Koalas are our national treasure

Opinion: Published in Byron Shire News 

8 March

Tamara Smith
Member for Ballina


Koalas are a national treasure – so why are we forcing them into extinction locally?

Koalas are one of our most precious iconic species, an animal entwined with our national identity around the world. The upcoming Gold Coast Commonwealth Games uses a koala as its mascot but in NSW they are a vulnerable species, rapidly declining in numbers due to native forest clearing and logging and face ever increasing habitat destruction from roads and urban sprawl.

Just last week The NSW Nature Conservation Council obtained documents under freedom of information that show the NSW Environment Minister was warned in August 2017 by her own department that the Liberal/National government’s changes to the state’s biodiversity protection laws would cause a massive spike in habitat destruction and risk the viability of many threatened species!

On his first day as Federal Environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg approved the Pacific Highway upgrade route through Meerschaum Vale near Wardell. The route goes straight through a significant koala colony known as the Ballina 200 and huge numbers of trees used by koalas for food and shelter were recently cut down. The route will actually make a driver’s journey longer as it winds inland through what used to be forest and farmland instead of following the current Pacific Highway route.

The koala plan the NSW government put in place to try to convince the public that the local koala population would be protected mostly consists of electronic signs near roads, fencing and wooden ramps. Koala experts in the area and across the northern rivers are calling for a detailed monitoring program of the koalas near Meerschaum Vale to actually assess the impact of the massive land clearing currently underway.

The signs warning motorists to slow down have been in place on Wardell Road and Bagotville Road for months now – but if you hit a koala with a vehicle at 100 km/hour, 80 km/hour or 60 km/hour it is still going to die or suffer serious injury. What koalas need are safe crossings and established tree corridors that enable them to move away to find more food sources.

The Nationals Roads Minister recently told the media that 130 hectares of trees are being planted to offset the rainforest area that has been razed to make way for the highway through Meerschaum Vale. But what she neglected to say was that these trees when planted will be barely saplings! Koalas won’t be able to climb them or feed from them for many years. In the meantime koalas have been found starving and disorientated near Wardell and Meerschaum Vale because their habitat has been destroyed.

Wildlife campaigner Sue Arnold posted photos on Facebook showing a field put aside for the replacement trees that Roads Minister Melinda Pavey used as a defence in the media. The field is marked with a sign that says “NSW Government” and “Koala Food Tree Plantation” – and it is empty. Koalas can’t live on grass.

My Greens colleague Dawn Walker MLC is campaigning for a Great Koala National Park near Coffs Harbour to try to help reverse the halving of koala populations on the North Coast over the past 20 years. The proposed Park area contains an estimated 20 per cent of New South Wales’ remaining wild koala population. If we want wild koala populations to survive we need to support such a park.

What can we do as a community? Write to me about your concerns for koalas so that I can make representations on your behalf to the RMS and Environment Ministers. Take part in a Koala Watchers information workshop run by Friends of the Koala so that you know what to do if you see a koala you think might be in distress. The next workshop is on Saturday 10 March 9.30am at Broken Head Hall.

Donate to local wildlife rescue organisations and help them set up a local wildlife rescue hospital.
I’m proud to be sponsoring the Bangalow Koalas organisation’s tree planting day at 49 Tristania Street Bangalow on 24 March at 9am. Everyone is welcome to come along and plant 1,400 new trees to extend the wildlife corridor around Bangalow and give local koalas a future habitat.

The NSW Government is failing our local koala populations but the community is responding, with protests, with wildlife rescue groups, koala workshops and habitat planting. Thank you for all that you do to protect the koala, we just need our government to do the same.