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The last of Sydney's koalas are doomed

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One of Sydney's koala population, now facing death due to urban development (Image via Flickr)

A major development in Sydney is touting itself as being environmentally friendly towards koalas, but it is far from it, writes Sue Arnold.

A MAJOR CAMPAIGN to save Southwest Sydney’s last and only expanding healthy koala colony has exposed a frightening future for residents who moved to the area to enjoy the wildlife and environment.

Life in Southwest Sydney is poised on the brink of massive change impacting current residents and the natural environment, which is the homeland of the last of Sydney’s koalas.

The Greater Sydney Region Plan, A Metropolis of Three Cities is built on a vision of three cities, where most residents live within 30 minutes of their jobs, education and health facilities, services and great places. It’s basically Lucy Turnbull’s vision in her capacity as Chief Commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission.

Chief Commissioner Lucy Turnbull's plan will result in the doubling of the NSW population within 40 years. The Greater Sydney area is expected to increase from 5.07 million in 2017 to 6.62 million people in 2040 and NSW is projected to have a population of 9.9 million people.

One of the three cities described in the Metropolis of Three Cities in the Western City District Plan includes Campbelltown, which contains an estimated 500-1,000 koalas.  

Currently, Campbelltown Council is considering approval of a Lendlease Communities (Mt Gilead) Pty Ltd development application involving the creation of 1,700 residential lots and infrastructure at Mt Gilead — in the same area as the koala colony.    

Images of the development, described by the 2915-7599 EPBC Referral Eco Logical Australia consultants employed by Lendlease, create a glowing picture of life’s pleasures awaiting future residents.

Implement street trees of suitable species
 eucalyptus tereticornis, a koala feed tree and a habitat tree to be utilised in streetscapes where appropriate through the Mt Gilead residential streetscape. This will create further foraging habitat throughout the development, provide feeding possibilities and improve connectivity between woodland communities.

Ah, the heart swells thinking about koalas living in a 1,700 residential suburb flitting from tree to tree along the local roads, eating their little hearts out, making friends with the thousands of dogs, playing chicken with the traffic on their way to… extinction?

A more cynical description of Lucy Turnbull’s vision might be better described as a concrete desert devoid of wildlife. 

What’s happening with the Lendlease Mt Gilead project is one of the clearest examples of the power of corporations and the willingness of the Berejiklian Government to lay out the red carpet for mega-developers at any cost. 

Let’s start with the Campbelltown Council, which is considering a development application for the project. The Council has refused to put any documentation relevant to the Development Application (DA) online, claiming variously that there are “copyright considerations”, or that Lendlease has rejected any electronic display — which Lendlease denies.

Interested members of the public were invited to view the relevant documents at Council Chambers or the local library, in effect completely denying any conservation groups or concerned public living out of Southwest Sydney the opportunity to make an educated submission. No amount of protest changed the situation.

In 2016, the Council submitted a Draft Koala Management Plan to the Department of Planning and Environment, as required under the non-mandatory State Environmental Planning Policy No. 44 Koala Habitat Protection. Councils with koala habitat in their LGAs were encouraged to develop these plans which required approval by the Department.

SEPP 44:

...aims to encourage the proper conservation and management of areas of natural vegetation that provide habitat for koalas to ensure a permanent free-living population over their present range and reverse the current trend of koala population decline:

 

(a)  by requiring the preparation of plans of management before development consent can be granted in relation to areas of core koala habitat;

 

(b)  by encouraging the identification of areas of core koala habitat; and

 

(c)  by encouraging the inclusion of areas of core koala habitat in environment protection zones. 


The Department rejected the Plan on the grounds that the tree species identified in the LGA did not meet the list of tree species specified in SEPP 44. Never mind the 170-plus koala population. If the trees weren’t on the list, no plan approval.

This is the only rejection of any Council Koala Management Plan in NSW.

In November 2018, Council submitted an amended Plan to the Department. So far, no response has been received.

Lendlease referred the project to the Federal Government. Given koalas on the project site and vicinity, the project has an obligation to comply with the EPBC Koala referral guidelines. The project then becomes a controlled action, allowing the Commonwealth to peruse the environmental and planning documents prior to approval or rejection.

A referral is issued with a number ensuring the public EPBC referral list website can be accessed. Documents can be viewed including environmental studies, consultants reports and invitations for public comment.

These comments are sent to the Department for consideration before approval is granted.

However, in the case of the Mt Gilead development, we have instead, under the link to project documents at the consultant’s site, the following notice:

A deadline for submissions is also provided.

Not only is the option extraordinary, but it allows Lendlease to review any public comments, effectively taking over the powers of the Federal Government and provides an opportunity to withhold any submission deemed to be in opposition to the development.

Whether this unprecedented action is now a precedent, allowing developers’ consultants to view public submissions instead of the Federal Government, is unknown.

But if public submissions to referred developments are now considered by the project’s consultants, in effect privatising an important government function, an appalling precedent has been set.

The Lendlease Mt Gilead development is just the start of a mind-boggling urbanisation of Southwest Sydney.

Some of the statements on the Greater Macarthur Growth website were responded to by Australians for Animals Inc in their submission of objection to the Mt Gilead development.

Finalisation of Greater Macarthur 2040 will be accompanied by a grant program to ensure koala-friendly planning and actions are values held by the new communities of the area. A $1M grant program (to be released over two years) will fund community groups, landowners and councils to undertake koala research and build greater community awareness.

(What exactly are ‘koala-friendly planning and actions held by new communities of the area’? How has the Government ascertained the ‘friendly planning and actions’ are held by what new communities?)

The proposed grant funding requirements will be set out in guidelines (to be released early in 2019) that will identify opportunities for funding for:

  • Koala research and awareness raising activities across the Greater Macarthur and adjoining areas;(There is abundant research to demonstrate the critical importance of southwest Sydney koalas.)
  • Dedicated koala feed tree replanting on public and private lands to restore and rebuild koala movement corridors.

(It takes five-to-seven years for a eucalypt feed tree plant to be available as a food/shelter tree.)

In its own admission, the GMGA website acknowledges:

The Growth Area includes Cumberland Plain vegetation and is home to threatened species including the largest, disease-free koala population in Sydney.’

The projects are a complete contradiction of the Berejiklian Government’s much-touted Save Our Species Iconic Koala Project 2017-21 and the NSW Koala Strategy.

A ministerial media release from Planning Minister Anthony Roberts demonstrates the contradictions that pass for government planning and environmental policy.

It is important to note that the NSW Koala Strategy and the Lendlease development ignore the recommendations of the NSW Chief Scientist Report in the Independent Review into the Decline of Koala Populations in Key areas of NSW, published in December 2016.

That Government agencies identify priority areas of land across tenures to target for koala conservation management and threat mitigation.

 

That Government improve outcomes for koalas through changes to the planning system.

 

Recover: aim to recover the koala by managing and mitigating threats to key koala populations in New South Wales, managing cumulative impacts in a regional context and improving connectivity across the landscape.

A national Ipsos poll commissioned by Australians for Animals Inc asked a critically important question in relation to koalas:

‘Do you support the urgent introduction of legislation to protect koala habitat in NSW and Queensland?’

A whopping 80 per cent came back with a "Yes" vote.   

We can only hope that politicians are listening, but no bets are being taken. Submissions in relation to the Greater Macarthur 2040: An Interim Plan for the Greater MacArthur Growth Area close on Friday, 8 February 2019.

You can follow Sue Arnold on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.

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