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NSW Labor continues Coalition's contempt of koala conservation

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NSW Premier Chris Minns has failed an election promise to help protect our remaining koalas (Image by Dan Jensen)

Despite promises to do better than the previous government in protecting the state's koalas, NSW Labor has turned its back on the endangered species. Sue Arnold reports.

WILL THE New South Wales Labor Government save the koala?

Unfortunately, the answer is “highly unlikely”. Evidence points to a government no different in terms of koala protection than the previous coalition.    

The most obvious evidence is the absolute failure to declare a moratorium on the proposed Great Koala National Park. In a pre-election promise, Labor Leader Chris Minns declared the establishment of the park was a priority if he won government. An undertaking that gave scientists, environmental organisations and community groups hope after years of battling the Coalition State Government over industrial logging operations in native forest koala hubs. 

A touch of cynicism remained as the promise would be the third one made by the Labor Party.

Minns said:

“When you see a situation where koalas have gone from not threatened to vulnerable to endangered to potentially extinct by 2050, we’ve got to take action.”

Labor’s proposal would protect roughly 20 per cent of the state’s koala population, thus ensuring the species' survival.

Undeterred by Labor’s promise, Forestry Corporation (FC) plans show that over the next 12 months, 30,813 hectares of a total of 175,000 hectares of state forests that fall within the boundaries of the park will be logged.   

Environment Minister Penny Sharpe refused to impose a moratorium on logging operations in spite of the fact that targeted compartments in 20 state forests with koala hubs are destined to be harvested.

Howls of protest made not one iota of difference. Sharpe ignored it all.

Yet in May 2023, in an interview with Peter Fitzsimons, when asked when the Great Koala National Park would be delivered, Sharpe replied:

We’re absolutely underway in getting that done. That part of the world is incredibly important and we think that it holds about 20 per cent of the koalas left in NSW. We know that if we don’t do something about it, koalas are on track to be extinct in the world by 2050. It will be a National Park. We’ve said that we will deliver it in our first term. No, I haven’t created it yet. We’re doing it as quickly as possible, but it will take some time. I can’t just make it happen overnight.

A moratorium could be declared overnight.

On Forestry Corporation’s logging of koala habitat, Sharpe replied:

“...there are very strict rules around the current operations around koalas and what trees may or may not be cut down there.”

Actually, there are no “very strict rules”. The FC’s current code of practice for koalas is dated 2014.  The code is not mandatory.

The North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) has submitted a significant number of reports and audits detailing FC’s non-compliance with meagre protections. Tree sits, community protests and legal action testify to major public anger over the ongoing destruction of habitat.

In January, the Land and Environment court fined the FC for destroying koala habitat at Cattle Creek near Coffs Harbour in July 2022.

Justice Robson found:

“The felling of the large eucalyptus trees and the construction or operation of snig tracks were highly like to have had an adverse impact by reducing the size and quality of the habitat available to the breeding female and offspring. I find that there has been actual harm.”

The fine was dismal, $135,600 with Forestry ordered to pay the Environment Protection Agency’s (EPA) legal and investigation costs of $150,000.

Conservations describe the paltry fine as “the cost of doing business”.

Given the extent of logging which will be undertaken in the park’s known koala hubs, it appears the Minns Government is prepared to accept extensive harm.

Sources tell IA that as a result of the Coalition Government extending wood supply agreements on NSW's north coast for five years, any cancellation of these agreements would impose major compensation costs for the current government that it is unwilling to fork out.

At the start of the new financial year, Sharpe withdrew a $6 million funding grant promised to the Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital by the previous government. Injured, diseased, orphaned and displaced native animals are treated free of charge. The hospital had received no prior indication that the grant would be withdrawn.

The hospital, said Sharpe, was not value for money.

According to the Byron Echo:

‘Sharpe’s office told The Echo at the time that the NSW Labor Government never promised the funding and instead, says it supports action on dwindling koala numbers.’

The real question remains unasked. Where exactly does Sharpe intend to support action on dwindling koala numbers given the ongoing loss of habitat to forestry and urban developments approved by her government?

In February 2022, the former Environment Minister Sussan Ley declared the koala endangered in NSW, Queensland and the A.C.T. under the provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. In May 2022, NSW koalas were upgraded to endangered under the Biodiversity Conservation Act.

However, no increased protection ensued. No changes to the Forestry Corporation’s koala code, no added protection provisions under the Coastal Integrated Forestry Approval (CIFOA), which governs the FC’s operations and no upgrading of koala habitat protection at risk from urbanisation projects.

In 2021, a cabinet in-confidence report completed in June 2020 and kept secret was leaked to The Guardian. The report was a review, undertaken at the request of the Government, of CIFOA forests by the Natural Resources Commission after the Black Summer bushfires. 

It was a political hot potato. The report’s recommendations and findings would severely inhibit the operations of the FC. Three forestry zones were declared at extreme risk and a halt in logging for three years was recommended. Six other zones were designated high-risk with major restrictions on logging. 

But unless the report was made public, the Government could continue to hide behind cabinet in confidence decisions. Forestry Corporation could continue industrial logging in native forests in need of rehabilitation.

Since the leak in 2021, journalists, conservation groups, public interest lawyers and politicians in opposition parties have tried to force the review to be made public. Freedom of information requests are denied.

Expectations were high that the new Labor Government would open the closet door and release the report. The recommendations made provided solid evidence, sufficient to call for a moratorium on logging, until such time as proper analyses and protections were undertaken and implemented.

Both Premier Chris Minns and Penny Sharpe are fond of saying, “You know, if we can’t save koalas I think we’re all in a lot of trouble”.

Right now, it’s not only koalas in trouble.

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

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