NSW shadow environment minister Penny Sharpe has accepted a petition of more than 17,000 signatures aimed at highlighting the plight of one of the last intact koala colonies on the north coast.
The colony, in the Blackwall ranges, is set to be bisected by the planned Pacific Highway upgrade between Ballina and Broadwater.
The federal government has approved the proposal subject to Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) putting plans in place to ensure the long-term survival of the koala colony.
On Friday Ms Sharpe met with Save Ballina Koalas co-ordinator Jeff Johnson, Friends of the Koala president Lorraine Vass and local residents to see first-hand the potential impact of the government’s preferred highway route.
She has given opposition support to the move by north coast campaigners to move the highway route away from koala habitat.
‘If the NSW Government proceeds with the proposed route through the Blackwall Range, our iconic north coast koalas will be put at further risk,’ Ms Sharpe said.
‘There is no question that the upgrade is much needed, but there are suitable alternative routes that don’t impact on the koalas’ habitat.
‘The government must consider these alternative routes.
‘Our koala population is under serious threat through loss of habitat, disease, road accidents and dog attacks. 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 and are on the federal threatened species list.
‘The Baird government should be leading the nation in the creation of national parks explicitly to protect our remaining koala populations, not building roads that will, without a doubt, further decimate their numbers.’
Ms Sharpe also called on the government to offer transparency around the existing plans.
‘If the government is determined to proceed with this suboptimal proposal, then it must be transparent in how the koala population will be protected,’ Ms Sharpe said.
‘The Liberal government must make its report to the federal government – which details conditions to protect the environment – publicly available before it is submitted.’
Mr Johnson described the proposed highway deviation as ‘ill-conceived’, saying it would not only impact ‘a nationally significant koala population’ but also ‘a number of known Aboriginal sacred sites.’
‘Opposition to the route has been growing in recent years and it’s time the NSW Government placed a value on our Aboriginal culture and biodiversity.
‘By pushing ahead with this route the RMS is breaking its own guidelines that clearly state that ‘environmental and cultural issues need to be considered when determining the most appropriate route’.
‘In this case, the RMS have selected the route with the most impact, and haven’t even bothered investigating a route that uses the existing highway corridor,’ Mr Johnson said.
Mrs Vass added that ‘time is running out for Ballina’s koalas.’
‘While minister Hunt’s approval conditions are keeping the bulldozers at bay, since Christmas seven koalas are known to have been killed or have died. The actual number is probably higher. This koala population is very likely already in decline. The last thing it needs is a national highway running through it,’ she said.
The fieldwork and data collection project undertaken by the RMS to benchmark the current status of the koala population was completed at the end of May. The next step will be the population viability modelling and analysis, which will inform the Ballina Koala Plan required by federal environment minister Greg Hunt.
‘What concerns us is that RMS has a huge investment in steaming ahead with this route. Properties were acquired well before the approvals of either the NSW or Federal governments were in place and by their own admission an alternative is not being considered,’ Mrs Vass said.
‘It’s essential that process is transparent; that background information, informing reports, meeting minutes and so on are publically available and open to comment.’
An RMS spokesperson acknowledged the authority was not used to putting together such a plan but said it was seeking expert assistance to help with the process.
Pacific Highway GM Bob Higgins admitted to ABC radio this morning, ‘it’s something a little bit new for us, therefore we’re putting a whole lot of effort in and asking the experts to help us.’
The petition, which will submitted by shadow roads minister Jodi McKay, is expected to be debated on June 25.
Minister Hunt’s decision is expected towards the end of the year.