The Pilliga – Protect or Plunder?

Lynne Hosking, President Armidale NPA

“The Pilliga Forest has long been recognised as one of the most important areas for biodiversity in eastern Australia”

Narrabri Shire.

Homeland of the Gomeroi (Gamilaraay) people, The Pilliga gained attention in the 1980’s with the publication of Eric Roll’s book, A Million Wild Acres.

Located between the Warrumbungle Dark Sky National Park (the only IDA[1] dark sky park in Australia) and the Nandewar Ranges, The Pilliga forests cover an area of approximately 500,000 hectares and now consitute the largest surviving remnant of native forest in the predominantly cleared Brigalow Belt South Bioregion. It is a National Biodiverity Hotspot and a globally listed Important Bird Area, now Key Biodiversity Area, with over 230 recorded bird species. These include threatened species: Grey-crowned Babbler, Speckled Warbler, Varied Sitella, Brown Tree-creeper, Little Lorikeet, Turquoise Parrot, Glossy Black Cockatoo, Diamond Firetail, Masked Owl, Barking Owl & critically endangered Swift Parrot and Regent Honeyeater.

There are over nine hundred plant species with ten threatened plant species; seven migratory species (EPBC Act); twenty seven threatened animal species (BC Act and EPBC Act) and three endangered ecological communities (BC Act and EPBC Act). Threatened species include Pilliga Mouse, Squirrel Glider, Pygmy Possum, Spotted-tailed Quoll, Corbens Long-eared Bat, Black-striped Wallaby, Pale-headed Snake and Koala. Sixty three butterfly species flit around the forest with seven hill-top species choosing fire towers as well as high ground to conduct their courting.

The Pilliga is indeed a National treasure, a place of discovery and wonder with new species continuing to be discovered, as for example stygofauna in the acquifers.

It is a cultural landscape shared by Aboriginal and non Aboriginal residents and a place where, as Armidale NPA visitors over the last twenty years, we have been made welcome and have made lasting friendships. In adddition to providing habitat for the marvellously mysterious stygofauna, the underground aquifers of The Pilliga are a vital recharge source of water for the Great Artesian Basin.

A complex mix of land ownership and management

Land tenure is complex in The Pilliga, consisting of freehold land, Forestry Corp state forests, Crown travelling stock routes, Crown leases and NPWS estate managed as national parks (NP), nature reserves (NR), state conservation areas (SCA) and Aboriginal Areas (AA). For the latter, NPWS enters into MoUs[2] with the Gawambaraay Pilliga Co-management committee, who are Elders and representatives of local Aboriginal communities.

 In 2005 the Brigalow and Nandewar Community Conservation Area (CCA) was created and divided into several zones. Zone 1 CCAs are reserved as ‘national parks primarily to conserve nature and cultural heritage and provide opportunities for appropriate and sustainable recreation’, for example Timmallallie CCAZ1NP. Zone 2 protects places of significance to Aboriginal people eg Dandry Gorge CCAZ2 AA.

Zone 3 enables land that is “important for its mineral values, but which also has significant natural and cultural heritage values, to be reserved under the National Parks and Wildlife Act and managed for conservation, public appreciation and enjoyment”, without unnecessarily restricting mining and exploration activity eg Pilliga East CCAZ3SCA. The intention of the SCA category is to reserve lands ‘only where conservation values and mineral values do not allow for reservation under any other reserve category, such as national park or nature reserve’ (Minister for the Environment, Second Reading Speech, December 2001). The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and the Department of Trade and Investment, Regional Infrastructure and Services work together to ensure that ‘any exploration or mining activities proposed in SCAs are subject to rigorous environmental impact assessment, while also allowing the mining industry to have the access needed to carry out its business’. Pursuant to the National Park Estate (South Western Cypress Reservations) Act 2010 and the Brigalow and Nandewar Community Conservation Area Act 2005, the status of the land was reviewed to determine which areas should remain as SCA and which areas should be reserved as national park, having regard to evidence of mineral values of the land and are subject to review of classification every 5 years in consultation with the Minister administering the Mining Act.

Thus we find, snuggled between Ukerbarley AA and a parcel of Pilliga NR, that the Ukerbarley SCA is subject to mineral exploration and mining as is potentially Pilliga CCAZ3SCA where the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) has an area of 35,632 hectares and within this, have a fenced enclosure of 5,800 hectares for their re-wilding program.

Competing land uses threaten biodiversity values

There are many threats to the integrity of The Pilliga. Under the Biodiversity Conservation Act (2016), fragmentation is recognised as a Key Threatening Process. Yet current Santos coal seam gas and Whitehaven long-wall coal mining operations are causing forest fragmentation from roads, well pads, pipelines and clearing for coal mine methane vents. Additional destruction stems from chemical spills, air pollution from methane gas, the depletion of ground water & potential poisoning of recharge aquifers affecting the Great Artesian Basin. There is also increased fire risk from gas flares burning 24 hours per day, even during total fire-ban periods, and light sky pollution. The latter has negative impacts on the behaviour and survival of some animal species, especially birds; and affects Sidings Springs Observatory astronomy and tourism, vital for Coonabarabran.

Petroleum Exploration Licences (PELs) are held by Santos under all The Pilliga except for those areas protected in national parks, nature reserves and Aboriginal Areas, which constitute only about 30% of The Pilliga.  Santos’ Bohena, Bibblewindi and Dewhurst gas wells are already located in the Pilliga State Forest and the current controversial Narrabri gas project proposes construction of 850 new wells. Santos 2017 EIS received 23,000 responses, with 98% opposed to the project. The NSW Government declared the project to be of State Significance with Commonwealth approval, and an Independent Planning Commission has until 4th September to decide the fate of The Pilliga.

The Pilliga and surrounding areas are wonderful to visit. NPA Armidale Branch always supports local businesses on our trips to The Pilliga and nearby towns. For further information about our excursions and tours of The Pilliga please contact Pat Schultz


Gomeroi custodians and Gawambaraay Pilliga Co-Management Committee, Sky-Earth-Water-Life, Conversations in The Pilliga 9-11 August 2019, visit to Ukerbarley Aboriginal Area, and a forum organised by Armidale NPA. Our thanks to local residents for your welcome and giving of your time to share your knowledge and respect for The Pilliga: Jane Judd, Peter Thompson, Meg Leathart, David Paull, Robert McNaught, Anthony O’Halloran, John Whittall, Leo Butler, Maria Rickert and family, Peter Lawton, Ben Andrews, Peter Brookhouse; Tamworth NPA’s Robin Gunning, and Armidale’s Pat Shultz.

  • [1] International Dark-Sky Association
  • [2] Memoranda of Understanding

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