Following the announcement last week that the Wardell section of the Pacific Highway will proceed through the controversial Blackwall Range area, which includes one of the last intact koala colonies on the north coast, the state government has announced a suite of protection measures for the endangered marsupial.
In response to public concerns, NSW roads and freight minister Duncan Gay has announced that ‘a team of experts will be brought together to develop a detailed koala management plan’ for the upgrade. He says the appointment, ‘allows the next stages of early work to start, while the overall project is considered by the federal department of the environment.’
‘While the approved route is located in mostly cleared land we are committed to making sure the koala and other species can safely cross under or over the new highway.’
‘An important learning from previous experience is that koalas can and do maintain home ranges right to the edge of the highway.’
Measures include ‘fully fencing nearly 16 kilometres of both sides of the new highway, the construction of a land-bridge, increasing the number of fauna crossings suitable for koalas and ‘planting some 130 hectares of koala food trees on RMS owned land.’
In a letter between Mr Gay and local MP Don Page (Nationals), the roads and freight minister claims there would be ‘strict conditions governing appropriate management of threatened species, including koalas.’
Mr Gay also explained his department’s reasons for ignoring public calls to keep the highway’s current alignment, which critics such as Ballina Greens councillor Jeff Johnson say would not only be cheaper but would not impact on the koala habitat or indigenous culture.
The minister told Mr Page, ‘While a shorter route, the southern section cuts into Broadwater National Park, which has also been identified as having an important koala population.’
He also claimed such a route would be along a floodplain, and would traverse underlying soft soils that would therefore require earth fill.
‘It would require acquisition of high yield cane fields, residences and farm infrastructure… and would pose a considerable engineering risk at a much greater cost.’
But koala campaigner Garry Owers claims widening the existing highway would be the quickest and cheapest solution. ‘They just have to add more lanes which they have room for, and it can be done quickly.’ Mr Owers, who works at Richmond River County Council, says he has studied acid sulfate soils and specialises in wetlands. He says, ‘Contrary to the minister’s claims, trimming the road’s edge would not result in having to acquire a lot of cane fields and residences’.
Most importantly, Mr Owers says the minister’s proposal would see more flooding risk than the current route. ‘Dingle Creek is subject to three metre flooding which is far greater than the current route along the current alignment,’ he says.
Mr Owers concluded that by 2005 he suspected the government had already made the current plans and was just playing lip service to give the appearance of consultation.
Friends of the Koala still not convinced
While Friends of the Koala president Lorraine Vass says the announcement of an expert team adds in extra measures, she is concerned about the long-term decline in koala numbers as well as the actual construction phase.
‘There are no mitigation measures while the road is being built,’ she says. ‘During the construction of [the] section at St Helena in Ewingsdale, RMS (Road Maritime Services) records only roadkill as impacting koala populations. However, we count disease and other factors. Our experience from this is that there will be a spike of mortality rates. Other places where upgrades have been done, for example at the Yelgun to Chinderah upgrade in the early 2000s, we were hearing that the numbers of koalas dropped dramatically. Population decline takes time; you can construct underpasses etc but there’s no guarantees on maintaining the populations.’
For more information about the upgrade, email [email protected] or phone 1800 778 90