The 3rd National Koala Conference was held recently in Port Macquarie. It was a wrenching experience. The Conference heard of critical population declines, effects of disease and natural disasters, unmitigated threatening processes, lack of meaningful action and a complete absence of political will. 

And the conference was punctuated by the distressing observation that the koalas around Gunnedah are now so parlous as to be “functionally extinct”.  This impassive term means that so few koalas capable of breeding are present, that complete collapse and loss of the population is all but inevitable. And it has only been 20-years since Gunnedah had proudly decried itself as the “koala capital of the world”.  

The Koala is a national icon, a wild treasure, and a biological marvel. Its physiological adaptations and ecology mean it can thrive on a low moisture, low nutrient eucalypt leaf diet.  It is essentially and uniquely Australian. The koala should endear understanding and respect.  It should empower us. And it should unite. 

But it doesn’t.

It is clear that koala protection policy and action is a highly and perversely politicised space.  Disputes over the content of koala protection policy threatened to split the coalition when in power in NSW in 2020. It was referred to as the “koala war”. Farmer Ian Turnbull murdered government worker Glen Turner as he investigated the clearing of some of the last koala habitat on land around Croppa Creek in north-western NSW. These types of landholders view the koala as a personal economic threat; a handbrake, and a burden to their agriculture, their land uses and their developments. It highlights the divide of selfish individualism versus the common good. 

Viewed pragmatically, the victim of this perverse theatre of politics, opposition and adversarialism is the koala itself. The way things are going, we will lose them.

I will say something which some may find to be quite novel, and perhaps controversial here – something lost in all the noise. Developers can develop economically; foresters can log profitably and farmers can farm effectively and commercially whilst at the same time, koalas can be conserved and recovered in the wild! But it depends on some compromises and moderation.  And respect. 

In the politically charged adversarial society we make for ourselves; there is a sense that extremism will provide the competitive advantage in the eventual achievement of our goals. For the conservationist it is that all logging of native forests must cease! For the farmer it is all trees are bad and must be cleared! Where does this get us? It is perpetually diminishing and divisive.  And it is irrational and counter-productive too.  Farms are far more economic with paddock trees and areas of bushland because of the shade and windbreaks they provide. Steep land costs more to maintain as pasture through expenses associated with regeneration suppression than they provide in grazing production dollar returns.

The MidCoast Council’s koala program is called the Safe Spaces Program. From what I’ve seen it might well be the right approach. It is based on working with public land managers and private landholders to provide safe, well-managed habitat for koalas to live, breed and move. It is a science-driven approach; find out where koalas live and where the best habitats are and manage these spaces to reduce koala stress and threats. Create new koala habitat with informed biodiverse plantings. Plant new corridors across the landscape. Address threats proactively using a landscape approach. Reduce the incidence of road kills and dog attacks. Manage disease by limiting stress. 

And developers can appropriately develop, farmers can farm, and foresters can log in a sensitive, strategic and well-planned environment. And they can respect the koala and incorporate some of their needs within their land use frameworks. But developers need to use their due diligence well; avoiding conflicted spaces. They should deliver environmental outcomes in their developments and at the same time receive the economic and social license benefits of that. Prospective farmers should purchase existing grazing land, rather than think they can renovate native bushland regrowth on unproductive land, and then enhance their returns and productivity with the quality of their pasture, stock genetics and operational efficiencies.

The elephant in the room is the vegetation and bushfire clearing laws in NSW. The biggest roadblock to the Koala Safe Spaces Program remains the clearing of habitat. The Regional Partnership will deliver significant koala investment. Replanting a koala forest on cleared land costs up to $8,000 per hectare in establishment and initial nurturing, on top of land acquisition cost of say $6,000 per hectare.  Acquiring and planting a new forest on 40-hectares could cost more than $0.5M in the first two years.  The planted trees would be about 50cm tall and a decade or two away from being secure, mature koala habitat. Yet, tens of hectares are cleared across the MidCoast; sometimes lawfully and sometimes unlawfully, but without prosecution or penalty. 

MidCoast Council itself needs to substantially expand the areas protected by its own tree clearing rules, not fell mature trees and enforce the rules.

A collegiate approach, based on respect and balance is important. But, strategically avoiding the deforestation of key forests must be the first step in securing the conservation of Australia’s wildlife icon, the koala. Incentivising deforestation appears to be a key tool.

John Watts 

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