Environment Analysis

Koalas continue to suffer under Chris Minns' NSW Government

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(Image by The 3B's | Wikimedia Commons)

The NSW Government's koala habitat protection policy – or lack thereof – appears to be motivated by public outcry more than protecting an endangered species, Sue Arnold writes.

KOALAS PROVIDE one of the best examples of state government sham actions — designed to look good, but in reality, recipes for politically driven extinctions when a wildlife species gets in the way of growth.

Promises and policies to protect the koala demonstrate a chaotic set of conflicting prescriptions, all incapable of protecting the species’ habitat. Without habitat, koalas can’t survive. 

As an umbrella species for coastal forest ecosystems, the extinction of koalas will also cause similar problems for significant biodiversity.

Koalas took a bit hit in the Black Summer bushfires, with at least 8,000 incinerated on the mid-north coast — the site of the proposed, promised Great Koala National Park (GKNP).

In February 2022, Sussan Ley, then Federal Minister for Environment, listed koalas as endangered under the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). In June 2022, the NSW Government upgraded koalas to endangered under the provisions of the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016.

In response to the listing, the Environmental Defenders Office also pointed out:

'The uplisting of the koala from vulnerable to endangered sends a clear signal that consecutive governments have failed to put in place the necessary measures to reverse the decline in koalas. A strengthening of koala protections is needed across the board to ensure the trajectory of decline does not continue and end with the extinction of the koala in the wild in NSW.'

But there was no strengthening of legal protections, leaving koala populations at the mercy of industrial logging of native forest habitat and major urbanisation projects in southwest Sydney — both projects literally ripping the heart out of critical koala habitat.

More nails in the koala's coffin.

In 2018, the Coalition Government set up the NSW Koala Strategy with promises of an investment of more than $44.7 million to 'stabilise koala populations'.

In 2023, a renewed koala strategy was announced by the Minns Government with an investment of $190 million. It outlines 'actions the NSW Government will take to achieve its long-term goal of doubling koala numbers by 2050.'

Given that governments have furiously rejected any possibility of post-bushfire koala population surveys, one can safely say that 'doubling koala numbers' when no one knows how many koalas there are in NSW is a useless goal.

And why 2050? This is the mantra chanted by not only politicians, some scientists, conservation organisations and mainstream media. The magic extinction number is based on modelling undertaken by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 2021.

Research actually claims koalas on the East Coast of Australia could be extinct by 2050 — East Coast koala populations include NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

Exactly how the NSW Government weaves the East Coast prediction of extinction by 2050 with NSW 'doubling population numbers by 2050' is unclear. Exactly where will the population be doubled? How? Koala Viagra?

More to the point, can the Minns Government point to any project, funded in total by $234 million, resulting in an increased koala population? Given it’s now around six years since the strategy was started, how are the koalas doing?

There’s little doubt that Labor won many votes in the NSW Election in 2023 with its promise to create the park. Once in office, NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe made it clear that there would be no cessation of logging in the proposed park. The forestry industry also made clear its position.

At a time when the building industry has been suffering a shortage of supplies, Australian Forest Products Association chief executive Victor Violante has said that the timber industry needed to be able to co-exist with the GKNP:

'That would be our starting point, around how can we have a GKNP alongside a strong timber industry.'

 A few months on in office, the Government insisted that the park would not be declared until its last term in office.

In 2023, in response to public outrage, Sharpe declared that 106 koala hubs in the proposed park would be protected from logging.

Sharpe stated:

“The creation of the GKNP is essential to saving koalas from extinction in NSW." 

The Minister directed the NSW Environment Protection Agency to develop a new condition designed to protect koala hubs under the Coastal Integration Forestry Operations Approval (CIFOA) processes, which control the state-owned Forestry Corporation’s management of the state’s native forests.

No greater protection was put in place for koala habitat in other state forests being logged or approved for logging. 

Instead of implementing the measure statewide, the logical conclusion is that the Government decided some koalas would get some protection in the proposed, non-declared park surrounded by logging operations — but the rest of the state’s population in or out of native forests would get nothing.

In Southwest Sydney, bulldozers are turning koala habitats into war zones. Koalas are being killed in large numbers trying to cross Appin Road, Campbelltown, with its massive load of traffic.

Government-approved wildlife crossings never happened. The Minns Government has retained the former Government’s plan to build homes across Greater Macarthur, Greater Penrith to Eastern Creek, Western Sydney Aerotropolis and Wilton.

The Government plans to clear 1,758 hectares of koala habitat to build 73,000 homes.

Sharpe said of the plan:

“... [it] gets the balance right between the urgent need for housing and infrastructure in our growing city and conserving and protecting our native habitat and wildlife."

This basically means there won’t be any wildlife to conserve because wildlife doesn’t do well with traffic, fences, dogs, cats, schools, hospitals and shopping malls.

No greater protection has been put in place to protect koalas from these major urbanisation projects — just “plans” ensuring further catastrophic loss of habitat.

In March, Sharpe organised a koala summit at Taronga Zoo to 'review the strategy and shape actions to conserve koalas in NSW'. Invitations were strictly limited, with 140 attendees from various interest groups but no troublemakers.

The discussion was to focus on 'the effectiveness of koala conservation efforts and make recommendations to shape the future of the strategy'.

No resolutions were apparently passed, as there was no ministerial advice on the outcome of the summit. More discussions? How many more? 

There was an Upper House Parliamentary Inquiry in 2019-2020 and there’s significant published scientific research providing evidence of declining populations — plus public demonstrations, forest protests, habitat losses, drought and climate change impacts. 

After the summit, the public was invited to comment on a discussion paper that required responses to focus questions — thus ensuring the submitter adhered to the parameters of a limited, tightly controlled discussion.

Questions included:

'How can landholders be supported to participate in natural capital markets and other opportunities that drive improved outcomes for koalas? Do you think the combination of habitat acquisition, private land conservation and habitat restoration is the right approach to protecting important koala habitat? What else should the NSW Government be doing to protect koala habitat?'

In a November 2023 multi-ministerial press release on the GKNP, Premier Chris Minns said:

'Inaction and neglect by the previous Coalition Government saw the koala officially listed as endangered in NSW. Creating a Great Koala National Park will turn around the animal’s grim trajectory.'

Minister for the Environment Penny Sharpe, said:

'The creation of a Great Koala National Park is the Labor Government’s most significant environmental commitment.'

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

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