By Darren Coyne
A majority of Lismore councillors last night ignored a plea to oppose the proposed Pacific Highway upgrade route between Broadwater and Ballina despite concerns it could wipe out the region’s koalas.
Friends of the Koala president Lorraine Vass warned the council that the proposed route would split the Ballina population in half, with the eastern side dying out ‘well before 2035’.
Ms Vass said if the council was serious about protecting koalas in its own local government area it would oppose the proposed route.
Cr Simon Clough had moved a motion to write to the NSW Premier Mike Baird, the relevant ministers, and local members, expressing concerns about the impacts of the proposed route.
He said the proposed route would destroy 350 hectares of koala habitat, which contains up to 200 koalas.
‘This will probably lead to the loss of a nationally significant koala population,’ Cr Clough said.
‘It is likely, based on research by koala expert Dr Steve Phillips, that the area destroyed is an ancestral source population for Lismore koalas and is necessary to maintain genetic diversity,’ uhe said.
Cr Clough said the proposed route would also threaten vulnerable species such as the long-no sed potoroo, and would negatively impact significant Aboriginal sacred sites which include scar trees.
But when the votes were counted, the motion failed, with Labor councillors Jenny Dowell and Isaac Smith siding with conservative councillors Greg Bennett, Graham Meinke, Mathew Scheibel and Neil Marks
Mayor Jenny Dowell said she had spoken with Ballina mayor David Wright who was a firm supporter of the route chosen by the government.
The decision prompted a backlash on social media after Cr Vanessa Ekins questioning why Cr Dowell, and Isaac Smith, both Labor members, had voted against expressing concern.
Cr Dowell replied: ‘I voted against because it’s not in our LGA, I spoke with the mayor of Ballina, I read the material from RMS (Vanessa had not) and I understand the protection of koalas is possible with the preferred route- and that (koala expert) Steve Phillips is working with RMS for the best outcome.’
Cr Ekins, along with Cr Clough, Glenys Ritchie, Ray Houston and Gianpiero Battista, voted for the motion, expressing concern that the proposed route would dissect the population.
But Cr Dowell maintained that the alternative route proposed by koala campaigners was not feasible, citing soft soils, riverbank, floodway and too many pylons.
Cr Smith, who is standing for election as a Labor candidate in Lismore, denied the decision was based on party politics, a suggestion made because the Greens party has been leading the charge against the proposed route.
‘People love a conspiracy theory,’ he responded.
‘There is no plot or message from on high. Given it was only a few week ago that I announced the Great Koala National Park as a campaign policy, any ALP dictate would be the same.
‘We are all local people making our own decisions, which is why the ALP vote on this issue last night was 2 for and 2 against.
‘For me this was out of our area and writing a letter does not translate into strong action. We need to find a way to improve this project for the koala population and this motion would have no effect on stopping the road or assisting our koalas.’
Ms Vass later told Echonetdaily that she was extremely disappointed that the council had gone against the notice of motion.
She said however that the fight to change the route would continue and would prove to be an election issue.