Friends of the Koala president Lorraine Vass was working on the organisation’s strategic plan yesterday when she received a phone call with the news she had been dreading.
The state government has approved the proposed western route of the Pacific Highway’s Ballina to Woolgoolga duplication, with the Wardell section set to pass through the middle of the region’s most intact koala colony in the Blackwall Ranges.
Up until last week a loose coalition of Greens and koala carers thought they had the support of Ballina Council in asking the government to reroute the road to the east of the town.
But that was swept away at last week’s meeting, which saw a mayoral minute calling for that route to be avoided.
Now all eyes will be on federal environment minister Greg Hunt, who must also sign off on the proposal owing to the potential impact on the highway to the threatened species.
‘We will still be looking at the intervention of Greg Hunt because he still has powers to contest this. His focus is on threatened species, and the threatened species of most concern to us is the koalas,’ Mrs Vass told Echonetdaily this morning.
‘We’ll have a busy weekend ahead of us,’ she added.
‘I had a quick look at the determination documentation on the department of planning’s website, I’ll have a more rigorous look at to see how closely it focuses on the area around the koala colony, whether there are any conditions, etc.
But Mrs Vass is not confident that even with a proposed 200 animal crossings, there will be enough protection for the koalas.
‘As far as I can ascertain, that [number of] 200 crossings applies to the entire route. We don’t know how many apply to the area. We’d probably need a crossing every 200-300 metres for it to be meaningful.
Mrs Vass says she also fears for the safety of the koalas during the road building progress.
‘It’s not just about the roadkill afterwards. We believe 11 were killed during the Ewingsdale upgrade, including the ones killed on the roads, but also there is also a spillover effect of the road-building juggernaut,’ she said.
‘We’re not aware that any translocation program is part of the process and, even if it is, there still has to be somewhere for them to be relocated to,’ she added.
Ballina Shire Councillor Jeff Johnson, who has been campaigning for the route between Broadwater and Ballina to be reconsidered, questions the process that has ignored community concerns for over 10 years.
‘Why hasn’t a route been selected that utilises the existing highway corridor?’ he asked.
‘Why bulldoze a 100-metre wide highway through a nationally significant wildlife area, home to over 30 threatened species, when there are cheaper, and more direct route options available?
‘State and federal environment laws have been put in place to protect the biodiversity of our country. This decision does not meet the community’s expectation that areas of national significance will be protected.’
But north coast minister and deputy premier Andrew Stoner says he believes the federal approval will be ‘a formality’.
‘We’ve taken advice from scientific experts to give us the best advice in relation to all environmental factors, including the koala colony south of Ballina, he told ABC North Coast this morning, ‘and we’re told that with the wildlife crossings that will be incorporated as part of the construction, that those concerns have been adequately addressed.’
But Mrs Vass says her group will continue to fight for the impacted koalas.
‘We’re not going to give up. We’ll continue working on our campaign we’ll take it right up to government.