve as the Government’s response to the Inquiry [Upper House Inquiry into Koalas] report. 

 

The strategy is likely to include a combination of national park additions, incentives for private landholders to conserve koala habitat, regional programs to improve the health and safety of koalas, habitat restoration and actions to fill key knowledge gaps.

The key knowledge gaps have been covered extensively by the 'NSW Koala Research Plan: Expert Elicitation of Knowledge Gaps', as a result of an expert workshop held in July 2018.

The workshop findings identified major threats such as habitat loss and fragmentation, disease, bushfires, cars and roads and climate change.

All campaign efforts to persuade the Government to declare the Great Koala National Park, an area on the mid-north coast comprising some 300,000 hectares containing critically important koala populations have been ignored. ‘Additions to national parks’ is a completely meaningless statement.

As for private landholders, the new State environmental planning policy for koalas hands over the power to override councils and allow clearing of koala habitat on private land to Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s Ministry.  Logging may allowed to override local environmental plans and the Minister for Planning will take over Councils’ rights to rezone rural land to an environmental zone.   

Councils’ existing consent requirements for logging over 600,000 hectares of private forests were removed. 87 per cent of private lands zoned for primary production or forestry are exempt from the policy. These lands are important for koala survival. Koala plans of management now must be approved by the Department overseen by Barilaro. 

In the Government’s response to the Upper House Inquiry into koalas, the following comment was made:

'The Government will continue to support local councils to conserve koala habitat. Support for local councils to deliver koala conservation is a key pillar of the NSW Koala Strategy.'

The Government's strategy is more spin than substantive action. In 2018, the Government released a document entitled 'Developing a whole of government NSW koala strategy'. 

This document was an update on a previous policy document published in 2016, which provided information that the "save our species" koala project would now be addressed by the whole-of-government koala strategy.   

Loss, modification and fragmentation of habitat were identified as a priority.   

When the current koala strategy was finally published in 2018, the website stated that:

'The NSW Koala Strategy will help protect important koala habitat.'

Koala habitat conservation was identified as the primary target. $44.7 million was set aside for koalas.

There has been no attempt by the Government to ensure the Audit Office undertake an audit of the effectiveness or failure of the 2018 strategy or the save our species koala project. Taxpayer dollars are sunk into an increasingly bottomless dark hole, labelled “koala strategy”.

Minister Matt Kean has joint responsibility with the Deputy Premier in managing the forestry industry.   

Minister Kean has not taken a single step to ensure that the critically important irreplaceable biodiversity being lost in the northeast forests is spared from the Forestry Corporation’s wipeout, in spite of many emails, letters, phone calls and pleas from conservation groups and the concerned public.   

The Inquiry recommended that:

'The NSW Government consider the impacts of logging in all public native (non-plantation) forests in the context of enabling koala habitat to be identified and protected by a combination of transferring land to land to national parks.'

The Government’s response was:

'The Coastal Forestry Operations Approval also contains provisions for the retention of important koala habitat through wildlife and tree retention clumps, these areas aim to build greater connectivity with protected areas and corridors.'

This was further evidence of the do-nothing policies of the Berejiklian Government.

Another recommendation suggests the Government establish new plantations on already cleared land of low biodiversity importance to reduce future reliance on native forest logging.

Given that the Singleton Council is currently considering approval for the Redbank Power Station which will burn a million tonnes of wood annually as "renewable energy", there’s little doubt that remaining forests and native vegetation are the focus of supply.  

There has been no information provided as to where the wood will come from but if it comes from the forests, it will have dire consequences for the koala. Greenhouse gases from burning wood have not been considered.

Climate change impacts continue to be ignored by the Berejiklian Government even though the International Union for the Conservation of Nature designated koalas as one of the world’s ten most vulnerable species to the impacts.

The final nail in the coffin must be the Federal Government’s release of the draft koala recovery plan, nine years overdue, which lists as increasing habitat protection as a matter for concern.

However, there is no habitat protection and the federal or state level, and forestry operations are exempt from the requirements of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act (EPBC).

Sussan Ley, Minister for the Environment, is attempting to get the EPBC Amendment Bill through the Senate, which would give state governments powers to approve major projects. 

The Threatened Species Scientific Committee has published a document inviting public comments on upgrading the koala to endangered in NSW, Queensland and the ACT.   

Given that there are no current estimates of koala populations in the states, and the Committee estimates are based on old desktop studies, the only available conclusion is that the federal and state governments' policies of koala protection involve nothing more than generating mountains of paper supported by unaccounted taxpayer dollars.

Government by spin will never provide an ounce of protection for a species struggling to survive.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

 
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