Will anybody save Western Sydney’s rare koalas?

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South-west Sydney is home to the only disease-free koala colony in New South Wales. These rare healthy koalas are currently dying at an alarming rate on two main roads. So why hasn’t this tragedy been stopped?

A peaceful rally was held on Sunday 3rd June 2018 at Oswald Reserve in Western Sydney to lobby for change. Rally organiser Ricardo Lonza explained: “We want wildlife fencing, overpasses and underpasses along known wildlife hotspots on Appin Road and any new developments. We also want important wildlife habitat and corridors to be protected.” However, no one who attended the rally seemed to have the authority to implement these changes.

Protesters gathered at Oswald Reserve in June 2018 to help protect the koala population in south-west Sydney.

Our dark koala past

In the early 1900s koalas were hunted almost to extinction for their pelts, which were very popular on the international fur trade. In a single year in 1902, approximately 600,000 koala pelts were sold from NSW alone. Koala hunting was outlawed in NSW soon after.

In Queensland, koala hunting continued until 1927 when approximately 800,000 koalas were killed in what came to be known as “black August.” Public outcry followed and ended the trade in Queensland. When hunting ceased, koala populations had dropped to just a few thousand across all states.

The current situation

Koalas were listed as vulnerable to extinction in NSW in 2012. There are currently approximately 330,000 wild koalas nationally. They are fighting multiple threats including habitat destruction, disease, poor genetic diversity, motor vehicles and wild dogs.

A colony of approximately 300 koalas near Campbelltown in South West Sydney is the only disease-free colony in NSW. However, the koala death toll on Appin Road alone has reached 22 in just under three years, including nine in less than three months from March to May 2018.

The colony’s habitat spans the local government areas of Campbelltown, Wollondilly and Liverpool. In the Campbelltown area it is cut by Appin Road which has not been fitted with appropriate wildlife fencing, overpasses and underpasses. In Wollondilly Shire, there is a similar problem on Picton Road. In the Liverpool area, a new freight transport hub has also caused habitat loss and koala deaths.

“The main threat is continuing development in the south of the local government area without making proper investment in infrastructure to protect koalas and other threatened species,” stated Campbelltown councillor Ben Moroney.

Koalas need to roam on the ground to move between trees and find food, water and mates. While they are on the ground, they are at risk of motor vehicle collisions and dog attacks. Young males in particular must walk long distances to find new mates that they are not related to. This increases their risk of injury and death.

Map showing Mount Gilead Estate development (Image: Mt Gilead Planning Proposal Campbelltown City Council January 2015.)

How it’s getting worse near Campbelltown

A large housing development of approximately 1,700 dwellings has recently been approved for Mount Gilead Estate, which straddles Appin Road and contains key koala corridors between the Georges and Nepean Rivers. The agenda of the March 2018 meeting of the Campbelltown City Council indicates that the development could be expanded to contain up to 10,000 dwellings.

The development at Mount Gilead Estate would require local roads to carry between 4,250 and 25,000 extra cars. A new rail line has also been proposed, with current plans showing it cut across three koala corridors.

The Mount Gilead development has been approved by the State government despite an independent report conducted in 2015, which recommended the entire Mount Gilead Estate for listing on the State Heritage Register. Parts of Mount Gilead Estate have already been rezoned and developed in the past. The report found that all remaining areas have important wildlife and historic value.

To accommodate the influx of new residents, Appin Road is scheduled to be widened. Plans have not yet been released, and residents are calling for urgent action. They want wildlife fencing installed on both sides of Appin Road, in combination with wildlife overpasses or underpasses. Fencing one side of the road would not be sufficient because koalas attempting to cross in the wrong direction will still be at risk. Providing fencing without overpasses or underpasses may also trap koalas during bushfires.

Campbelltown Member of State Parliament, Greg Warren said: “To put it bluntly, the biggest barrier is a State Government that won’t come to the table on this issue. The Federal Government have committed $50 million towards the upgrade [of Appin Road] … but to date the New South Wales Liberal government have not committed a cent towards the upgrade of the road or  the provision of wildlife protection measures along the road.”

What’s happening in Wollondilly

In the Wollondilly Shire, recent rezoning for housing development in Wilton South has also included an important koala corridor and threatens koalas trying to cross Picton Road.

“The decision to rezone core [koala] habitat in Wilton was a shocking decision by the NSW Government and is definitely not what we want to see happen in the future,” said Wollondilly Councillor Matthew Deeth.

Plans to install fences, overpasses and underpasses on Picton Road have been approved, but construction work has not yet started.

Wollondilly Councillor Matthew Deeth stated: “We need the state government to commit to funding urgent upgrades of Picton and Appin roads now.”

Will the NSW State Government help?

The State Government recently released the NSW Koala Strategy which acknowledges the threatened status of koalas and the importance of protecting them. However, the recent development decisions in the Campbelltown area seem to contradict the principles of this strategy.

When contacted about this issue, Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton directed attention to a press release about the Koala Strategy. It states that $3.3 million will be spent on koala death hotspots including Picton Road in Wollondilly. However, regarding Appin Road, it only states that the NSW Government will “draw up plans” to reduce koala deaths. The press release did not mention the development at Mount Gilead Estate or its potential impact on local koalas.

Wollondilly Councillor Matthew Deeth notes: “We want the NSW Government to defer any further release of land within the Greater Macarthur Growth Area and Wilton Priority Growth Area until it prepares, and finalises, a comprehensive koala conservation management plan for South Western Sydney that protects koalas, and their habitat corridors, throughout the region.”

Local planning advocate Erik Rakowski stated: “The big issue here is taxation without representation. State governments take our money but aren’t listening to what we want. Planning decisions are being made by small, non-representative, unelected panels of development professionals appointed directly by the government, with little to no input from local residents, scientists or other interest groups.”

Local councils don’t have jurisdiction

Appin Road is a state road controlled by the NSW Government. Campbelltown City Council has no authority to make changes to this road, or to approve or reject development applications.

Campbelltown councillor Ben Moroney explained: “Appin Road is a state road. Even if council wants to fill a pothole we need to get permission from the Department of Roads and Maritime Services.”

Wollondilly Councillor Matthew Deeth elaborated: “Unfortunately Appin Road and Picton Road are classified as state roads, which means that council has very little control. The roads minister and the Department of Roads and Maritime Services have been dragging their heels on the issue and frankly it’s not good enough!”

Regarding development approvals, new legislation was introduced in March 2018 so that development applications valued between $5 million and $30 million are now decided by Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs). Each panel consists of three non-elected development professionals and one community member. Applications valued over 30 million dollars go directly to the NSW State Planning Minister. Local councils are not consulted and have no power to veto decisions.

Councillor Deeth commented: “Council also has very little control over rejecting poor planning proposals as the NSW Department of Planning can and will overrule council”.

How Wollondilly Council is fighting for Koalas

Wollondilly councillors have started a petition that will enable them to force debate on these issues in the New South Wales Parliament. They have collected approximately 5,000 signatures, but need 10,000 hard copy signatures to force parliamentary debate.

Matthew Deeth said: “We have one chance to get this right and protect the last disease free koala population in New South Wales. Once it’s gone – it’s gone!”

Liverpool City Council also passed a motion supporting Wollondilly Shire Council and the importance of holding a koala summit to determine an appropriate koala management plan, and how to implement it.

What local residents are doing

Local residents have banded together to fight the development, forming a group called     Save Mount Gilead Inc. They propose that Mount Gilead Estate could instead be developed into an environmentally sustainable eco-tourism business based around farm stays, artist retreats and boutique weddings. Mount Gilead Estate is also a working farm and could offer animal husbandry programs for schools, universities and youth programs.

Save Mount Gilead Inc. has recently commenced legal action challenging the validity of the rezoning of Mount Gilead Estate in the Land and Environment Court.

“This will be a landmark case that will set a precedent for all future planning decisions in the greater Macarthur [region] and beyond,” said Erik Rakowski from Save Mount Gilead Inc. “To be successful, Save Mount Gilead Inc. must maintain sustained legal pressure alongside political pressure. A realistic estimate of legal bills could see costs exceed $100,000.”

How you can help

  • Download the Wollondilly petition today, collect signatures and email or mail to Wollondilly Shire Council
  • Contribute to the Save Mount Gilead Inc. fighting Gofundme
  • Visit the Help Save the Wildlife and Bushlands in Campbelltown Facebook page
  • Contact Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton about your concerns about development in the Campbelltown area. Phone: (02) 9326 1856.
  • Contact Campbelltown City Council and express your concern for the local koala population.  Phone: (02) 4645 4000.

Jostina Basta

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