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February 28, 2021

Meeting grills RMS chief over ‘koala highway’ route

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RMS Pacific Highway general manager Bob Higgins taking flak from the audience at last night's heated general meeting over the proposed Wardell bypass route. Photo Andrew Jennings
RMS Pacific Highway general manager Bob Higgins taking flak from the audience at last night’s heated general meeting over the proposed Wardell bypass route. Photo Andrew Jennings

Andrew Jennings

The NSW government has been slammed for putting penny pinching ahead of environmental protection last night at a packed public meeting called to discuss the contentious Wardell bypass section of the proposed Pacific Highway upgrade.

Local communities and Greens have demanded the state government reconsider the route for the 12-kilometre section, which is feared, could severely threaten multiple key koala colonies south of Ballina.

‘There is an alternative route,’ Ballina shire Greens Cr Jeff Johnson told the public meeting at Ballina RSL. ‘Clearly the issue is cost.’

NSW Greens’ roads spokesperson, MLC Dr Mehreen Faruqi, agreed with Johnson and urged the government to listen to what local communities and environmental experts are saying.

‘They must reconsider the route,’ she said. ‘We have to try to convince the government that an alternative route is what the community demands … and is what the experts are saying. It’s the responsibility of the government to work with you all, and with the experts, to find an alternative that meets the criteria of ecological sustainable development principals.’

While most at the meeting echoed Faruqi’s sentiment, one man fighting the government’s corner was Bob Higgins, Roads and Maritime Services’ (RMS) general manager for the Pacific Highway upgrade.

Higgins claimed that when picking a highway route ‘there’s no perfect answer’ and that it’s always a ‘balancing act’ between the economics of building a road and the concerns of community and environmental groups.

Higgins irked those in attendance about the government’s commitment to protecting the Ballina koala habitat by citing a separate example of where RMS altered the Pacific Highway for environmental reasons.

He said that as someone ‘involved in the whole highway from point A to point B’, he could give examples of where RMS shifted a highway for environmental reasons.

Higgins cited that on the Frederickton to Eungai [upgrade] section, ‘you’ll find big curve in it’, which he said was included to avoid the highway going through what he described as ‘environmentally sensitive’ forest habitat.

‘Now we could have straightened it up and put it right through it, but we didn’t, because of the sensitivity,’ he said, bringing outcry from locals at the meeting who asked why RMS could not look at an alternative route away from the koala colonies on the Wardell bypass section.

‘You should tell us today that you’ll protect this area in light of the studies into the 38 threatened species and go via a route that doesn’t impact any of them,’ responded Cr Johnson.

Lorraine Vass, president of Friends of the Koala, said that although she understood that RMS was ‘stuck between a rock and a hard place’ on the issue, the bypass section was undoubtedly ‘in the damn wrong place’.

Koala expert Dr Steve Phillips, who authored a comprehensive study of the Ballina koala habitat for the local council, said the problem with the highway section upgrade was that it was ‘incredibly poorly informed’ and ‘very simplistic’. He added that the conservation of what is a koala population of national significance has been understated and ‘only given lip service.’

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  1. I attended the meeting at the Ballina RSL Club regarding the koalas. There were petition sheets as I walked in the door, which I was asked to sign. When I looked at the fine print the petition was to move the highway from its current route and no-one knew where to. I declined to give my signature to the Greens offering carte blanche over this.

    Unfortunately I am not entirely convinced that the koalas are the real issue as over 80% of the audience last night were local residents who wanted the highway moved away from their homes.

    Dr Steve Phillips did not give any indication of the number of koalas in the southern area of the shire, merely stating that it was a significant population which would be split into two populations if the highway followed the planned route. No mention was made of the little white koalas which used to inhabit the heathland by Seven Mile Beach many years ago.

    The Greens were out in full force and luckily Bob Brown is no longer their leader, as I recall him making a statement which went viral throughout the world some years ago that “koalas are stinking, piddling little things”. How could the Greens leader of that time make such a defamatory statement which would affect tourism?

    Bob Higgins is the most patient man on God’s earth and really copped it on the chin at the meeting. I would like to congratulate Bob for the great highway we are not able to drive on and the excellent manner in which he has been working with communities all along its route.

    Margaret Howes
    320 Moylans Lane
    Empire Vale 2478

    • In reply to Margaret Howes, it wasn’t Bob Brown it was John Brown, Minister for Tourism and member of the meat industry who made the remark about Koalas.

  2. It was great that Bob Higgins attended the meeting to explain how inadequate the proposed amelioration measures are for the proposed motorway route. It was also revealed that there are route options that don’t impact on this biodiversity hotspot. Due to the EPBC Act being triggered, the Federal Environment Minister, NR Greg Hunt needs to make a decision on whether the impacts to over 30 species is significant enough to rule the proposal out.

    Please sign the petition @ http://www.communityrun.org/petitions/save-ballina-s-koala-s. I’ve listed the politicians email addresses in the updates at the bottom of the petition. Please forward on, only political pressure will save these Koalas (and a host of other threatened species).

    If you would like to receive updates on the campaign please email me on [email protected] or like my FB page at ‘Councillor Jeff Johnson’.

    Final approvals for the upgrade haven’t been granted yet. Thanks to all those who attended the meeting and have written to the politicians so far. Our local member, and Minister for the North Coast, Mr Don Page should put a stop to this and demand a highway upgrade that doesn’t bisect this important wildlife sanctuary.

    Cr Jeff Johnson

  3. Perhaps these proponents of an alternative route should be asked to put their money where their mouth is? It’s not fair that all residents of NSW (and Australia) bear the cost of this request by “the local community”.

    RMS needs to cost the alternative route, and if local residents care so much that they are prepared to fund the extra cost, then the alternative route will be adopted.

    I suspect it’s easy to object when “somebody else” will pay for it. And we’re not talking a few dollars here.

  4. My apologies. I need to make a correction to my comments. The statement about the koalas was not made by Bob Brown, but by John Brown, who was Tourism Minister at the time. He said that koalas are “”flea-ridden, piddling, stinking, scratching, rotten little things”. Margaret Howes

  5. And another correction – Bob Higgins is the most patient man on God’s earth and really copped it on the chin at the meeting. I would like to congratulate Bob for the great highway we are NOW able to drive on and the excellent manner in which he has been working with communities all along its route. Margaret (again)

  6. I attended the meeting and I am not directly affected by any of the proposed routes. I am extremely concerned about the impacts on flora and fauna, also indigenous sites of great significance. The potoroo and many other native species are also adversely impacted by this proposed route, plus an extremely diverse range of flora, including hundreds of fungi which are being studied for healing potential by interstate University staff. I admired Bob Higgins for his patience and persistence, but at no time did he really explore any of the other routes available apart from to say the river bank was not a good option – seems to have worked pretty well for the existing highway??? The number of dead koalas and other wildlife in the current area of upgrade works (Bangalow area) has increased significantly during construction, which is a key issue of concern for future upgrade works in the Wardell area too. RMS needs to install wildlife fencing, corridors and tunnels prior to commencing construction to at least reduce impact. RMS need to acknowledge information supplied to them by Jali people on their cultural history in the area and provide strategies to avoid damage. Finally RMS needs to reconsider the proposed route and provide full information to the public on all of the route options, including comparative costs, so the public can make informed decisions on their preference.

  7. Margaret Howes asserts that locally affected people formed 80% of the audience – can this be substantiated or is it another throw away line like the attempted smear on Bob Brown with the stinking koalas comment? I recognised many people at the meeting who do not live anywhere near the highway or its proposed route!


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