After a 10-year campaign to prevent the Pacific Highway south of Ballina from being routed through the middle of the region’s most significant koala colony, Friends of the Koala learned by checking a website that new federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg had rubber-stamped the RMS proposal on his first day in the job.
After years of consultation and negotiations, the group was not even given the courtesy of a phone call to say that the Ballina Koala Plan and the 546-page Koala Management Plan had been approved.
Friends of the Koala (FOK) president, Lorraine Vass described it as ‘an ignominious conclusion to our decade-plus fight to keep the Pacific Highway Upgrade Project away from the Lower Richmond koala population.’
‘The new Environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg, approved the Ballina Koala Plan on the very day he was sworn in to office. The Koala Management Plan for Sections 9 and 10 was approved under delegation on 11 August.’
Mrs Vass said that ‘neither the minister nor his department had the common decency to breathe a word, despite repeated attempts by Save Ballina’s Koalas campaigners to winkle out news. We are appalled with the disrespectful treatment of the community’s concerns and with the underhanded way in which these approvals have been announced.’
‘Arrogance, deceit, vandalism’
To add insult to injury the Ballina Koala Plan’s ministerial approval was given on 19 July, one day before the Koala Management Plan was submitted to him.
‘We anticipated that the Koala Management Plan was being revised with a view to achieving consistency with the Ballina Koala Plan but to read that it had been submitted the day following approval suggested a highly orchestrated exchange between the NSW and federal bureaucracies involved,’ Mrs Vass said.
She also queried why, when the koalas’ fate was sealed, the RMS waited a further seven days before announcing the decision it is website.
‘Only yesterday (Monday) RMS hosted a pop-up information meeting at the Meerschaum Vale Hall on the draft urban design and landscape management plan and proposed design refinements for the upgrade.
‘No mention was made about the approvals to the residents and stakeholders who attended although it must have been known to the communications team members present. How can we have any faith at all that the Koala Management Plan is not just another box ticked or that there will ever be any change to the RMS culture of arrogance, deceit and environmental vandalism,’ she said.
Injured, homeless koalas expected
Ms Vass said the group would now turn its attention to how to best deal with the casualties of the upgrade.
‘Unfortunately our experience with the T2E is that there are likely to be a number of mortalities and a lot of injured koalas likely to require our care.
‘It’s hard to see how that experience isn’t going to be replicated,
‘I’ve already had calls from their ecologist and I’m going back and rereading their Koala Management Plan.’
Reacting to Wardell residents’ claims on ABC radio that the koalas may be ‘better off’ under the plan with ‘26 underpasses’ and ‘thousands of extra trees’, Mrs Vass said, ‘yes, there will be more trees but it’s what they’re taking down in the meantime.’
‘And no matter how many underpasses they build it’s just a few metres in total over a 12.5 kilometre stretch of road that divides their colony,’ she told Echonetdaily.
‘You’ve also got to take into consideration the time lag. It’s the disruption to this population and what that will mean in the short, medium and long term.’
As far back as 2005, in the Interim Report of the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Pacific Highway Upgrades, Chair Jenny Gardiner wrote, ‘The Committee was moved by the evidence of these participants [hundreds of local residents] who told the Committee that they feel powerless to influence the RTA in its decisions about the future of their homes and communities.’
‘Koala or human, nothing has changed for residents impacted by the route of Section 10,’ Mrs Vass said.