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Governments shift attention away from koala plight

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Our koala population is still in danger after the effects of the bushfire catastrophe and continued forest logging (Screenshot via YouTube)

While media attention is dwelling on the effects of COVID-19, we still need to remain focused on how to save our endangered koala population, writes Sue Arnold.

THE MASSIVE ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTERS which are the legacy of bushfires, drought and subsequent floods have been overwhelmed by the toilet paper panic.

The coronavirus has been a gift to governments, allowing an almost 100% focus on human health whilst the destruction of forests and ecosystems continues unabated, with no oversight by the mainstream media.  

What has gained total media attention are the toilet paper battles. Whilst the public goes nuts in supermarkets attempting to buy up supplies for months on end, few are thinking about where the paper comes from.

Planet Patrol claims that 40% of toilet paper comes from eucalypt forests.

Victoria Zoo runs a major campaign, Wipe for Wildlife, urging people to buy recycled toilet paper to save wildlife with a koala featured in their campaign.

The bottom line is that the coronavirus may have an even more devastating impact on the environment than anyone anticipated. The toilet paper crisis is yet another nail in the koala coffin as eucalypts are logged to ensure Australians have enough toilet paper. 

Decisions being made at the Federal Government level are deserving of public focus, particularly given the extraordinary response from the national and international public over the catastrophic loss of koalas.

There’s no focus on the toilet paper panic at the Federal Government level in terms of the environment.

On 26 February, Federal Minister for Environment Sussan Ley convened a koala round table meeting in Canberra. It was well attended by bureaucrats from NSW, Victoria and Queensland with a few NGOs. Engagement was strictly by invitation.

It would be good to report that there’s been a major change of heart in Canberra, that remaining habitat will be protected, climate and drought refuges identified and acquired, together with well-funded major revegetation projects.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.  

In her opening statement, Threatened Species Commissioner Sally Box indicated that the bushfire recovery panel appointed by the Minister was to identify critical interventions, to provide advice on priority actions to support longer-term recovery:

“We want to prevent extinctions, ameliorate suffering, and monitor recovery. Identifying and protecting unburned refugia is really important, predator control where appropriate, emergency translocations and rapid on-ground assessments have priority.”

She stressed that representatives from each government were engaged, “to ensure we get co-ordination”.

“We work closely with the states to make sure decisions are consistent. The panel has a role in any states’ proposals, to ensure they are addressing the panel’s recommendations.”

This anecdote will give readers some idea of what transpired in the three-hour meeting.

The Federal Government has allocated $3 million for restoring koala habitat. A miserable amount given the millions of hectares of habitat destroyed by fire. Natural Decisions Pty Ltd was contracted by the Federal Government to undertake a cost-benefit process known as INFFER to identify potentially suitable habitat.

Natural Decisions website explains the process:

Around the world, environmental organisations that rely on grant funding face a similar challenge: how to get the best and most needed results from the limited resources that they have available. At the same time, governments that provide these funds wish to be able to decide which projects will deliver the most valuable environmental outcomes, but often lack the information needed to make these decisions.

 

This is where INFFER comes in, enabling environmental managers to set clear priorities and develop robust, compelling project proposals, and investors to assess project proposals based on effective, relevant criteria that simplify decision making.

This process was adopted to identify koala habitat sites in NSW and Queensland viable for the proposed investment. Note the word “investment” rather than any government mandatory responsibility.

The analysis, according to a representative at the round table on behalf of Natural Decisions explained that the company takes:

...a sensible, rational approach, identifies the costs long term using a process developed in 2000 which uses whatever evidence is available and economic expert knowledge. Consultations are carried out with government agencies, service providers and several others.

The end result? Given that $3 million is the total amount allocated by the Federal Government to be split between NSW and Queensland, the choices are bordering on ridiculous.

Initially in NSW, 25 sites were recognised. These sites were identified as a result of three workshops with state agencies, three service providers and “several others”. No NGOs, apparently, or any koala experts.

The list was narrowed down to 13 sites. Too many. So the experts came up with four sites which had the highest priority.

They are Belmore River, Coffs Harbour, North Bellingen, Port Macquarie.   

According to the speaker:

“If you spent the entire three million in just one area, you would get about 500 hectares. A very small amount which contains about 1.5% of habitat. If you spread the dollars more thinly across three areas, you would only get 0.5% of impact.“

Moving to southeast Queensland, around 21 areas were identified. Again, too many. The highest priority areas in southeast Queensland were Flinders Peak followed by North Pine, Grandchester and Lake Manchester.

About 500 hectares could be acquired for $3 million with the same habitat outcome as NSW selections.

Given that the Queensland Government’s latest Draft Koala Strategy has been met with major criticism, not only from conservation organisations but local councils, the fate of koalas in southeast Queensland can only be described as dire. 

Stretching logic to extremes, the Palaszczuk Government intends to support a million more residents in southeast Queensland, whilst at the same time attempting to convince the public that koalas and massive numbers of humanity can co-exist.

Areas identified by Natural Decisions are questionable.

According to one Queensland NGO:

“Flinders Peak is a frontier land with unmapped vegetation, hard geology and few observations of koalas.”

The NSW and Queensland lists are supposed to provide an incentive for potential private investment.

This is the Morrison Government’s koala solution.

Meantime, the NSW Government plans to drop one million 1080 laced baits ‘in a bid to keep native species safe’.

1080 has been shown to have disastrous impacts on native Australian and introduced animals alike. Of particular concern are carnivorous marsupials, especially starving survivors of the fires. Without reliable access to resources, some will inevitably “take the bait” intended for target species, like the red fox or the dingo according to the Coalition to Stop the Drop.

The Coalition has attracted massive support; a spokesperson made clear the opposition:

We believe bushfire survivors deserve better. Australians deserve to be proud of where their money goes and how our elected leaders choose to use it. At the moment, we’re incredibly ashamed of the NSW Government who are so needlessly putting so many innocent bushfire survivors in 1080’s chemical crosshairs.

Meantime, the NSW and Victorian Governments are full steam ahead with approving “salvage logging” in burned areas and allowing the forestry industry to continue to log in unburned forests. These are critical areas essential for the future survival of koalas and forest-dwelling species.

Professor David Lindenmayer highlights the disaster unfolding in an article published in The Conversation:

…the science on the impacts of post-fire logging is clear: it can significantly impair the recovery of burned ecosystems, badly affect wildlife and, for some animal species, prevent recovery.

 

Hollows in fire-damaged trees and logs provide critical habitat for animal species trying to survive in, or recolonise, burned forests.

 

Detailed studies around the world over the past 20 years, including in Australia, have demonstrated the damage caused by post-fire logging.

 

Indeed, the research shows post-fire logging is the most damaging form of logging. Logging large old trees after a fire may make the forests unsuitable habitat for many wildlife species for up to 200 years.

A National Koala Recovery Plan is now eight years overdue. Reports on the extent of burned habitat conflict and the methodology of mapping burned and unburned areas are questionable. The outcome of yet another talkfest is predictable.

Talk is cheap. Recovery is very expensive and there’s no likelihood of any increase in the $3 million allocated for habitat restoration by the Federal Government. The responses by the Victorian, Queensland and NSW Governments indicate ongoing deafness and rejection of any expert panel recommendations.

The failure of Australia’s governments to take the appropriate urgent measures to protect our remaining wildlife should send chills down our collective spines. So, too, should the panic buy up of toilet paper.

Sue Arnold is an investigative journalist. She heads up Australians for Animals NSW Inc and the U.S. California Gray Whale Coalition. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.

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