The state opposition has blamed political interference for the sudden resignation of one of Australia’s top koala experts as key advisor on a controversial upgrade section of the Pacific Highway south of Ballina.
Dr Steve Phillips, who has worked on koala studies for some of the biggest developments on the north coast over the years, resigned from the project a fortnight ago under a cloud.
Fairfax Media reported that Dr Phillips quit after a NSW government ‘backflip’ resulted in ecologists being phoned as they were surveying for koalas near Wardell and told to stop.
The report said that after the Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) awarded a contract to Ecosure (the consultancy Dr Phillips worked for) to fully assess koala activity along the planned Wardell bypass, ‘the department changed its mind a fortnight ago, and told the company it could only check for koalas in the immediate vicinity of animal underpass sites already chosen by the department’.
Mr Secord, the shadow minister for roads and the north coast, told media that Dr Phillips was ‘pushed’ because the government did not agree with the expert, calling for an inquiry in whether there had been interference.
But roads minister Duncan Gay rejected the accusation, telling media Dr Phillips’ resignation was due to a ‘contractual’ issue and that the government ‘worked hard to protect koalas’.
The routing of the proposed 12-kilometre Wardell bypass section through a known koala habitat area in the Blackwall Range has sparked a campaign for the government to change course to avoid it.
Opponents say the government is trying to avoid delays and costs on the upgrade and in the process threatening a rare ancestral koala population with the genetic diversity needed to ensure the survival of local koala populations.
Labor MPs Walt Secord and Luke Foley have called on Mr Gay to meet with campaigners to find a solution that ensures the upgrade goes ahead but also protects koalas.
The Sun Herald report said that in his resignation letter to Ecosure, Mr Phillips said the department direction ‘compromises the integrity, independence and veracity of the field assessment that was agreed to’.
The letter, according to the article, said the underpasses chosen were ‘very poorly informed’ and that the department appeared concerned that what Dr Phillips might say in his report ‘may damage the “progress” they have made’ on the highway design.
The Sun Herald report said genetic tests and new research by Dr Phillips last year discovered the Wardell koalas were a ‘linchpin’ colony, and vital for the survival of coastal koalas, which suffered high rates of disease because of inbreeding.
In the excerpts of the resignation letter published by the newspaper, Dr Phillips said there’s a lot at stake for koalas at Wardell and it was ‘a line in the sand’.
Dr Phillips, whose previous work with koala studies includes the proposed township of Kings Forest on the Tweed Coast and the contentious world motor rally held on the northern rivers in 2009, also urged the federal government to ‘take a strong position’ on the bypass issue because all the data was there.
The ecologist is an internationally acknowledged authority on the ecology, conservation and management of koalas.
Ballina Shire Council has identified the Meerschaum Vale-Blackwall Range area as ‘nationally significant’ and a key local source population for north coast koalas.
The two Labor MPs say a study found 70 per cent, or 13 of 18 localised koala colonies in the local government area, would be heavily impacted by construction of the route.
‘Barry O’Farrell allows reckless logging to occur in magnificent north coast koala habitats and now he is allowing his roads minister to put a 12-kilometre stretch of the Pacific Highway straight through rare koala colonies,’ Mr Foley said.
‘It is no wonder the scientific community is questioning Barry O’Farrell’s promises on the environment.’
Mr Foley and Mr Secord today called on Mr Gay to work with the local Northern Rivers community to find a solution.
‘At the start of European settlement there were an estimated 10 million koalas in Australia,’ they said in their joint statement.
‘Today, there have been a mere 11,000 reported sightings on the north coast bioregion.
‘Koalas have suffered due to encroaching development, logging, attacks by pets, imported disease and road accidents,’ they said.