THE SAD, SORRY SAGA OF HAWKS NEST and TEA GARDENS…

Goodbye Koalas. . .  

Hello developers.

Bush tracks meander through forests of Blackbutt and Banksia, past Paperbarks and Swamp Gums of the eerily beautiful and largely impenetrable Myall River swamps . . .  to pristine white sand beaches, seemingly untouched except for the footprints of the Worimi and Karuah people. 

The ancient tree trunks still harbour cuts from the scars made by the Worimi for their bark fishing canoes. 

The serene beauty, the wildlife and magical setting show nature at her finest.

Exactly Twenty years ago in November 2001, a dedicated woman – Jean Shaw – presented a paper in Canberra to the Conference on the Status of the Koala in 2001. Jean’s article, entitled “The Plight of Koalas in Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens” was to advance the case for a National Koala Act.

A peaceful patch of threatened koala habitat in Hawks Nest

It was an in depth, thoughtful and passionate paper, typical of her long fight to preserve the local natural environment and an attempt to save the Koala habitat of Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens.

Jean is no longer here to know that the fight sadly continues. The Jean Shaw Koala Reserve, just north of the Singing Bridge, is dedicated to her.

Hawks Nest

Hawks Nest is a small, largely beachfront jewel overshadowed by its sister Tea Gardens on the mid north coast of NSW. It was previously home to a significant Koala colony but sadly few, (if any) remain.

Originally, in white settlement times, the Australian Agricultural Company received a Grant of some 464,640 acres over an extensive mid north coast area, with sawmilling operations in the 1870’s and following introduction of the Crown Lands Act of 1884, Conditional Leases were applied for in the Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens areas – particularly in the 1890’s.*

It wasn’t until 1937 when the then Stroud Council built an Art Deco style pavilion that Hawks Nest began to attract intrepid campers. It was an idea ahead of its time and it wasn’t until the 1950’s post war affluence brought renewed tourist interest to the local environs of Jimmy’s Beach, Winda Woppa and Providence Bay. *

Jean Shaw wrote – “I first became interested in koalas when my husband and I moved into this area in 1986 and discovered that we had Koalas roaming around the two villages…. We joined a new group in the village, called the Myall Koala and Environmental Support Group Inc….( It is still operational. Ed.) It was formed in 1989 as a result of a survey of ‘tagging and radio tracking’ of the Koalas in this area by a Professor Ian Hume from the University of Sydney. The Group, newly formed, was to keep track of the tagged and radio collared Koalas in this area to see where they went. When the lady appointed to keep the listings couldn’t go on with the work, I took over in about 1991. I am still doing this today.”

Jean Shaw also wrote that “The funding for the work of Professor Hume was discontinued but we went on with the coordinating of the Koalas. Approx. 23 Koalas were tagged in the study by Professor Hume in Hawks Nest alone. Prof Hume claimed, at the time, that for every 1 Koala seen, you miss 3, so good is their “camouflage” to the average resident.”

Jean continued, “After 4/5years of following the koalas’ movements around the villages, we realised that the Koala was decreasing in numbers. The Tea Gardens Koalas, we woke up to, were being pushed out of the village, by a couple of BIG DEVELOPERS  (Jean’s caps) that had moved into town and were laying flat everything on the edge of the village. Only then, and only then, we started to realise the IMPORTANCE of trees, and a FEW TYPES of trees ONLY, to the Koalas. One developer destroyed the corridor into Tea Gardens from Shearwater, a very much vegetated estate on the hills just out of town, the other developer had cut the corridor from Tea Gardens to Limekilns/Pindimar on the edge of the river downstream from Tea Gardens / Hawks Nest and also on the edge of Port Stephens. The few koalas trapped in the village of Tea Gardens, either died in the village or were relocated to the other side of the river in Hawks Nest.” . . . . .“ We (the Group) started writing to the Local Government, who were not showing a great deal of interest in what we were doing  at that period of time. The Myall Koalas here meant nothing to anyone out of this area. The Group then started ‘lobbying’ the State Government, as this area was one of only a few areas on the coast that had koalas within the village/town area. We lobbied hard and in 1999 the koalas were put on the ENDANGERED LISTING, BUT NOT THEIR FOOD TREES. Development meant trees being cut down and not replaced somewhere on the estate or in the village, with other trees of SIGNIFICANT use to the Koalas. In the meantime we have lost MOST of the koalas because NO action was taken at any level of Govt.  (They were only animals so who cares is the impression we were getting) Or the letters were “buck passed” from one Department to another.

Jean’s husband died in 1997 but she increasingly devoted herself to fighting for the koalas.

Jean continues in her conference paper . . .

Last year 2000, on Koala Day, a developer put many large pieces of machinery onto a 3 hectare block of ground in Hawks Nest adjacent to the bridge and cleared it in three days.”

Jean Shaw then discussed this environmental vandalism where a report had stated, “It is highly likely, given the vegetation on this site and regular sightings of koalas in the vicinity, that the land should rightfully be considered “core koala Habitat” as per State Environmental Planning Policy No 44 – Koala Habitat Protection, thus requiring the preparation of an individual Koala Plan of Management prior to Council issuing development consent.

But by November 2001 Jean concludes –

MAY GOD FORGIVE US FOR WHAT IS HAPPENING – BUT THE ANIMALS OF ALL SPECIES WERE HERE BEFORE US. WE SHOULD BE LOOKING AFTER THEM, FOR FUTURE GENERATION TO SEE. NOT DESTROYING EVERYTHING.”

Jean wrote a series of questions to herself some twenty years ago – 

Why have they put the koalas on the endangered listing but NOT their food trees?

Why has the “Coastal Policy” not been made the law?

The fine imposed on the developer for the massive under scrubbing was not HARD enough!

With our Koalas on the endangered list in Hawks Nest/Tea Gardens by State government why is there not an official Koala Inspector employed to asses all development applications in this area?

Why is there no koala act to protect our national symbol?

And why is SEPP 44 not enforced strongly?”

Decades on Jean’s questions remain mostly unanswered today. 

What’s Changed?

So after 20 years plus there could soon be more awareness that all is not as it should be in Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens. 

 With the influx of real estate agents, developers (some perhaps questionable, some up front about its potential riches), retirees, city escapees, and those who fell in love with what they thought to be a nature lovers’ paradise, mean not only the koalas lose, we all lose. 

We lose some of the most precious and rare landscape and wildlife in the state. For what?

Is our Council complicit or, being so far away in Taree, just unaware of what’s going on in Hawks Nest?

Highrises

Sadly the ongoing destructive development of the original Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens coastal environment is also happening elsewhere. Highrise luxury units (and some cheap and nasty lookalikes) appear to be spreading from Sydney to join with the Gold Coast.

But there are many locals still prepared to fight on. But they cannot wait another twenty years. There will only be a concrete jungle. … “with stunning beach and island views (from YOUR High Rise Apartment) – (One developer’s sales brochure pitch).

Environmental issues at Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens are central in this ongoing war to save what remains of our natural beauty, wildlife and habitat. It is a war that has secretly raged for decades around Australia. 

Twenty odd years ago hopeful investors bought plots of land in Hawks Nest hoping to be in on the ground floor when the expected promises of development and tourism eventuated. Many have died, given up or just sat on their land.

Prior to the disastrous amalgamation with Greater Taree City Council, the former Great Lakes Council removed from consideration the Hawks Nest Koala Plan of Management (2001) – a document that was prepared using ratepayers money and public monies from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. This document was never resolved by Council.

It appears to have disappeared. 

Illegal Clearing

Today much of the original North Hawks Nest landholdings are still “undeveloped”- save for recent under-scrubbing and clearing of land despite being designated as “core koala habitat” under SEPP 44 in the Statutory North Hawks Nest Public Inquiry Report (2002).

Yet MidCoast Council granted a fence clearing permit in 2020 to remove trees on a North Hawks Nest property that’s declared ‘core koala habitat’ under SEPP 44 – Koala Habitat Protection.

It appears if a landowner clears the trees and removes by under scrubbing all manner of vegetation, then he/she won’t have any ‘environmental problems’ to affect future Development Applications to Council.

This is wrong.

A handful of those original land buyers remain, still holding out in hope of selling for a big profit, while new vultures circle.

Elizabeth Farrelly   . . .

 . . . who is a respected writer,  former Sydney City Councillor, architecture critic, essayist, columnist and speaker on aesthetics and ethics; design, public art and architecture; urban and natural environments; society and politics, throws in her two cents worth in a recent column in The Sydney Morning Herald –

“Even the black summer fires, which killed maybe 4000 koalas, weren’t the worst. For decades, the main threat to koalas has been habitat loss. From 2017, when the NSW government replaced the Native Vegetation Act with the cynically named Biodiversity Conservation Act, land clearing soared and koala numbers plummeted.

“Australia, despite its reputation for wilderness, has one of the developed world’s highest land-clearing rates. It also has one of the highest rates of extinction. Those dots are not hard to join. Within Australia, NSW is the worst land clearer. Before 2017, our yearly average was 38,000 hectares; in 2019, according to the government’s own report, that almost doubled to 60,800.

But it’s not just about quantity. The idea that “habitat” is a green splodge on a map, easily replaced with another green splodge, is the simplistic idiocy that generated the whole bio-banking “offsets” farce.

Koalas need connectivity. They have home ranges, attachments to particular trees, but they also need to move – to escape fire and to live, breed, expand their gene pool and maintain disease resistance. Stuck in a dead end – known as a “koala sink” – they mope and dwindle.”

When it comes to Hawks Nest/ Tea Gardens the prime koala habitat was quickly diminished once those characters with an eye to the main chance happened upon it. 

The list of names, (some now convicted and sentenced by the Courts), the notorious Michael McGurk –(murdered in 2009), there’s an ongoing police investigation linked to landholdings along Mungo Brush Road, dubious land deals and multi-multi-multi million dollar plans to develop beach and island view blocks of luxury units in sleepy Hawks Nest. The plans and machinations all read like a novel.

Indigenous Land

Many in the Karuah Local Aboriginal Land Council and community are not happy at losing some of their landholdings to developers instead of it remaining in their community. They fear their lands being “taken” by devious manipulations of too-smart, cashed up whitefellas.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the battle lines stand the rest of us – the community, country and city people, who realise the tragedy of losing such pristine landscapes. Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens are places that we can all share if development is sensitive and treads lightly to showcase its pretty villages surrounded by rare, endangered and stunning nature. 

Environmental Drawcard

The rarity of such places being kept unspoilt, with sensitive eco-camping, like Myall River Camp, will ever remain a far bigger drawcard against glass tower blocks cramming the coastline, crowded caravan parks, mobile homes, luxury “investment” houses, or holiday homes jammed check by jowl without trees or yards or gardens. 

This is not to exclude affordable housing which, if creatively designed and eco friendly, can blend into a bushland setting yet be safe and near to amenities. There are surprising and stunning examples of such homes (which we will explore in future editions) which are part of a mixed community rather than an “estate.”

Endangered Koala Plan

The Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens koalas were declared an Endangered Koala Population in 1999, only the second koala population in NSW to receive this protection. 

There’s an Official Recovery Plan for the Endangered  Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens Koala Population dated 2003. Nothing has happened.

The Commissioner, Dr. Mark Carleton, who undertook the 2001 Statuary Public Inquiry into the Ecological Significance of land covered by the North Hawks Nest Draft Local Environmental Study – which concentrated on issues faced by Koalas, made a Recommendation to update the Koala Plan of Management.

This was a document with the Full Title ‘Draft Koala Plan of Management for Hawks Nest Village and North Hawks Nest dated May 2001 that had been placed before the then Great Lakes Council. It had been prepared at great expense using Public monies supplied by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and ratepayers monies in Great Lakes Shire. It was also a document that had to be prepared as a result of determinations of ‘Core Koala Habitat’ made under SEPP 44 – Koala Habitat Protection upon Government and private North Hawks Nest landholdings.

This document –“Draft Koala Plan of Management for Hawks Nest Village and North Hawks Nest” dated May 2001 was placed before the then Great Lakes Council. It had been prepared at great expense using Public monies supplied by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and ratepayers monies in Great Lakes Shire. It was a document prepared as a result of determinations of ‘Core Koala Habitat’ made under SEPP 44 – Koala Habitat Protection upon Government and private North Hawks Nest landholdings. 

The document seems to have disappeared.

So how do you bury and remove what should have become a statutory document from ever being considered again by the former Great Lakes Council (now amalgamated into MidCoast Council)?

What are the MidCoast Councillors doing about the Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens Koala matters – now some 20 years after Jean Shaw’s impassioned speech?

The answer is they are approving plans to develop land in the sensitive and beautiful area of Hawks Nest, starting with Sanderling Avenue. 

Only one MidCoast Councillor, Peter Epov from Wingham, did vote against the controversial Sanderling Avenue development several times, and has taken the time to investigate the issue, making a dozen visits down to Tea Gardens, Hawks Nest and North Arm Cove over the past two years, commented,

“I am really concerned at the proposed over-development of Tea Gardens, Hawks Nest and North Arm Cove, and the impact both on the local residents, and the pristine environment that includes our precious Koala’s, but on this issue I have been a single voice in the wilderness.  The area needs to have strong local representation on Council.”

The Endangered Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens Koala Population has been all but wiped out.

Some call it ‘Progress’.

But as Jean Shaw asked in 2001 “Why is there NO ONE in any tier of Government, from top to bottom interested in saving our endangered koala ?? They should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.”

Jean is right.

What do we tell our children?

DM

*See “HAWKS NEST …a Bird’s Eye View” by Janis Winn. 2018

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1 Comments

  • This excellent article follows the ABC 4 Corners program on the Obeid family’s plans to build a 4 story resort between the Hawks Nest golf course and the Hawks Nest pristine beach. It would appear that the purchase of the required land, and the Mid Coast Council’s approval process leaves a lot of questions to be answered. The Mid Coast Council, in true form, has not been vigorous in its obligation to fully inform the residents of Hawks Nest as to the Obeid’s planning proposal, nor have they vigorously sort written submissions [objections] to this planning proposal.
    I would suspect that the need to protect the Hawk Nest koalas is not mentioned anywhere in the Obeid’s planning proposal.

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