Calls are growing for the state government to review the Wardell bypass section of the proposed Pacific Highway upgrade route which is feared could decimate koala colonies south of Ballina.
The opposition says the dispute over the 12-kilometre section has to be resolved, while a public meeting has been called for next week to launch a campaign to save Ballina’s koalas.
Shadow minister for roads and the north coast, Walt Secord, and shadow environment minister Luke Foley, have backed the locals’ campaign, saying it’s time state roads minister Duncan Gay ‘put aside his hostility to the environmental movement and found a solution which allows the upgrade to go ahead, but also protects the koala’.
They called on Mr Gay to work with the local community to find a solution on the impasse.
The upgrade plan for the Woolgoolga to Ballina route was released last November, but environmentalists and koala carers say it goes straight through koala colonies.
Ballina Shire Council has identified the Meerschaum Vale-Blackwall Range area of the route as ‘nationally significant’ and a ‘key local source population’ for the koalas in the region.
Mr Secord said the council study found 70 per cent, or 13 of 18 localised koala colonies in the local government area, would be significantly impacted by construction of the route.
‘At the start of European settlement there were an estimated 10 million koalas in Australia, today, there have been a mere 11,000 reported sightings on the north coast bio-region,’ he said.
‘Koalas have suffered due to encroaching development, logging, attacks by pets, imported disease and road accidents.
‘Gone are the days when a roads minister would call in the bulldozers and take out a rare koala colony.
‘We must work together to provide much needed infrastructure and still protect the environment.’
Mr Foley said that ‘other state governments have been able to balance the protection of threatened species with major construction projects like the Olympic site’.
Meanwhile, the Ballina Environment Society (BES) and Friends of the Koala are hosting a public meeting on 18 February (6.30pm for 7pm) at Ballina RSL at which koala expert Dr Steve Phillips will talk.
Dr Phillips will give a presentation on his recent survey of Ballina koalas which has identified the Meechaum Vale population as ‘a key source population for breeding and dispersal’ which ‘needs to be listed under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act’.
Greens MLC Dr Mehreen Faruqi will also attend and discuss the political process and highway design.
BES spokesperson Effie Ablett said the proposed upgrade route poses a threat to all Ballina Shire koalas as well as other koala populations in the northern rivers.
‘It also impacts on 23 other threatened species in Ballina shire,’ Dr Ablett said.
‘There is still a window of time for having it reassessed in the light of the “important koala population” revealed in the recent Ballina Shire Koala Habitat Study (see map),’ she said.
Ballina shire Cr Jeff Johnson says the new campaign against the route urges both federal and state ministers responsible to reconsider the route in the light of Ballina shire’s new Koala Habitat Study.