Expert ecologist Dr Steve Phillips says he has serious fears for the survival of local koala population as the state government’s announcement overnight that it will not change the controversial route of the Pacific Highway south of Ballina seals the fate of around 200 of the species near Wardell.
Ballina’s most significant wildlife corridor is at risk due to the deviation proposed for the Woolgoolga to Ballina Pacific Highway Upgrade Project between Broadwater and the Ballina by-pass, north of Wardell.
Inclement weather didn’t stop about 140 people packing out the conference room at the Ballina RSL last night (Wednesday January 28) to listen to the growing concern from ecologists about the devastating impact the state government’s now-confirmed highway deviation will have on a number of threatened species, including a nationally significant koala colony and the last remaining viable population of Long-Nosed Potoroos.
Dr Phillips told the meeting that the population viability modeling that he has completed has clearly shown, no matter how conservative the inputs, that unless the proposed highway deviation through the important koala colony is reconsidered, ‘we will have a local extinction event of this nationally significant koala colony within 15 years’.
The government has stated that the route won’t be moved but they will get chief scientist Mary O’Kane to oversee a working group on koala protection.
Roads and north coast minister Duncan Gay told ABC this morning,’We believe that we’ve carefully put [the bypass] in the best place possible. It’s certainly the one that is overwhelmingly supported by the local communities. But we need to do is ensure we put the best possible mitigation in place so the long term survival of the koalas is guaranteed.’
Wednesday night’s meeting was facilitated the ‘Save Ballina’s Koalas’ campaign coordinator and Greens Ballina Cr Jeff Johnson, who says it was great to see so many people attend the meeting.
Despite the minister’s comments, Cr Johnson says that he sees much opposition to the road.
‘Over 50,000 people have signed online and hard-copy petitions’, said Cr Johnson.
‘They are always saying that we want to protect our koalas, our potoroos and our Aboriginal cultural heritage. We want the highway route reconsidered,’ he added.
‘While the overall project has been approved by the NSW and federal governments, it may not be possible to meet the federal minister’s conditions of consent relating to the koala in the section from Broadwater to Wardell,’ Cr Johnson said.
The presentations from Dr Phillips and Mark Graham, who have both worked extensively in the area highlighted what’s at stake if the highway deviation isn’t reconsidered.
Troy and Susan Anderson, who gave the Welcome to Country, spoke about the importance to Aboriginal people of conserving the area due to the number of sacred sites and scar trees that would be destroyed if the current route is retained.
President of Friends of the Koala, Lorraine Vass, said that the ‘Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) need to wake up’.
‘This route is in exactly the wrong place’, she said after the meeting. ‘We know about the koalas and our experience is with the koalas but there are other species involved and there are cultural considerations also.
‘Clearly this is a very special place in the world.’
Miss Vass say that the RMS need to reconsider what they plan to do. ‘Take it away, go back to the drawing board and look at a few more options.’
Several Wardell residents who are for the proposed deviation also attended the meeting and discussions became rowdy.
Communications broke down as the evening progressed which saw the premature closure of the event cutting short a Q&A session at the end of the meeting.
Dr Phillips said after his talk that the current koala community, which is in two main groups, is well and truly entrenched in the area and the road will impact them greatly.
‘We have been back over time, looked at historical records, there have been koalas in this area for well over 100 years.’
‘I continue to be amazed by what I see with koalas’, says Dr Phillips. ‘Certainly in terms of the populations north of the Richmond River this is probably the most significant population. Looking at it holistically, the best solution to minimising the impact on this population is simply to put the road somewhere else.’