Opinion: Is 2021 the year we finally get serious about saving the Koala from extinction?

Kevin Evans, President of the Coffs Coast Branch of the National Parks Association

Kevin Evans, President of the Coffs Coast Branch of the National Parks Association

Could 2021 finally be the year that our governments take the precarious plight of the Koala seriously enough to save them?

In northern NSW, Koala numbers have declined by 71 per cent after the black summer bushfires that killed more than 10,000 Koalas. If this wasn't tragic enough, when that sudden loss is added to their well-documented dramatic drop of 30 per cent since 1990, the situation is beyond horrifying.

Much of the remaining high-quality Koala habitat is either on private land, thus at real risk of clearing, or in state forests that are subject to unsustainable and often lease breached logging. Urban sprawl also subsumes Koala habitat up and down the coast reducing landscape connectivity and exposing ever more isolated Koala populations to other threats like vehicles, dogs and disease.

So, decisive action is needed by all levels of government working together, or the world's favourite animal will soon join the Tasmanian Tiger as one more mammalian example of our world-beating extinction record.

In NSW, we need urgent action to protect Koala habitat on public lands on the Mid North Coast, where approximately 20 per cent of the NSW Koala population still survive. The Great Koala National Park (GKNP) proposal would add 175,000 hectares of publicly owned native state forests to existing protected areas to establish a 315,000-hectare reserve. The GKNP proposal excludes both private and plantation forests.

So far, however, our governments have not been moved enough by the rapid reduction of Koala populations to support the proposal. However, that indifference may soon change with a landmark study by the University of Newcastle (UON) into Australia's proposed first large national park dedicated to protecting Koalas projecting the GKNP would bring an additional regional economic output of $1.2 billion over the next 15 years, deliver 9,000+ jobs for the Coffs Coast region and contribute $1.7 billion in biodiversity value.

The Coffs Coast region has stubbornly high unemployment, so it is heartening to see that the positive impact on jobs was a major focus of the study. Their research found that the Park would generate more than 9000 extra full-time equivalent jobs across tourism, infrastructure, science and education, equating to $330 million in additional wages in the region.

The UON research demonstrated that the Great Koala National Park would make a significant contribution to the NSW economy and be a major job boost for the Mid-North Coast region just when it is so desperately needed.

The report includes employment projections as forestry related jobs are transitioned over a 10-year period to park management and forest restoration through a government funded industry transition plan. Strategies like this have been used by previous governments and are backed by environment groups as long as they are adequate, targeted and result in equitable outcomes for all affected stakeholders.

The Coffs Coast tourism economy is largely nature based and so would benefit significantly from hosting the Great Koala National Park as it would increase visitors to the region by an additional 1 million per annum who will spend $412 million.

The urgency for State and Federal Governments to act to protect the Koala is in no doubt but time is running out. The science that underpins the GKNP proposal has been verified by the NSW Governments own internal review and there is widespread community support for the proposal.

Even the NSW Upper House Inquiry into Koala Populations and Habitat in NSW stated that the GKNP proposal has "great merit". Let's not forget it is we the people who own these forests that are currently either legally harvested or immorally and illegally destroyed with no economic gain just ecological pain, depending on your world view of course. The illogicality of this reality is balanced by initiatives to plant trees for Koala or purchase expensive small private properties where no Koala live. The government knows that large well managed national parks are best tool we have to protect nature and support tourism.

The UON study now proves the economic benefits of the GKNP. All we need now is for the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, to call a halt to endless stakeholder meetings that result in inadequate and expensive outcomes and live up to her promise to the NSW community that she will be the Premier that saves our Koala for future generations, by announcing her intention to create the Great Koala National Park.

Kevin Evans

President of the Coffs Coast Branch of the National Parks Association