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New koala action plan another policy failure

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The countdown to extinction is on for Australia's koalas, yet our politicians are still failing to act (Screenshot via YouTube)

A new conservation plan designed to protect koalas is once again failing to save the species from extinction, writes Sue Arnold.

REGRETTABLY, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek’s latest environmental policy announcement, The Threatened Species Action Plan, is short on details and fails to address the substantive issues driving Australia’s extinction crisis.

IA emailed a series of highly relevant questions to the Minister in mid-September regarding any specific policy changes necessitated by the ongoing extinction crisis. In spite of many phone calls and emails to the Minister’s office requesting answers or an interview, no response has been received. 

The questions are self-explanatory in terms of the ongoing failures to address the real threats to Australia’s iconic wildlife. Of particular concern is the ongoing destruction of koala habitat by industrial logging, major urbanisation projects and infrastructure. Given the recent downgrading of koalas to endangered status under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act (EPBC) there’s been an expectation of urgent action by the federal minister. 

To IA’s questions:

‘Q. Will you as Minister revoke self-referrals by developers when koala habitat is identified in projects?’

Given the millions and millions of taxpayer dollars allocated to the conservation of the koala and the extent of research into major threats, it is abundantly clear that the only successful way to protect remaining species is to legally protect habitat. Without legally protected habitat, there is no future for koalas.

It is important to remember that the koala has been identified as an umbrella species for coastal forest ecosystems by Professor Hugh Possingham, one of Australia’s leading ecologists.

Destruction of koala habitat also impacts significant biodiversity.

Prior to downgrading the koala to endangered status, developers were encouraged to self-refer projects to the Federal Government for approval by way of a score detailed in the national koala referral guidelines.

Under the present Government, the previous koala referral guidelines have been replaced with Matters of National Environmental Significance guidelines, which state:

‘These guidelines outline a “self-assessment” process, including detailed criteria, to assist persons in deciding whether or not referral may be required.’

Once again, self-referral is voluntary. 

Independent environmental consultants are, in most cases, denied access to project sites to evaluate the status of koala habitat and any threats posed by the development, thus ensuring there are no checks and balances.

The bilateral agreement between the Federal and NSW Government allows NSW to assess development applications on behalf of the Federal Government. This agreement gives a green light to developers and has not been revoked by the Minister.    

‘Q. Will you consider revoking s.6(4) of the Regional Forest Agreements Act 2002 which allows the industry to be quarantined from Part 3 of the EPBC Act given the ongoing significant loss of biodiversity in all RFA states?’

Without doubt, the continuation of industrial logging in NSW and Victoria poses the greatest threat to not only koala survival but many other iconic species. By revoking s.6(4) of the Regional Forest Agreements Act, the industry would be required to undertake environmental impact studies and proper management plans. A number of species would potentially be protected from logging and legal challenges may be possible.

In NSW, the Forestry Corporation is targeting koala hubs in native forests. Under the NSW Forestry Act 2012, a privative provision denies public interest standing which would allow a legal challenge over forestry harvesting breaches.  

Koalas are facing extinction in NSW. Their plight is well summed up by the North East Forest Alliance:

The NSW Government’s spending of tens of millions on koala hospitals, open-range zoos and planting seedlings won’t stop koalas from becoming extinct in the wild unless they save and stabilise surviving koalas by protecting their existing homes, NEFA spokesperson Dailan Pugh said.

 

Every day, the NSW Government is allowing the Forestry Corporation to cut down mature koala feed trees in public forests and farmers to bulldoze them, while their propaganda arm goes into over-drive pretending that koalas don’t need their feed trees.

Significant Impacts caused by the 2019-2020 bushfires on forest species, flora, riparian zones and ecosystems are not addressed in the NSW Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approval (CIFOA), responsible for establishing conditions for the protection of biodiversity. The approval was signed in November 2018 and has never been updated.

Research cited in CIFOA protocols relating to the protection of flora and fauna largely relies on out-of-date research undertaken prior to the bushfires.

Recommendations from scientists have not been addressed or implemented. Scientists have estimated recovery for some species make take up to 50 years. 

‘Q. What specific actions will your ministry take to reflect the down-listing?’

A national monitoring program/national recovery plan was approved under the Morrison Government.

As usual, the focus of both plans fails to provide any protection for existing habitat:

‘The goal of the NKMP is to deliver a robust estimate of the national koala population and build a long-lasting capability to monitor and assess trends in koala populations, distribution and health across the species range.’

The time to carry out a ‘robust estimate of the national koala population’ was after the bushfires, a move that state and federal governments strenuously resisted. However, evidence provided by former Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, indicated that at least 8,000 koalas had been incinerated on the mid-north coast of NSW, providing a glimpse of the total mortality. An estimated 60,000 koalas died in the fires according to a WWF report.

The National Koala Recovery Plan (approved by the Morrison Government) is 136 pages of the usual strategies, criteria, objectives and goals. However, the plan does acknowledge the importance of ensuring koala survival.

The koala is an archetypal umbrella species, whereby actions to manage and protect its habitat may likely provide benefits to many other species and enhance ecosystem functions.

Plibersek has not addressed one critically important strategy in the recovery plan:

‘Incorporate the impacts of projected climate change such as drought, heatwave and fire, into all strategic koala planning and actions, including restoration guidelines, offsets, translocation guidelines, forestry practices, corridor, reserve and protected area planning, allowing for iterative updates using a robust scenario-based approach.’

The new threatened species action plan identifies three species targets by 2027. 

Target 1. All priority species are on track for improved trajectory.

Target 2. Implementation of priority actions for priority species is tracked and published.

Target 3. Species at high risk of imminent extinction are identified and supported to persist.’

It would be difficult to describe these targets as responsible active policy designed to ensure the protection of any of the 110 priority species identified in the plan, including the koala. Legal habitat protection fails to make the grade, again. 

The final question IA asked of the Minister was whether she would consider setting up an environmental summit along the lines of the recent job summit.

Given the sheer extent of problems facing Australia’s environment an environmental summit is of equal importance and needs to be a priority.

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

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