NSW Labor will consider an alternative route for the contentious Wardell section of the Pacific Highway upgrade which doesn’t impact on koala habitat, as part of its pledge to save northern NSW koalas from extinction.
New opposition leader Luke Foley toured the north coast yesterday to announce Labor’s plan to establish Australia’s first koala national park, on the mid north coast, modelled on China’s internationally famous panda reserves.
Labor will also prioritise conservation reserves for the endangered marsupial on the Tweed Coast where fears are held for their survival.
The plan includes adding two state forests near Casino (at Royal Camp and Carwong) where koalas thrive as conservation areas and investigate protection for koalas in the Tweed Coastal Range where remaining koalas of around 140 animals have been heavily impacted by urban development and bushfires.
Mr Foley, Labor’s longtime environmental spokesman, said the Wardell section of the highway south of Ballina which the government was planning on building was ‘mired in controversy’ because of the impact on koala habitat, and Labor would consider an alternative route.
He told Echonetdaily he had driven around the Blackwall Range through which the route goes could not understand why the government’s preferred route took a 2.6 kilometre ‘dogleg’.
He said he had lodged a freedom of information request to the roads minister seeking what alternative-route costings had been done.
‘It seems to me that it will be more expensive because it’s 2.6 kilometres longer and it’s not even approved yet, it’s mired in controversy, the federal environment minister won’t sign off on it till he sees a proper conservation plan (for koalas).’
Mr Foley said he and other senior Labor figures met with Friends of the Koala president Lorrain Vass and Ballina Cr Jeff Johnson during the last sitting of parliament, where the koala campaigners presented them with the large community petition opposing the government’s planned route.
‘What we’ve said is we’ll examine alternative routes… we’ll need proper advice and have to keep eye on costs and timetable, but logic tells me that a straighter route could be both cheaper and able to be delivered faster,’ he said.
Mr Foley, in a wide-ranging discussion with Echonetdaily at Mullumbimby’s Poinciana Cafe yesterday, said he would also look at the Tweed Coast range, where koalas affected by urban sprawl at Cudgen (Kings Forest) and Pottsville (Black Rocks).
He said he was ‘very conscious’ of official reports of koala numbers on the Tweed east of the highway ‘could be ‘as low’ as 144 remaining’ in five sub populations.
‘So they’re critically endangered and at risk of extinction, and I want to look at a proposal for a koala conservation reserves in the Tweed local government area,’ he said.
The Labor pledge, with an eye on the green vote for the upcoming state election, aims to firm up the environmental credentials of local ALP candidates in the Tweed, Lismore and Ballina electorates, seats all held by National Party MPs.
The Labor plan for the Great Koala National Park has been warmly welcomed by many groups in the environmental movement but slammed by the timber industry and government.
The park will encompass 140,000 hectares of existing reserve, with over 170,000 hectares of state forest being added to the nationals parks estate.
The Wilderness Society described it as ‘visionary’ and a ‘big step forward’ for nature conservation in NSW, while the North Coast Environment Council (NCEC) said it would be ‘a strong foundation for a new approach to managing our public forests’.
The Greens welcomed the plan but called for a more holistic approach across the state as koala populations were under threat from top to bottom.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the NSW forestry industry has warned the pledge risks losing as many as 3,000 timber jobs on the north coast and affect regional economies.
The Australian Forest Products Association said that around 3,000 direct and indirect jobs would go if the plan went ahead, while Timber NSW says removing the ‘dwindling’ resource would impact on areas already affected by high unemployment, including Casino, Kyogle and Grafton.
But the claims, repeated by premier Mike Baird, that the park will cost 3,000 jobs ‘is a classic case of scaremongering’, according to NCEC spokesperson Susie Russell.
‘We were hoping that the premier and the Liberal-National coalition, would come forward with their own policy that would save our region’s koalas rather than muddy the water with inaccurate and unsubstantiated statements about job losses and economic collapse,’ Ms Russell said.
‘In 2008-9 the government forestry agency claimed that there were a total of 6,344 people in the whole of NSW in state forest dependent employmen,- forest management, harvesting and haulage, and primary processing,’ she said..
‘The pine plantations produce about three-quarters of the sawn forest product and are the greatest generator of employment.
‘The remaining 1,600 or so workers are employed across the whole of NSW including the River Redgum, Brigalow-Cypress forests, southern NSW including the Eden woodchip facility, hardwood plantations and the native forests of northern NSW.
‘Since then, the government itself reduced the forest management workforce by at least 50.
‘It is clear that any impacts from the Great Koala National Park would be at least one and possibly two orders of magnitude less than the premier is claiming.
‘We want a premier and a government that seeks to generate employment and opportunities while conserving and showcasing our natural heritage, not one that is prepared to let Australia’s most iconic animal go extinct in the wild from it’s last major stronghold in NSW.
‘In 2015 most people don’t buy hardwood floorboards. And those who do will think twice knowing that they are walking on wood that came from forests needed by koalas to survive in the wild.
‘We want a forward looking premier looking at developing sustainable industries, providing re-training where necessary and exploring timber alternatives,’ Ms Russell said.
Labor says that on the north coast, the koala is under serious threat with loss of habitat, disease, road accidents and dog attacks sending the population plummeting.
Mr Foley said koala numbers in NSW, Queensland and ACT have plummeted by a third in 20 years.
‘Under NSW law koalas are listed as vulnerable to extinction. Koalas in northern NSW and Queensland are on the federal threatened species list.
‘When I first learned that the koalas of NSW’s north coast are under threat of regional extinction I was deeply troubled,’ he said.
‘Something serious needs to be done and it cannot be token. I don’t want to tell my grandchildren that my generation allowed the koala to disappear.
‘NSW should be leading the nation in the creation of national parks explicitly to protect our remaining koala populations.
‘Labor is proud of its legacy of national park creation and is committed to continuing the task of protecting our native animals,’ Mr Foley said.