The great bulk of new reserves set aside by the Berejiklian government for koala habitat offer no new protection for an animal whose numbers are plummeting in some regions of the state, new mapping analysis shows.
The government last month hailed the release of its $45 million koala strategy as "the biggest commitment by any state" to protect the "national treasure".
But mapping details obtained by environmental groups show 82 per cent of the reserves being set aside were already designated Forest Management Zones offering koalas protection.
Worse, just 2 per cent, or 554 hectares, were deemed high-quality koala habitat according to the government’s own modelling. All of the 12 areas also in the hinterland lie away from the coastal regions that often have the best habitat for the marsupial.
Related content: New koala strategy a sham
Dailan Pugh, spokesman for the North East Forest Alliance, said it was "fraudulent" to pretend that most of the areas extended koala protection. Only two of the 12 had recent records of sightings and four had none.
"The selection of these areas has been a cynical political exercise with no attempt to identify and protect the most important koala habitat on state forests, with the only apparent criteria being to have no impacts on timber," Mr Pugh said.
In announcing the koala plans last month, Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said: "It is absolutely vital that we protect land where koalas currently live - and secure land where new koala colonies may exist in the future".
A spokesperson for the Office of Environment and Heritage said the new reserves had been selected "because they have koala habitat values or are known sites for koalas, and link existing koala habitats". They would also "benefit from the expert conservation management of the National Parks and Wildlife Service".
Urgency to protect koalas is growing, with the government’s estimates pointing to a 26 per cent drop in numbers in the past 15-20 years. Mr Pugh’s group put the loss in the state’s North Coast alone at 50 per cent in the past two decades, as timber and other developments destroy woodlands.
Oisin Sweeney, senior ecologist with National Parks Association - which advocates the creation of a 315,000-hectare Great Koala National Park for the Coffs Harbour hinterland - said the timing of the government’s koala strategy release appeared to be "a cynical exercise" accompanied soon after by new logging laws.
"Instead of protecting the high-quality koala habitat in a new [national park], the government is proposing to implement an intensive harvesting zone that will see koala habitat destroyed over large areas and forest reduced to monocultures of blackbutt," Dr Sweeney said.
"It is clear the government has made a choice - it is timber over koalas."
Penny Sharpe, Labor’s environment spokeswoman, and her Greens counterpart, Dawn Walker, both described the reserves plan for koalas as "a sham".
"As populations of our precious koalas march closer to extinction, the government is only interested in saving itself," Ms Sharpe said.
"The government can’t say it is saving koalas when it is allowing hunting in their habitat and only reserving forest where they do not live," she said, noting eight of the 12 areas will continue to permit hunting of feral animals.
Ms Walker said that the government would only be serious about saving koalas if it backed the new national park near Coffs Harbour, a region home to about one-fifth of the state’s wild koalas.
"Anything less is just confirmation that they have decided that logging trees is more important that protecting our most iconic species," she said.
This story first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.