Community Forum — The Great Koala National Park, Coffs Harbour

Danielle Ryan and James Sherwood, Conservation Campaigners

A Community Forum was held in Coffs Harbour on 28 April, hosted by NPA to spread awareness about the organisation’s proposal for The Great Koala National Park. The event was a great success, booking out before the night. NPA’s park proposal spans from the mountains to the coasts of the Coffs Harbour region, encompassing ancient Gondwanan rainforests and the most diverse tall eucalypt forests on earth. Advocacy for this proposal is about creating a positive vision around transitioning away from unsustainable native forestry logging to ensure critical koala habitat is protected, encompassing about 20 per cent of the state’s koala population.

In the welcome to country, Gumbaynggirr Elder, Auntie Jenny Skinner, said the gathering of people made her feel happy. “The next generation is our future and we have to let them know that we want to ‘keep’ this beautiful land,” said Auntie Jenny.  

The event featured powerful keynote speeches by North East Forestry Alliance’s Dailan Pugh, Ecologist and tour operator Mark Graham, and tour operator and environmental policy expert Graham Tupper. The MC of the night, NPA’s CEO Gary Dunnett, did an excellent job of establishing why the dream of the Great Koala National Park is important and emphasised just how realistic this dream is. NPA’s dream of shifting 140,000 ha from state forests, designated for logging, into national park, might sound like an idealistic, impossible dream to some, but NPA has a proven track record of parks creation. NPA has been a key driver behind proposals to create national parks for over sixty years. Dailan Pugh, in fact, told the audience NPA helped him with his first successful national park proposal in the upper Clarence.

Dailan Pugh’s presentation had a humorous twist to NPA’s proposal for the Great Koala National Park. His speech was about renaming the park entirely. The new name, he envisioned, should be: ‘The Great Koala, Hastings River Mouse, Spotted Tail Quoll, Baird Frog, Rufus Scrub Bird, Clarence River Cod, Greater Glider, Yellow Bellied Glider, Long-nosed Potaroo, Brush Tail Rock Wallaby & Peppered Tree Frog National Park.’ This is because there are so many endangered species in need of large-scale habitat protection.

Both Dailan Pugh and Mark Graham highlighted the value of the Great Koala National Park in relation to water security. This is because logging dries out the landscape.

Mark Graham said the designated area for the park is home to forests which have remained wet for millions of years — forests which are self-sustaining and create their own rainfall.  The region is dependent on clean, reliable water coming from these forests, including for agriculture and fisheries. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of residents depend on the forests for their clean water. Tourism is also dependent on clean healthy water.

 “This is the product that people from around Australia and around the world want. They will pay money to come here. They will provide employment for our youth and sustenance for our economy,” said Mark Graham.

Graham Tupper then honed-in on the tourism benefits of the park from a tourism angle.  He highlighted how tour operators’ livelihoods are built on conservation and protecting nature. This includes his previous tourism business in Canberra, which was only successful because of the popular demand by tourists to see a koala. He demonstrated how support for nature-based tourism spans all sides of politics, such as with bipartisan support in 2006 for the Natural Tourism Partnerships Action Plan.

He articulated how the park could be akin in global status to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, as an iconic drawcard to state and international visitors. He says it is important to remember the story of this Marine Park – there was a proposal in 1967 to mine Ellison reef and between 1968 to 1970 six exploratory oil wells were drilled. At the time, creating a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park must have seemed an impossible dream for the advocates involved. Fortunately, public concern drove the creation of the world’s iconic Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. His speech is a reminder to advocates for the Great Koala National Park to remain forward-looking on their positive vision. Events, such as the Forum, are essential stepping-stones towards mustering the same level of public support for an iconic Great Koala National Park.

The speeches were followed by a federal candidates panel where representatives shared their policy position the park. A couple of representatives clearly shared their support for the Great Koala National Park, while others were unclear about their position. The Greens Tim Nott and Labor Keith McMullen were strongly in favour of the park. Labor shared their position via a statement, as the candidate was unable to attend the forum, saying the creation of the park is a ‘first priority’ action, if the party wins office. Liberal democrat Simon Chaseling wants a ‘balanced approach’ to national parks and forestry but didn’t clearly state he supports the creation of the park. Independent Caz Heise went off topic on a campaign pitch but said she would like to see science-driven decision-making. She never stated directly that she supports the creation of the Great Koala National Park. Meanwhile, Faye Aspiotis from One Nation said she “has always loved koalas and knows that the majority of Australians also hold a soft spot for our iconic koalas’ and wished NPA “every success with the proposed Koala Park venture in Coffs Harbour and trusts that the community will make the right decisions about its future development.”

It was a high-level Q&A conversation which, at last, unfolded. The key theme throughout the Q&A seemed to be the community ‘is not’ being listened to. Many in the audience belonged to local community groups fighting forestry plans to log a section in their immediate area. The key solution put forward by the forum was that it is important for community groups to work together to put pressure on all levels of government to create change. Tim Nott said the best strategy for community is to first approach their local state MP if an area near them is up for development, followed by contacting their federal MP. He noted the federal government has responsibility under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EBPC) Act to protect the koala. If the Federal Government does not respond, then advocates could approach other political representatives, such as the Greens. If they fail to get any traction, then it is important to go to the media, using community strength.

These tips are useful for NPA members generally, who are fighting battles against the State Forestry Corporation. One important tip NPA’s Gary Dunnett shared was that it is helpful to go the Forestry Corporation website and find other coups up for logging and get in touch with those local communities. It is important that local micro groups join with other micro groups.

NPA organised the event in response to a NSW parliamentary inquiry visit into forest products in Coffs Harbour last week. The inquiry went on a site visit of the Great Koala National Park in response to NPA’s submission in 2021.

You can watch a video recording of the forum on NPA NSW’s YouTube channel

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