D Day for Koalas

Dailan Pugh, North East Forest Alliance.

It is D Day in the Koala Wars, this is the day we need to turn around Koala’s extinction trajectory and begin their recovery. First we need to urgently identify where their core habitat is and then we need to protect it, to save Koalas we need to stop their homes being indiscriminately cleared and logged on both private and public lands. The Government’s latest attack is not just about Koalas, they also intend to take away Council’s rights to include high conservation value vegetation in environmental zones, and their rights to prohibit or constrain clearing and logging in them. The politicians aren’t listening, we need a community uprising.

Our iconic Koalas are in dire straits, their populations in western NSW and on the south coast are on their last legs, NSW’s Koalas are likely to be extinct in the wild by 2050.

On the north coast Koala populations had declined by 50% in the 20 years before the Black Summer fires burnt 30% of their habitat, killing thousands of Koalas.

It is loss and degradation of habitat that is primarily responsible for their decline. As they lose the large feed trees they need, the survivors need to expand their territories.

As habitat becomes more fragmented they have to wander in an increasingly dangerous world to find food and mates, exposing them to dog attacks and car strikes. As they become increasingly stressed they succumb to diseases, such as chlamydia.

The increasing frequency and intensity of droughts and heatwaves due to climate heating is taking a huge toll, particularly in western NSW. In extreme events Koalas can no longer rely upon leaf moisture and need access to permanent water. Permanent water is harder to find as landscapes dry because of the loss of forests and their conversion to regrowth, and pools become silted.

Then there’s intensifying bushfires.

The key to their survival is protecting and rehabilitating the places where they still survive, along with climate refuges, rehabilitating degraded habitat, and re-establishing habitat linkages.

The NSW Government began to address these needs, at least in theory, in 1995.

The 1995 Koala State Environment Planning Policy – SEPP 44 – required Councils to prepare Koala Plans of Management (KPoMs) to identify “core Koala habitat” and zone it for environment protection.

In 2007 the logging Code of Practice for Private Native Forestry prohibited logging in core Koala habitat identified by Councils.

Outside core Koala habitat loggers are required to protect a number of feed trees where there is a record of a Koala, but with few records on private land and no requirement to look before logging, Koala’s homes are usually indiscriminately logged.

In 2016 Cabinet agreed that core Koala habitat would be identified as sensitive regulated lands under the Local Land Services Act, which just means it requires approval before it can be cleared, there are a variety of exemptions for things like roads, fencing, sheds, stockyards, ”sustainable” grazing, dams, and power and telephone lines.

Since 2016 land clearing has more than doubled, with 60,800 ha of woody vegetation cleared in 2018, most worryingly over half this clearing is unexplained, it is not approved and the Government doesn’t care. Outside core Koala habitat there is no protection for Koalas.

The trouble was that by 2020 only 6 KPoMs had been approved, often covering just parts of Council areas, so there was only 5-6,000 ha of core Koala habitat identified for protection, after 25 years. And most of this has pre-existing logging approvals that were allowed to continue.

The SEPP 44 definitions made it hard to identify core Koala habitat, in many areas the koalas were living in forests that did not have 15% of the 10 tree species that were allowed to be considered. It cost over $100,000 to prepare a Koala Plan of Management and took years. Even after Councils prepared plans the Government often refused to adopt them, 5 were still waiting, Tweed and Clarence since 2015 and Byron since 2016.

In December 2019 Cabinet approved the new SEPP (Koala Habitat Protection) 2019 that rectified many of the definitional problems with SEPP 44, including increasing the number of feed trees from 10 to 123, 42 of which occur on the north coast. It came into effect in March 2020, when the Guidelines were released.

By then the loggers were beginning to freak out because they were concerned that the new rules made it easier for Councils to identify core Koala habitat, and they wouldn’t be able to log it.

NSW Farmers joined in as they wanted no constraints on land clearing. The map of likely Koala habitat, the Koala Development Application Map (pink DA Map), was a focus of their concerns as they thought it would be used to constrain what they can do and devalue property prices, even though it was only intended to limit the area where Development Applications had to consider Koalas.

By mid May the Government had succumbed to the pressure and began the formal process of changing the SEPP and the Guidelines, with a focus on removing the pink DA Map. They intended to make a new SEPP in June.

On 30 June 2020 the bipartisan inquiry into Koala populations and habitat in New South Wales released their report, finding that without urgent government intervention to protect habitat and address all other threats, the koala will become extinct in New South Wales before 2050. They made 42 recommendations, only 11 of which the Government subsequently agreed to support. The inquiry report was like a red rag to the National Party who labelled it as “hysterical”.

While the Nationals had originally approved the new SEPP, by early July Stuart Bocking, Barilaro’s Director of Policy and Legal, was complaining “There are echoes of marine parks and greyhounds here. It would be a free kick to the Shooters at a time when they are struggling for relevance. All three lower house SFF seats will be impacted by the DA “pink” aspects”
The Nationals sought to have thresholds and tree species used for identifying core Koala habitat reduced, but their focus was on decoupling the SEPP from rural lands, meaning that core Koala habitat identified in a KPoM would no longer have logging excluded or require consent before it was cleared.

The Liberals had repeatedly agreed to decoupling since the SEPP was adopted in 2019, but wanted the Nationals to first put forward alternative protection for Koalas from logging and clearing. The Nationals failed to provide any alternatives.

The Nationals upped the ante in early September, when first Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis and then Coffs Harbour MP Gurmesh Singh claimed they would move to the cross-benches. On the 11 September the whole of the National Party piled in and made a hollow threat to move to the cross-benches, provided they kept all their perks. This was dubbed the Koala Wars.

Disgracefully their campaign was built on misinformation, prompting someone from Barilaro’s office to comment on 20 September “It would be appreciated if those compiling these member communications could actually do some research and present the facts as they are. Otherwise you may be accused of intentionally misleading the public”. The pink DA map was a primary focus of the Nationals attempts to discredit the SEPP, misrepresenting it as “core Koala habitat”, even though the Government had agreed to remove it 4 months previously. No wonder the Liberals were outraged.

Under the pressure the Liberals surrendered, Planning Minister Rob Stokes amended the SEPP to narrow the definition of core Koala habitat, and the Nationals were given carte- blanche to write their own Local Land Services Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill, which was introduced to the Lower House on 14 October 2020.

This was dubbed the Koala Killing Bill as it removed protection for core Koala habitat on rural lands while offering no alternative protection for Koalas, allowed logging to over-ride all Council’s Local Environment Plans and the Government’s State Environmental Planning Polices, allowed some self-assessed clearing in environmental zones, and doubled logging approvals to 30 years.

The Nationals had been goaded by the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers to override “greenie local councils” to allow logging everywhere. North coast Councils’ zoning currently prohibits logging of 167,000 ha, and requires development consent for logging over 600,000 hectares, all of which they wanted to get rid of.

Rob Stokes reputedly also gave the Nationals a promise that Councils would not be allowed to protect identified core Koala habitat in environmental zones.

While far north coast Nationals Chis Gulaptis, Geoff Provest and Ben Franklin voted for the Koala Killing Bill, it came to a halt in November when north coast Liberal Catherine Cusack took a principled stand by crossing the floor and referring the bill to the Upper House Planning and Environment committee for review. This was the same Committee that undertook the Koala inquiry.

In retribution Premier Berejiklian did a deal with the National’s leader John Barilaro to revert to SEPP 44, remade as SEPP (Koala Habitat Protection) 2020 on 26 November.

To pre-empt the inquiry Planning Minister Rob Stokes and Environment Minister Matt Kean did a deal with Deputy Premier John Barilaro which was announced on 8 March 2021. There is at yet no detail, though it resurrects most provisions of the Koala Killing Bill, including that:
• The 90% of private forests zoned for primary production or forestry in north east NSW will not be subject to the new SEPP.

• Logging would be allowed to over-ride local environmental plans, removing Council’s rights to prohibit or regulate it, and opening all environmental zones for logging.

• That only the Minister for Planning, and not councils, will be empowered to rezone rural land to an environmental zone.

This attack is not just about Koalas, the NSW Government wants to take away Council’s rights to include high conservation value vegetation in environmental zones, and their rights to prohibit or constrain clearing and logging in them.

They also promised to revise the rules for land clearing and logging by April, though given there has been no progress on this for over a year it is unlikely to result in any meaningful protection for Koalas.

This time they intend to avoid parliamentary scrutiny by implementing most of this through changes to the SEPP and ministerial directions.
The new SEPP (Koala Habitat Protection) 2021 was made on 17 March. As foreshadowed it does not apply to rural and forestry zones (RU1, RU2, RU3), which comprise 90% (2.4 million ha) of private forests in north-east NSW. The 2020 revision of SEPP 44, with its 10 feed trees and manifest problems, continues to apply to these lands.

In a significant change, the Department of Planning can only approve KPoMs if agreed to by the Secretary of the Department of Regional NSW (Barilaro’s Department).

The SEPP adopts the KPoMs for Tweed and Byron Shires, for some inexplicable reason leaving out the Clarence Valley’s mini KPoM, even though all three had been identified for approval in August 2020.
• Tweed Council’s Coastal KPoM was originally submitted in 2015, so it has taken 6 years to be approved. Tweed Council manages over 110,000 hectares, of which 30% was identified as likely Koala habitat. The Tweed Coast KPoM covers only 18% of the shire – the coastal strip – which encompasses some 3,800 ha of highly fragmented Koala habitat supporting some 140 Koalas. 82% of the Tweed will receive no protection and all environmental zones will be opened up for logging.

• Byron Council’s Coastal KPoM was originally submitted in 2016, so it has taken 5 years to be approved. Byron Council manages over 50,000 ha, of which 30% was identified as likely Koala habitat. The Byron Coast KPoM only covers 23% of the shire – the coastal strip – which covers about 2,000ha of highly fragmented habitat supporting some 240 Koalas. 77% of Byron will receive no protection and all environmental zones will be opened up for logging.

Tweed MP Geoff Provest had written to Rob Stokes in May about:
the views of many landholders in this area who are frustrated and angry by a perception that Tweed Shire Council, being dominated by Greens/Labor aligned councillors, is using planning instruments and overlays to advance their own agenda and frustrate development and expansion in rural areas of the shire.

Rob Stokes has not yet released his new Ministerial Guidelines, nor Adam Marshall the changes to the Local Land Services Act. Regrettably it is intended that Councils will be prohibited from protecting core Koala habitat in environmental zones, and it appears it will not be safe from logging or clearing, with the SEPP limited to Development Applications.

There are many landholders who are good stewards of their land and who do care about Koalas, but most who want to clear and log are not. A 2017 survey of logging contractors found that 67% believed that the majority to vast majority of landowners were only interested in maximising the income from their forest, with 78% of landowners understanding very little about the PNF requirements, and few caring about sustainability.

Though we need to recognise that landowners who look after Koala habitat or increase carbon storage are providing a community benefit that they deserve recompense for.

We need a carrot and stick approach. Making sure we give core Koala habitat the legal protection it needs while providing financial assistance to landholders who protect it.

With over 60% of Koalas on private lands, their survival is at stake. The Government has already removed protection of core Koala habitat for the 20% of Koalas that live on State Forests. It is not just core Koala habitat on private lands that we need to protect, we need to protect it on public lands too, for a start there are 2 proposals covering exceptional Koala habitat:
• the Great Koala National Park covering 175,000 hectares of State Forests west of Coffs Harbour, NSW’s most important Koala stronghold,
• the Sandy Creek Koala Park covering 7,000 hectares of State Forests south of Casino, some of the most important Koala habitat on the Richmond River Lowlands.

We know the community doesn’t like logging of native forests, particularly Koala habitat. A 2018 logging industry survey found 65-70% of Australians consider logging of native forests unacceptable. A 2018 NPA survey found 71% of Lismore and Ballina residents support the creation of national parks to protect koalas from logging.

But how do we turn this community sentiment into the protection Koalas need? On these issues the National Party refuse to represent the community, and the Liberal Party are beholden to them to stay in power.
If we want to save Koalas at this critical time for their survival, we need to reach out to our communities, make them aware of their plight and how this Government is hastening their extinction. It is only when politicians think that people care enough about Koalas to affect their vote that they will take action.

It is D Day in the Koala Wars, this is the day we need to turn around Koala’s extinction trajectory and begin their recovery. It is clear that if we want to save Koalas we need to urgently identify where they live, on both private and public lands, and stop their homes being indiscriminately cleared and logged.

Koalas can’t protect their homes, and the politicians refuse to. We need a community uprising to make them listen.

Koalas need you to stand up and speak out for them, their future depends on what you do now.

It is not just the future of Koalas that is at stake, we are in a global emergency, in the midst of extinction and climate crises. We need forests to protect a plethora of species threatened with extinction and to take up and store our increasing carbon emissions.

The 21st March is the United Nation’s International Day of Forests, and the start of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. It is past time to stop clearing and degrading forests and begin restoring them.

D Day for Koalas
Dailan Pugh, North East Forest Alliance, 21 March 2021.