Long unannounced approval of Pacific Highway dooms Ballina’s koalas

Sadly, no amount of fences, crossings and tree planting can save The Ballina koalas now that the new Australian Environment Minister has approved Section 10 of the Pacific Highway.Tuesday 22 August 2016 will go down as a sad day for koalas and Australian politics.

That was the day we learnt that on the same day he was sworn in as the new Australian Environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg gave the green light to Section 10 of the Pacific Highway.

The fate of Ballina’s koalas was sealed on the 19 July, yet was only made public on the Roads & Maritime Service (RMS) website on 22 August. This in itself goes against the Minister’s conditions of approval where the RMS is required to publish plans within one month of approval.

Despite taking the reins of the environment portfolio only hours earlier, the Minister saw fit to approve the Ballina Koala Plan, effectively signing the death warrant of Ballina’s 200 koalas.

IFAW is dumbfounded as to how the newly appointed Minister could have had time to adequately consider and take into account 10 years’ worth of science, concerns and submissions presented by scientists, koala ecologists, international conservation experts, the Ballina Shire Council, and the local community.

Did the Minister simply choose to sign off on a briefing from the Department and approve the Ballina Koala Plan that evidence suggests will inevitably lead to the extinction of this nationally significant koala population?

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Despite repeated attempts by IFAW to contact the Department, the Minister and even the Prime Minister, no news of the approval was forthcoming.

Even more farcical is the fact that the RMS has publically stated that they were and continue to be transparent when dealing with the Pacific Highway upgrade, yet they held a community meeting in Ballina on Monday 22 August and failed to make any mention of the approval to the very people who have been expressing concerns about the proposed route and its impact on the koalas.

So much for open and honest government!

For the last ten years the NSW Government has ignored mounting evidence against its proposed route that will cut through a nationally significant koala population of around 200 koalas.

There was a glimmer of hope in August 2014 when former Environment Minister Greg Hunt put the brakes on the route, after being presented with population modelling that showed these koalas would be extinct within 20-25 years if the route went ahead. He also received more than 80,000 pleas from people in Australia and around the world to protect this critically important koala population He gave an amber light to the route dependent on a strict set of conditions, one of which was that any impact on koalas was ‘acceptable’.

And for a rare moment, we thought that public sentiment, science, commonsense and compassion may prevail. But alas this was short-lived. The RMS produced its Ballina Koala Plan earlier this year to justify its route. The plan was flawed and manipulated independent science to fit its agenda.

IFAW was so concerned about the manipulation of the science, we sought advice from an international expert Professor Phil Miller of the IUCN’s Conservation Breeding Specialist Group who confirmed our fears and also cast doubt on the RMS science – yet they still motored ahead.

It wasn’t just our concerns that the RMS and Department of Environment ignored, but the many other substantial submissions from the local community including Friends of the Koala, Save Ballina’s Koalas and the local indigenous community.

But these appear to have fallen on deaf ears and the route will go ahead regardless.

Sadly, it’s not just the koalas that will be impacted. The highway upgrade route will cut right through the Blackwall Range Wildlife Corridor, home to over 30 other endangered species including the Long-nosed potoroo. The RMS has already dug up sacred Aboriginal artefact sites and apparently is refusing to provide an alternative keeping place for them. Even though IFAW and partners have been successful in forcing the RMS to increase the wildlife crossings from 6 to 26 and install more fencing, we fear that this is not enough. Ballina’s koalas needed a new route – as there is no U-turn on extinction.

Minister Frydenberg and the RMS have shown the Australian public that they care little for science, public opinion, sacred sites and the survival of a nationally significant population of koalas in Ballina.

Disappointingly our Government has deemed it acceptable that nearly 200 koalas will now face probable extinction. Ironically, over the course of the 10-year campaign to save these koalas, they have become the most studied population and because of this we know so much more about koalas. This already fragile and declining population of animals will literally have its home and food source cut in half by a four-lane highway.

Sadly, no amount of fences, crossings and tree planting can save them.

The population cannot survive such disruption. The road is simply in the wrong place, there was an alternative route which would have been good for the community and koalas – sadly due to the RMS’s blinkered determination to not move the road, means that it’s likely that we will witness the demise of the Ballina 200.

The one thing that IFAW is hopeful about is that now that the Ballina 200 are the most studied koala population, that they’ve garnered both national and worldwide attention, there will be many eyes watching the Australian Government and that the koalas still have friends who will hopefully find other ways to save them.

--JS 

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