Bellingen and Coffs councils agree to fund GKNP economic cost-benefit study

Ashley Love outside Bellingen Shire Council chambers

Ashley Love outside Bellingen Shire Council chambers

Bellingen Shire Council has voted to allocate $25,000 from its Environmental Levy reserve to help fund an economic cost-benefit study of the proposed Great Koala National Park.

The same sum has also been promised by Coffs Harbour City Council, with Bellingen's commitment likely to allay concerns expressed by Coffs Council staff about their contribution being used to research aspects of the proposal falling outside their local government area.

The GKNP would be created by adding 175,000 hectares of native state forests across the Mid North Coast to already existing protected areas to form a 315,000 hectare reserve.

The new national park would cross multiple shire boundaries but the vast majority of it would be within the Coffs and Bellingen LGAs, with small extensions into Nambucca and Clarence, Ashley Love from the GKNP steering committee said.

Addressing today's council meeting, Ashley also noted that the multipurpose Visitors Centre, which has the potential to be the largest tourist attraction along the Pacific Highway between Sydney and the Queensland border, would be located in an area of Pine Creek State Forest near Mailman's Track, just within Bellingen Shire.

As well as making the Mid North Coast an epicentre for koala conservation, the GKNP proposal includes plans for an 200km long distance walking track, mountain bike tracks, 4WD tours, horse riding trails and other nature based and adventure tourism activities.

The feasibility study that the two councils have agreed to help fund will be managed by the National Parks Association of NSW, a not-for-profit organisation that has already committed considerable time and effort to the GKNP proposal since the idea was first mooted by local koala ecologists in 2012.

The study will assess the economic impacts of the proposed GKNP in terms of jobs, visitors and spending, including the loss of jobs in Forestry, the number and type of new jobs likely to be created by the Visitor's Centre and via tourism and recreational opportunities; plus the expected number of additional visitors and their spending patterns.

Councillors split into two camps in discussion, with Crs Jenkins, Carter and Harrison, who all voted against the motion, expressing the view that an initiative like the GKNP was a matter for the state or federal government, not something that Bellingen Shire ratepayers should be funding.

However, Crs King, Fenton, Wright-Turner and Klipin argued that the in-depth analysis provided by the feasibility study might prove the catalyst that pushes the initiative onto the state or federal government's agenda.

They also noted that the environmental levy reserve, which has a current available balance of $156,000, is intended for environmentally beneficial projects such as this.

"Supporting something like this, getting the information that's needed, may enable other financiers to come in behind," Cr Toni Wright Turner said.

"We may be enabling something to happen in this term despite the state government. I think we should go for that opportunity for partnership with Coffs Harbour and use the environmental levy revenue for something that is within its realm."

Cr Steve Klipin said that a $25,000 investment in a cost benefit study made economic sense, and urged his fellow councillors to look beyond their ideological positions and consider stewardship of the shire.

Cr Jennie Fenton said the funding requested was small considering the potential benefits.

"The amount of in-kind ecologist and scientist work that has already gone into this project makes $25k look like lunch money," she said.

Cr Dominic King said it was important to consider the example of Tasmania and how work to save environmentally important ecosystems has resulted in enormous tourism advantages.

"Those places were saved by people on the ground and now they are booming. We need to make sure we are moving forward and tourism and regenerative agriculture is the way," he said.

Cr Fenton agreed that well-managed, well-placed national parks were revenue earners.

"Mark my words, if we get the momentum behind it and the facts, the state government will be building it," she said.