Koala SEPP 'no impact' says ecologist

Koala policy should back landholders

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New state legislation aimed at helping the koala through land use reform, will have miniscule impact on private native forestry and crown reserve logging, argues wildlife ecologist Steve Phillips. But be warned - the Aussie icon faces extinction under current primary production practice.

New state legislation aimed at helping the koala through land use reform, will have miniscule impact on private native forestry and crown reserve logging, argues wildlife ecologist Steve Phillips. But be warned - the Aussie icon faces extinction under current primary production practice.

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Frustrating new laws surrounding what can and can't be done on known koala country will have minute impact on rural practice but management must change if our Aussie icon is to survive.

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In a week when the Federal lower house voted to to push environmental responsibility onto the states, NSW Farmers has called on the premier to partner with farmers to help save koalas, rather than impose a big legislative stick.

The call coincides in part with the message of one independent koala ecologist who worries that a new State Environmental Planning Policy - with its "ridiculous" list of key habitat trees including she-oaks and bloodwoods - will lead to a distrust of process and could set back koala conservation by decades.

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NSW Farmers' President James Jackson said farmers have knowledge, commitment and ability to continue to look after koalas on farms, and government should be supporting them in taking these steps.

"Farmers in NSW are at the forefront of showing how koala conservation and farming can and do co-exist through conservation projects, vegetation management and hazard reduction," Mr Jackson said.

Long established koala researcher Dr Steve Phillips, Biolink at Eureka on the Tweed, agrees with that premise in part, saying the current SEPP could do more harm to the koala by creating distrust between city bureacrats and country landholders mainly because of the enormous number of tree species deemed key koala habitat.

Dr Phillips says tree species that might trigger development suspension under the new policy should be limited to the primary and secondary food trees described in the NSW Recovery Plan for the Koala, released in 2008.

"That would create a very workable model for the whole state, Dr Phillips said.

However, rural landholders should not fear the legislation because in the bush it has no teeth, and can't be triggered unless a development application is lodged with a local council.

Meanwhile, its impact on private native forestry and logging on Crown Land will be negligible, as those activities are governed by codes, not the SEPP. Dr Phillips points out those codes are designed for timber production rather than conservation.

Of course, doing nothing different will result in an unacceptable outcome for the koala.

The ecologist, with four decades experience in the field, warns the Aussie icon is well down the road to extinction with a wave of population loss first recorded in western Queensland now deep into New South Wales, south of the Pilliga, where numbers have crashed since the late 1990s. Now the scourge is affecting Gunnedah and the Liverpool Plains.

Coastal habitat, the last stronghold, is under threat from peri-urban expansion and that is where the SEPP is designed to have a direct impact, he says.

However the intense bush fires of the last 12 months have potentially exterminated as much as two thirds of previously remaining breeders struggling to hang on in scattered population strongholds.

He also argues that there is not a lot of room for profitable logging and koalas to co-exist room for logging for profit and koala survival to exist in a compatible way.

A critical aspect of koala survival is the age of trees that matter to the marsupial, with a girth of Eucalypts like Grey Gum needing to be at least 300mm diametre at breast height, with an age around 60 years, before their leaves grow to be less toxic - a survival mechanism when plants are young.

Older trees are necessary for koala health but these are exactly the age when timber harvesting is most desirable.

Managing a forest where every second tree might be taken away followed by a rest before the next harvest of 150 years could work in the koala's favour but not likely in the way a private landholder might hope to profit.

"We are saying plantation forestry is the way of the future, not native forestry," he says. "We are saying get out of native forests, you are killing them."

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