Gary Dunnett, Executive Officer, NPA NSW
The koala populations of NSW were decimated during the first quarter of the 20th century by commercial hunting for the fur trade. Many local populations were pushed towards or into extinction. We’re now nearly a hundred years since the peak of commercial hunting and many areas, especially in the south-eastern corner of the State, remain largely bereft of koalas. In other places, especially those with limited accessibility, such as the military lands in southwestern Sydney and the dense forests of the northeast, koala populations staged major recoveries after the cessation of commercial harvesting.
Unfortunately, that recovery had largely come to an end by the 1970s as habitat loss from coastal development, agricultural clearing and forestry, along with increasing mortality due to collisions with motor vehicles, dog attacks and infectious diseases, all took their toll on local koala populations. The result is that, as we approached 2021, the NSW Upper House Inquiry into the future of koalas in NSW concluded that, without significant change in the way we protect koalas and their habitats, the species will become functionally extinct (ie incapable of maintaining viable local populations) in NSW within the next 50 years.
It has long been recognised that wide-ranging species such as koalas are poorly served by the site-based assessments used in development applications. Koala populations are mobile and can only be conserved at the regional scale. As a consequence, koalas require protective mechanisms that operate at a regional scale. This is the reason why koalas have received special treatment under planning laws, initially through State Environmental Planning Policy 44 (SEPP 44). The objective of SEPP 44 was to ensure that, wherever a development might impact on habitats that were suitable for koalas, survey and assessment was conducted before any development approvals were issued. Like all planning policies, SEPP 44 didn’t prohibit development in core koala habitat, it simply gave approval authorities legitimate grounds for refusing developments that might have a significant impact on koalas.
One of the key mechanisms within SEPP 44 was the identification of tree species which were recognised as important food resources for koalas. No-one suggested that the species listed in SEPP 44 were comprehensive, but they were a very useful starting point for the assessment of a site’s potential value to koalas. Two years ago, the NSW Government commenced a major review of SEPP 44, supposedly for the purpose of updating the protective mechanisms within the policy and refining the list of potential koala food trees. When the draft revised list was publicly exhibited it expanded the list of potential habitat trees threefold.
The exhibition of the draft SEPP drew an immediate response from the NSW Nationals, who argued that the changes would stop rural landholders from undertaking routine agricultural activities such as the construction of fences and work sheds. Commentary at the time suggested that their concerns were equally about the ability of landholders around regional centres to circumvent the normal planning laws applying to subdivision and change of land use. In any case, the leader of the Nationals and Deputy Premier, John Barillaro, and Planning Minister, Rob Stokes, began a protracted and often public debate about the revised SEPP, which culminated with the Deputy Premier threatening to withdraw his party from the Coalition.
Rather than resolve the matter through another iteration of the koala SEPP, in 2020, Agriculture Minister, Adam Marshall introduced an amendment to the Local Land Services Act. While ostensibly unrelated to the Koala SEPP, the amendment would have had the effect of lifting the application of the SEPP to rural lands, effectively removing all statutory protections for koalas. Despite public protestations from senior Liberal figures that they had been deceived by the proposed amendment, it passed through the lower house and was only defeated when Liberal MLC Catherine Cusack crossed the floor, earning sharp criticism and a demotion by the Premier.
A few months later the Government passed a heavily revised version of the koala SEPP. The following article by the EDO explains how the new SEPP will operate and its implications for the protection, and survival, of koalas in NSW. In short, koalas have never been in a more precarious position in NSW, and notwithstanding the stated aspiration of the NSW Environment Minister to double their numbers, are facing extinction. NPA’s campaign to establish the Great Koala National Park and bring the logging of native forests to an end in NSW has never been more important for the future of this iconic Australian.