The much-anticipated $360 million, 13-kilometre stretch of motorway between Broadwater and Wardell, could come at a cost beyond dollars and cents.
The Ballina Koala Plan assesses the impact of Section 10 of the highway on two koala colonies, but a leading ecologist said there were serious flaws in the methodology.
Dr Steve Phillips was shocked to find there was no assessment of the project’s impact on the viability of the population, and that the plan suggested only five koalas would be displaced.
“At least 10 to 14 koalas are going to be displaced, not five, and when you’re talking about a small population, as we know we are, the loss of that number of animals from a population that is already that small is very clearly unsustainable in the longer term,” he said.
“The [proposed] route would take out half the existing food trees for the two populations.”
He has walked through the Blackwall Range area, near Ballina, counting feed trees, scats and where possible, koalas.
He estimated the area held 200 koalas in two colonies, but rather than the healthy population he had expected to find, the numbers of younger koalas had dwindled, particularly younger females.
“We know that the population is in a fairly steep decline trajectory, so it’s already in a lot of trouble, and the two things that are really driving that decline are vehicle strike and domestic dog attack,” Dr Phillips said.
“They’re impacts that the animals are not capable of dealing with or adjusting to; they’re driven by human things and the current rate of impact on the population is in excess of its ability to sustain itself over the long term.”
Dr Phillips’ fieldwork partially informed the Ballina Koala Plan, ordered by the Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt as a prerequisite to approving the motorway route.
Conservation Groups Concerned
The dilemma facing the Blackwall Range koalas has attracted the attention of conservationist groups nationally and overseas.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Josey Sharrad said Mr Hunt had received more than 60,000 emails from people around the world about the koalas’ plight.
“It’s really captured international attention and we really hope the Minister listens to the public’s concern,” Ms Sharrad said.
“It’s not the koalas, or the highway; they can co-exist and we hope Greg Hunt will make the right decision for both.”
The Ballina Koala Plan allows for the replanting of 130 hectares of habitat, but Dr Phillips said it was not more habitat the koalas needed but more of the trees they currently feed upon because they are susceptible to stress.
“You can’t have a declining population and then expect to plant a whole bunch of trees and for a bunch of animals to miraculously appear out of nowhere and colonise it; it just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“They were predicting 46 animals were just going to appear and recolonise these replanted areas.
“This is one of those triple whammy scenarios where everything that we know is wrong about the way development proceeds in the context of koala conservation.
“The loss of the food resource, the fragmentation of the habitat, the escalation of the threatening processes — it’s all associated with something like the construction of a major road.”
Attempts Made to Adjust Road Construction Techniques
Drafting the Ballina Koala Plan was a 15-month process for the Roads and Maritime Services (RMS), involving many professionals and peer reviews by experts.
The organisation said it had learned a lot from decades of constructing the Pacific Motorway.
Connectivity structures were no longer like tunnels, funnelling animals through to make them easy prey for cunning predators; instead they were wide, bridge-like structures with suspended railings where tree-climbing marsupials could avoid dogs and foxes.
Pacific Highway general manager Bob Higgins said the RMS was offsetting the 17 hectares it needed to clear for the road with 130 hectares of re-vegetated farmland.
“We’re not saying it’s going to happen instantaneously; what we’ve tried to build into the model is that these trees will grow over time and then the koalas will use those trees,” he said.
“Now the planting of these trees is also focused on where our new connectivity structures [are] because we’ve taken them to another level that we’ve not done on the Pacific Highway.”
Calls for Route Alignment Ignored
Dr Phillips said a minor deviation to the route would dramatically reduce the likely impact on both Blackwall Range koala colonies.
“In the report I sent to the Federal Government, I gave them one example of a re-tweaking of the alignment in the existing area which would avoid those two population cells and very demonstrably result in a zero impact on the population,” he said.
“But what we’re looking at is an alignment that has not moved one centimetre.
“Despite all the information that is now available, there’s been no attempt to even present alternative alignments that could accommodate the road and the koala population at the same time.”
Section 10 of the Pacific Highway is no more than lines on a map right now however Mr Higgins, the man charged with completing the project, said “tweaking” the alignment was no simple matter when there were engineering issues to consider.
He said other species besides koalas depended on different forested tracts of the Meerschaum Vale valley and issues regarding Indigenous land needed to be considered and where possible, protected.
“We can tweak it a few metres to take account of particular trees,” Mr Higgins said.
“We can tweak an alignment if it means adjustments in terms of metres, but when it gets to tens of metres and hundreds of metres, it becomes very difficult.”
Mr Higgins said the highway would be completely enclosed and the old highway and Wardell Road would be fenced to try to prevent roadkill.
He said that, as a major landholder, the RMS was considering how it could work with local landowners to try and eradicate wild dogs in the area.
The Ballina Koala Plan is currently in Mr Hunt’s in-tray and, once approved, the RMS can begin work on Section 10.