Story and photo Melissa Hargraves
The Whian Whian blockade against illegal logging of trees in habitat for koalas and other wildlife appears to have brought some temporary relief of protection for at least three endangered species.
Surveys undertaken as a result of the blockade have identified the habitat, with further surveying by independent botanists continuing over the weekend.
Echonetdaily visited the blockade at the weekend to observe the aftermath of the logging since the owner of the Whian Whian Road property contracted the Forestry Corporation to harvest rare old-growth blackbutt trees.
Neighbours say the owner of the logged property seemed initially concerned about wildlife and habitat and may have trusted Forestry Corporation to operate responsibly.
Martin Novak, who has lived in a neighbouring property for 24 years, told Echonetdaily it was the first time there had been logging in the valley.
‘I am involved in the Farm Forestry Association and we are not opposed to logging,’ Mr Novak said.
‘But those really old trees that are falling are known koala hotspots. Now that we know there are some breaches, there is even more concern,’ he said.
Mr Novak hadn’t met his neighbour until a few nights ago and wanted to share the feelings within the community with him.
‘This is a big impact on a small community,’ Mr Novak said.
‘The owner of the property isn’t around very often so we were not aware that he intended to log until a big road went in,’ he said.
There had been rumours that the property had been owned for many years and that the owner was harvesting trees that he had planted.
Mr Novak said the current owner had ‘owned the property for three years maximum and does not live on it. The property is actually for sale!’
Many locals, including Mr Novak, informed the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) of the breaches committed by Forestry Corporation.
‘I have spoken with the EPA manager in Grafton and expressed our concerns and they did finally arrive yesterday after being asked to on a number of occasions,’ Mr Novak said.
‘But meanwhile trees were falling, so that is why people blockade as the regulators are always too slow,’ he said.
The Whian Whian community treasure their habitat and invest a lot of time and effort through such efforts as Landcare, with members working hard to re-establish landscapes.
‘These projects bring the community together. The government have even thrown money into this initiative and people have worked their butts off. So this is really tearing the community apart. This community values and invests into the area,’ Mr Novak said.
‘The owner did say he is into sustainable forest management and loves the forest,’ Mr Novak said. ‘He even said he will put the money from the trees back into Landcare, but why cut it in the first place?’ he said.
‘We did ask the owner if he would allow a world-renowned botanist to survey the property but he refused,’ Mr Novak said.
Another neighbour who initially provided access to the Forestry Corporation has since withdrawn consent.
Early last week, director of Landmark Ecological Services David Milledge detailed threatened species along the western boundary of the property of concern.
In a short period Mr Milledge was able to identify a number of records of four threatened vertebrate species comprising the Pouched Frog (particularly numerous), Marbled Frogmouth, Sooty Owl and the Masked Owl.
All these species are listed as vulnerable under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.
Mr Milledge stated that ‘in my opinion, the stand’s importance should have been recognised prior to logging commencing, with appropriate habitat-protection measures implemented for threatened species.
‘The conservation status is further enhanced by its location adjoining the southwestern boundary of Nightcap National Park.’
Community spokesperson Sue James said that ‘in less than an hour we identified five high-use koala feed trees, being trees with 20 or more koala scats beneath them.
‘This confirmed our observations that this area is particularly important for koalas and is core koala habitat,’ Ms James said.
This finding contradicted the findings by Forestry Corporation.
‘The Forestry Corporation told us that after days of searching they had located only two high-use trees,’ she said.
‘The fact that we found five in less than an hour in an area they were meant to have already searched proves how incompetent they are.’
Ms James is passionate about wildlife and has travelled the world many times visiting sanctuaries. Having lived in the Whian Whian region for eight years, she felt compelled to become involved.
Ms James and the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) are demanding the minister for primary industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, apologise to the community for ‘using the police to guard her illegal logging operations last week on private property at Whian Whian adjacent to Nightcap National Park’.
‘Forestry Corporation’s reluctant admission that they are now going to apply the prescriptions for Marbled Frogmouth, Sooty Owl and Masked Owl is proof that their logging has been illegal since these species were found by NEFA last Tuesday night,’ she said.
Ms James said, ‘on Wednesday we wrote to the Forestry Corporation and the minister asking that logging cease immediately while the prescriptions for these species were applied’.
‘The Private Native Forestry Code of Practice for northern NSW requires that Forestry Corporation had to implement the required prescriptions by establishing 20m buffers on all streams for the Marbled Frogmouth and increasing retention of the largest trees from 20 to 30 per two hectares for the owls,’ Ms James said.
Ms James said, ‘the code also requires that the Forest Operation Plan had to be amended to include the new species and the exclusion zones for Marbled Frogmouths had to be marked on the ground before logging continued’.
‘The minister not only allowed the Forestry Corporation to go on logging in contravention of the Private Native Forestry Code of Practice; she also allowed them to use the police to facilitate their illegal operations.
‘Minister Hodgkinson should not allow this farce to continue, and must now ensure that logging stops while independent surveys are undertaken for the other 14 threatened plants and animals identified as likely to occur in the area, so that the necessary prescriptions can be applied,’ Ms James said.
President of Friends of the Koala, Lorraine Vass, told Echonetdaily that this is the worst time of year for this type of work (logging) to be happening.
‘It is the beginning of the mating season so there is a lot of activity,’ Ms Vass said.
‘This disturbance will create even more movement so people in the vicinity need to be aware that there will be extra koalas around because of the season and because of these disturbances.
‘People may discover disoriented koalas and other animals so they need to restrain their dogs and be careful on the roads.’
Ms Vass acknowledged that her organisation has not worked with state forests as closely as NEFA, who have conducted many audits on logging operations in state forests.
‘It is well established that Forest Corporation are not carrying out the searches they are obligated to do,’ Ms Vass said.
‘Whether that is a lack of competence, or ignorance, I can’t say; whichever way they are not doing it properly. The prescriptions are reasonable, but the Forestry Corporation do not appear to be following them.’
It is a busy time of year for Friends of the Koala who rely on the general public to keep their ears and eyes to the ground for the conservation of koalas, an asset that conservation relies on.
‘These people at the Whian Whian blockade are a normal cross-section of the community who care about their environment,’ Ms Vass said. ‘I know there are many professional people involved.’
Ms Vass has observed that people concerned about the logging at Whian Whian are confused about what level of government has the responsibility.
‘Some people have been contacting the council, who do not have authority; it is a state government issue. People are used to getting permission from the council if they live in town, but it isn’t so for a 100 acre property of old growth forests.’