We start the decade on a grim note; so far over 8 to 10 million hectares devastated by fire and a billion animals killed. Many of the surviving now threatened species only have small amounts of habitat left. We’ve lost more mammals than any nation on earth.
But what to do.
Ecologists like Professor James Watson, director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at the University of Queensland, are recognising what is needed to save a species will in some ways clash with current government forestry policy.
“I think we’ve got to really re-evaluate how we think about forestry and logging in Australia,” he said. “The science is pretty clear. Many of these fires got out of control in logged areas and logging is the very reason why many species are already endangered. If we want to maintain threatened species in these landscapes, we’ve got to realise that forestry does not work to save them.”
Professor Ross Bradstock, Director of the Wollongong University’s Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, has argued as to whether Governments are willing to greatly increase bushfire management funding in the face of climate change, with hotter, drier conditions forecast into the future and reiterated that numerous scientists have warned for decades that climate change would increase the scale and severity of bushfires, but that the massive destruction of natural forests in NSW and elsewhere in Australia had come early.
It comes down to the fuel load in a forest.
“Total clearance around ‘at risk houses’ may be a better long term management measure than just more ‘prescribed burns’. This is an indication of the challenge we’re now facing,” he said.
Questions are being asked as to why Governments are not tapping into the knowledge of Indigenous Australians, who have for tens of thousands of years prevented firestorms. When was the last time you heard of a firestorm in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory? And Arnhem Land is some 96,000 square kms of forest. In the Dry Season in the Northern Territory it gets smoky. Traditional burning practices still occur – every year. And are the forests destroyed? No.
NSW currently spends between $50 million and $100 million each year on burning activities. Professor Bradstock is estimating that $500 million will be required for more effective burning practices. As we all know, it all comes back to the weather and Science telling us – that the weather is changing.
And now, Professor Chris Dickman, a Terrestrial Ecologist from the University of Sydney, is stating that since September 2019 bushfires have wiped out over 800 million animals in NSW alone. Professor Dickman has been working on the densities of bird, mammal and reptile populations across NSW for decades.
We have yet to learn the total number of koala deaths in NSW alone.
The call to declare koalas endangered is growing louder.
Federal Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley, has indicated that whilst the national koala population has not been listed ‘vulnerable’, populations in the ACT, New South Wales and Queensland were listed as vulnerable before the bushfires occurred. She anticipates the Threatened Species Scientific Committee will look at whether the vulnerable listing should be re-considered in light of the recent fires.
As an immediate priority, the government has introduced a $50 million Wildlife and Habitat Restoration Package as what they describe as:
“a significant first step in getting resources on the ground, helping carers and rescuers and in ensuing a coordinated response guided by ecologists, conservation biologists and other scientists, along with environment experts”
The package includes:
$25 million will be used to establish an emergency intervention fund to assist the immediate survival of affected animals and plants.
The remaining $25 million will be made available to support wildlife rescue, zoos, and conservation groups with on the ground activities.
The Government is also providing $6 million as part of the $100 million Environmental Restoration Fund election commitment to protect koalas of South-East Queensland and Northern NSW and $3 million has already committed to koala wildlife hospitals, with the remaining $3 million for state governments and on-ground service providers to support affected koalas, post-fire recovery of their habitat and sustainable longer term populations.
M/s Ley said:
The important thing is we have state governments and territories around the table and working with the expert panel, we have national environment groups in the conversation and we will work with farmers, business and communities on the ground.
In response to our questions on logging the Minister has indicated that:
“Logging is a State regulated issue normally occurring in State Forests rather than state controlled National Parks.
There is no logging in Federally run national parks.”
Senior politicians have no doubt taken note that an online poll to list koalas as an endangered species collected 800,000 signatures and is still ongoing. That’s a lot of core votes.
The main populations so far listed as endangered or critically endangered in NSW are at Hawkes Nest, Pittwater and the Tweed/Brunswick River area.
Koalas? No development!
On 20 December 2019 State Planning Minister Rob Stokes signed the State Environmental Planning Policy [SEPP] Koala Habitat Protection into Law. This new SEPP [to commence on 1 March 2020] will replace SEPP 44 Koala Habitat Protection [introduced in 1995].
Minister Stokes mentioned that the new SEPP is being introduced to “better protect and identify important koala habitats across the State.”
However some Industry Groups remain concerned about these Koala Protection proposals – saying that they were blindsided by the Minister Stokes’ announcement.
The new SEPP Koala Habitat Protection includes a new definition of “Core Koala Habitat” which also includes corridors and previous identified koala sightings.
The new Koala Development Application Maps of NSW, will save landowners time and money, as there is now no need to have a flora/fauna survey undertaken to help protect Koalas across NSW, coupled with more accurate tree species data [now 123 tree species listed in this new SEPP, against the previous 10 tree species in SEPP 44].
Koalas? Land Protected.
Extensive scientific research over recent years has resulted in this expanded tree list. Under the new SEPP, an area with demonstrated Koala presence will be protected. And the Site Investigation Area for Koala Plans of Management now make it much easier for Councils to identify Core Koala Habitat, providing Councils with scientifically based guidance on where to best concentrate their surveying efforts when preparing a Koala Plan of Management [KPoM] – to align with the NSW Koala Policy.
Marcus Ray, Deputy Secretary of NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, stated ‘This new policy will help deliver on the Government’s objective to stabilise and protect Koala populations across the state, as outlined in the NSW Koala Strategy’.
So, if you have had or do have Koalas on your landholding – then protection of the Koala becomes paramount. Unless your landholding is a State Forest or Plantation – under the NSW Forestry Act . Forestry lands will be exempt from SEPP Koala Habitat Protection. But perhaps a rethink of SEPP Koala Habitat Protection is urgently required after these catastrophic bushfires.
The new Koala SEPP will require an applicant to establish whether a site contains Koala Habitat following an assessment of the vegetation.
Where Koala Habitat is established, further assessment will be required before a Development Application can be submitted to a Council. And NSW Planning, Industry and Environment indicate that if Koalas are present on a site, but the vegetation is not scheduled Koala Habitat, that any assessment will continue as if it were Koala Habitat.
Some years ago Great Lakes Council [now MidCoast Council] decided to have a Public Inquiry into North Hawks Nest landholdings – an area of land already declared as habitat for the Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens Endangered Koala Population.
The Official Title reads “Public Inquiry into the Ecological Significance of Land covered by the Draft North Hawks Nest Local Environmental Study”. Dr. Mark Carleton, Commissioner, Commissioners of Inquiry for Environment & Planning. A report to Great Lakes Council, 2002.
The Report states, “According to the Australian Koala Foundation, the significant Koala Activity Levels recorded on Lots 106, 107 and 108 [eastside of Mungo Brush Road, North Hawks Nest], are considered likely to reflect peripheral home range use habitat. And the Tallowwood trees identified by Dr. Stephen Phillips supports significant activity levels recorded with koala faecal pellets. Dr. Phillips states ‘Tallowwood has thus far been found to occur in a distinct and narrow band near the western boundary of Lot 106 and partly extending into Lot 107.”
The Public Inquiry Commissioner, Dr Carleton, noted that during the site inspection [on Lot 106, Mungo Brush Road, North Hawks Nest on 8 November 2001], that Dr. Phillips “found evidence of recent cutting and removal of several Tallowwood trees and attempts to cover the removal with mulch. He and other consultants, as well as NPWS and Council [Great Lakes Council], expressed outrage at the apparent deliberate removal of recently discovered Koala prime feed trees. In this regard he [Dr. Phillips] noted that there was evidence of previous and continuing cutting of Tallowwood over a period of years. Nevertheless, he states that Koalas would still be attracted to the reduced stunted or re-growing trees, as “Tallowwood is a much favoured feed tree attracting koalas from distant areas.”
Is It A Win?
While this sounds a win for the remaining koalas, no doubt the questions of logging in National Parks and State forests, various enquiries and studies by panels of experts and scientists over what constitutes koala habitat and what’s allowed where, will possibly result in obfuscation, smokescreens and confusion, allowing politicians, developers, lobbyists, councils and crooks to all muddy the waters to suit their needs and wishes. There already is some confusion over a bureaucratic clause where a ruling cannot be made by scientific bodies, despite the legislation. As happened in Port Stephens
(Could this have anything to do with ICAC’s announcement of an investigation into the role of paid political lobbyists and politicians? Just asking.)
So, what hope have the remaining koalas got in NSW? It seems possibly little protection under biodiversity laws and rules in NSW State Forests and National Parks legislation and what has been described as “rampant” deforestation of koala habitat.
So will Sussan Ley, Federal Minister for the Environment, declare the Koala a Vulnerable or Endangered Species in the face of no doubt some opposition?