KOALA CATASTROPHE!

Members of environment and concerned citizens protest the watering down of NSW Environmental laws outside National MP Stephen Bromhead’s office in Taree.

We face losing the last koalas to developers. . . on our watch, on our doorstep. 

Mother and baby koala

The few remaining Koalas in NSW, far from being treasured and protected, are facing a full on disaster to their ability to thrive, given the watering down and manipulation of our environmental laws and the 2020 Koala SEPP, which were meant to protect them.  

The National State Member for Myall Lakes, Stephen Bromhead,  spoke in Parliament on September 16 2020 stating he had “major concerns” at amending  the SEP 44  Koala habitat protection laws and asked that the legislation NOT be amended. He said his concerns were for farmers and property owners and the growth of the Myall Lakes electorate. He went on to state that he “denies the science ”  which was “false” and “flawed” science. Later he read a flippant comment that land covered in some designated koala habitat included trees like jacarandas and casuarinas  “which koalas don’t eat nor do they eat roof tiles or cement.”  

(Editor’s note: I have koalas sleep and rest in a jacaranda tree in my garden. Mother koalas also bring their babies to suck the nectar from my bottle brush when it’s in bloom. They also occasionally climb telegraph poles.)

Koalas roam over a large home range area and in order to save and preserve them, given their dramatic losses in the bushfires  . . . . Every. Single. Koala. In. The. State. Needs. To. Be. Protected. (Sorry Steve.)

It is a national threat. For example, let’s look at what’s happening at North Hawks Nest. 

Endangered Habitat

In 1996 and 1998 an Environmental Consultant for the then Great Lakes Council declared and implemented ‘Core Koala Habitat’ – pursuant to State Environmental Planning Policy [SEPP 44] Koala Habitat Protection – in the North Hawks Local Environmental Study.

In 1999 the NSW Scientific Committee made a Final Determination to list the Koala population of Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens as an Endangered Population.

They advised that the Koala population was limited in the north by an east-west line three kilometres north of the Hawks Nest Golf Club – along both sides of Mungo Brush Road, North Hawks Nest.

In 2001 Great Lakes Council invited the Commissioners’ of Inquiry to hold a Statutory Public Inquiry into environmental matters underpinning the Local Environmental Study of North Hawks Nest. Koala issues were front and centre of this Inquiry.

In February 2002 the report to Great Lakes Council by Commissioner Dr Mark Carleton was released. Large areas of the various North Hawks Nest landholdings were declared ‘Core Koala Habitat’. Great Lakes Council used over $70,000 of ratepayers money for this enquiry. 

The Commissioner commented on underscrubbing (removal of scrub understory vegetation but not trees) by various landholders.

In 2003 the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service published an Official Recovery Plan for the Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens Endangered Koala Population – a document ‘signed off’ by then Director of NPWS, Lisa Corbyn and the then Minister for the Environment, Bob Debus.

It emphasised – ‘The future recovery actions detailed in this Recovery Plan include habitat protection and rehabilitation, protection of existing koalas and community education and awareness…. actions will be undertaken by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and Great Lakes Council with support from the Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens community’.

Watered down legislation

However a few weeks ago the NSW Government introduced a policy of rural landholders being permitted to clear along their fencelines up to 25 metres – ostensibly for Bushfire Protection. 

But North Hawks Nest properties are enveloped by the Endangered Koala Population listing and are Core Koala Habitat, one of only three areas within NSW that have had an Endangered Koala Population Listing. 

Rampant clearing of trees on properties and fencelines would decimate Koalas’ access corridors and liveable habitat.

However one Hawks Nest property owner was quick to announce his intention to clear tree vegetation. 

How can this be permitted?  The whole jolly process should be scrapped. This is a disaster for Koalas! 

Co-incidentally this paper was contacted by a concerned reader who told us that a resident of Mungo Brush Road, Hawks Nest, was planning to clear trees on his property which is endangered koala habitat and . .had obtained a permit from MidCoast Council. 

I contacted the Council’s Director of Liveable Communities, Paul De Szell who said his staff would check it out. He subsequently emailed me saying . . . . “that NO (underlined) permit had been issued by Council to clear trees on that specific property. Owners now had to go to the Local Land Services ( formerly The Lands Department) for permits.”

I rang Wingham Land Services who gave me the number of the person looking after Hawks Nest vegetation removal permits. He could not find any application on this matter.  

I then became aware of a letter dated March 25 2020 sent from MidCoast Council to this Hawks Nest  landholder giving permission to have an arborist remove trees on his property on Mungo Brush Road up to 300mm girth, to widen property access. No limit was stated. It was good for the next twelve months, signed by Josh Duncombe, Tree Management Officer, MidCoast Council.  

Hmmm.

At 6.47pm I emailed Mr De Szell to confirm his last email that Council had not issued any permits to this particular landowner. 

At 7.01 the following morning Mr De Szell emailed me to say that he had personally checked the history of applications over the entire north Hawks Nest area dating back over the last 5 years. (Which was nice of him to apparently spend the night looking!) 

He now confirmed that a letter had been sent to the property owner giving him permission to clear trees.  (The same letter I had learned about.) 

“Caravan Parks”

In a submission to council, the Myall Koala Support Group has opposed a development of 220 dwellings in core koala habitat which they say . . “claims to be a caravan park but is really a Seniors Living demountable homes estate which does not fit the rural zoning definition in the LEP and it most certainly will have a major negative impact on the wildlife corridor between the Hawks Nest village and the Myall Lakes National Park.” 

Among other issues, Myall Koala Support Group point out that . . “Many residents in a permanent residential facility on this site are likely to own pets such as cats and dogs. Because of the closeness of the site to wildlife habitat, free roaming dogs and cats would have a devastating impact on possums, gliders, microbats, bandicoots, quolls, birds and of course koalas.”

They also claim there appears to be no intention to operate the facility as a caravan park . . .

“There are only permanent “moveable” dwellings and no provision for tents, caravans, motorhomes, recreational vehicles or any amenities block including, showers toilets or laundry facilities. . . . The proposal makes no attempt to retain the rural attributes of the site and in fact, proposes ultimately covering the entire development footprint with moveable dwellings, facilities, roads and parking.”

I mentioned this application for a Caravan Park to Mr De Szell who said,  “This has not been determined and is currently being assessed by staff. This includes assessing impacts on ecology, particularly around koala habitat. There are no other development applications currently under assessment in the area.”

Well, that’s a relief. For the moment. 

In the meantime, with other applications and plans moving ahead, some landowners are taking advantage of the murky and confused state of land clearing which means precious ancient hollow log trees and koala feed trees are being surreptitiously removed. Environmentalists are up in arms as clearing severely impacts koalas’ access to their corridors. 

Note. While the properties of concern in Hawks Nest mostly have no residences, some applications go into Council under a residential address, as opposed to its Lot Number. Just to add to the confusion and obfuscation.

So now North Hawks Nest landholders are alleged to have started a rush to clear as much of their land as they can, especially removing Tallowwood trees which Koalas, (especially mothers with joeys) love to eat, in what could amount to a stampede to prepare their properties for future development. 

Port Stephens Fight

In neighbouring Port Stephens, Labor MP Kate Washington and NSW State Opposition Leader (Labor), Member Jodie McKay are also outraged at Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley approving the destruction of 52 hectares of Koala habitat at Brandy Hill for the expansion of a controversial quarry project. 

Said Kate Washington, “The NSW Liberal National government wiped out Labor’s environmental protection laws in 2016. Since then, the rate of land clearing NSW has increased 1300%. But for the Liberals and Nationals, that’s not enough. 
Right now, the Berejiklian government is trying to further weaken their harmful land clearing laws. Labor opposed their changes in 2016 and we are fighting against their latest heartless proposal too. 
After the drought and Black Summer bushfires, we should be doing all we can to protect our environment. The Parliamentary inquiry into koalas found they’ll become extinct before 2050 unless urgent action is taken. But time and time again, the Liberals and Nationals prove they just don’t care.”

Goodbye Hawk’s Nest?

How can you have declarations of ‘Core Koala Habitat’ (under SEP 44 – Koala habitat protection), a declaration of an ‘Endangered Koala Population’, and an ‘Official Koala Recovery Plan’, which are supposed to include Koala Habitat protection and rehabilitation, when at North Hawks Nest there seems to be gradual ongoing destruction of the natural environment apparently to reward developers and investors. 

Yet the scientists are telling us that there was up to 83% loss of koalas from North and Mid North Coast forests as a direct result of 2019 / 2020 catastrophic bushfires.

But at North Hawks Nest the push is on to get rid of the remaining Koalas.

Soon A Tarnished Jewel?

Once a place of natural beauty, the Hawks Nest area is now a multi million dollar pawn in the race to bury a significant jewel and its wildlife beneath concrete and glass luxury dwellings. 

Some property owners who have been hanging out for this land to be developed since they invested in the area decades ago, have either given up, moved on, or live in hope as the promises of massive development come and go. 

It’s been quite a cast of colourful characters over the years including support from John Howard on behalf the Myall Koala Group, and notorious murder victim Michael McGurk who was connected to one developer. 

Former GM of MidCoast Council, Glenn Handford was then the Director of Planning Services at Great Lakes Council when there was significant interest in the Hawks Nest land.  

So far nothing has gone ahead, it could be that the Council Contributions required on a sale are too prohibitive for most developers . . . until a White Knight comes along. 

Koala Country 

This area has always been the land of koalas, the calm creatures symbolic of Australia’s unique wildlife.  

Yet there is also another DA application pending around the corner from Mungo Brush Road, in Sanderling Avenue, east of the Hawks Nest Golf Club, for a four story development of apartments in an area zoned medium density which permits 12m height limit. Four stories requires more than that height. The proposed development backs onto the beach with expansive views over Providence Bay and associated islands. Again this is still an area within the perimeter of the Endangered Koala population.

Councils Role

Councils exist to fund community projects with assistance from ratepayers and the government. 

But the great divide between the NIMBYS, the environmentalists, developers and investors, and the rest of us, is a quandary the whole country faces, be it koalas – and all wildlife, fracking, mining or access to  water for starters. 

For me, the pandemic, the bushfires and disillusionment in this government and many politicians, has brought home other priorities; the need for nature, to value family and friends, pleasure in a more simple life, but also a fear for our future. 

We’ve lost so much. Crammed cement cities, corruption accepted as a given, no compromise when it comes to development – every square inch of ground must be filled. Space for a garden, a veggie patch, a backyard pool, a shady tree with a swing, there’s no room for such things when every inch is measured in dollars to the money men. So we end up with no privacy, eaves touching, and no peace. 

So what brave Council is going to find the balance between profit over species protection, especially when there is always the possibility of the Welcome Mat going out for anyone turning up on Council’s doorstep with a big development application in hand, money in their fist. 

What Are They Thinking!

So what will all this mean for, in particular, the Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens Endangered Koala population?

Senator Sarah Hansen-Young and vocal celebrities like Jimmy Barnes and Olivia Newton-John are speaking out to fight to protect our Koalas before they’re gone. 

Meanwhile landowners and developers line up at Council.

Some landowners, impatient and out of sight, have taken to secretly and illegally removing koala trees from their land.

So while one hoped “koala karma” might strike them,  the government has stepped in and loosened the laws -which only benefits the money men.  

If we have learned nothing else from this locked down time of pandemic, it is to treasure what we know are important priorities; family, health, quietude, nature, friends, home cooking and gardening, be it a pot on a window sill, and an awareness of the world around us  and how fragile we all are and how short our time. 

Hawks Nest, this quiet “backwater” of NSW, is now being watched. Carefully. What happens here, in an Endangered Koala Habitat, in one of the most beautiful unspoiled sites on the NSW seaboard, could set an alarming precedent for everywhere in the country. 

DM

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