The federal government will consider impacts of land clearing and roadworks on recognised koala habitat in Ballina shire when assessing the proposed Pacific Highway upgrade.
The intervention under federal environment laws comes as Ballina Shire Council this week called on the NSW government to protect threatened koala habitat from the upgrade, including altering the proposed route.
NSW Roads and Maritime Service (RMS) highway manager Bob Higgins told media the Ballina-Woolgoolga highway upgrade had been defined as a ‘controlled action’ under the federal Envirronment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and as such the federal government was part of the project’s approval process.
Ballina councillors yesterday unanimously backed the recommendations of a shirewide koala habitat study, urging the state government to consider the plight of the koala habitat when building the new Woolgoolga-Ballina upgrade of the highway.
The proposed upgrade section south of Ballina takes a large detour into the Blackwall Range, home to a nationally significant koala population, which had sparked fears among local environmentalists.
Council also gave the go-ahead for the preparation of a comprehensive koala plan of management for Ballina shire which will also guide future planning decisions.
The habitat study commissioned by council is the first systematic assessment of koala distribution and abundance across the Ballina local government area.
It says the southern part of the shire (including Bagotville, Meerschaum Vale, Coolgardie and Wardell), ‘in association with land in the vicinity of Uralba and Lynwood, incorporates a major source population for koalas’.
‘Significantly, the proposed Pacific Highway upgrade between Wardell and Ballina traverses centrally through the habitat area for this important population.
‘Therefore, in addition to general recovery and management initiatives, there is also a need for specific consideration of the implication of the highway on the known population and opportunities for mitigation of impacts.’
The report said field surveys also indicated that there had been a reduction in the level of occupancy of available koala habitat in the last koala generation (six years).
Preferred koala feed trees in the shire are Swamp Mahogany, Tallowood and Forest Red Gum.
The study says around 1,500 to 2,000 hectares of preferred koala habitat remained in the shire ‘although some areas are significantly fragmented’ and that the size of the koala population was likely to be in the range of 285 to 300 animals, with more than half occurring in the southern part of the shire.
‘Key threats to the koala population in Ballina Shire include road deaths, fire, logging, urban expansion and domestic dog attack.
‘More specifically, hazards associated with the upgrade of the Pacific Highway are a key issue in relation to further fragmentation of habitat and koala mortalities.’
The study said the Bagotville, Meerschaum Vale, Coolgardie, Wardell, Uralba and Lynwood localities combined ‘have a koala population assessed as being of national significance for the purposes of the Commonwealth Government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act).
‘The population is described as an important population under the Act because it is a source population for breeding and/or dispersal and it is likely to be an ancestral source population for koalas inhabiting the Lismore LGA and lower parts of the Byron LGA.’
The habitat study and council report on it will be sent to all relevant state ministers.
Earlier this week, the NSW Greens backed Ballina Cr Jeff Johnson in a united call on the NSW roads minister to pay heed to local community concerns by altering the route.
The Greens’ NSW roads and environment spokesperson, Dr Mehreen Faruqi, said the government ‘is proposing to build a significant deviation of the Pacific Highway straight through some of the last habitats of vulnerable koala populations on the north coast’.
Dr Faruqi said ‘it seems the only reason for such a sharp deviation from the original Pacific Highway is the opportunity to mine shale from the Blackwall Range.
‘The integrity of precious koala habitat far outweighs the minor economic benefits of mining shale closer to the construction site. Shale can be brought in; once our iconic koalas are gone from the area, they will be gone forever.’