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NSW Government’s First Test: Native Forests & Koalas

OPINION: The inconvenient truth Greens and ENGOs ignore


Wed 17 May 23

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On May 10, 2023, Greens MLC Hon Sue Higginson submitted a Private Members Bill titled ‘Forestry Amendment (Koala Habitats) Bill 2023’.  This Bill was lodged in the last parliament sitting.

The reason why it is the ‘first test’ for the ALP is the current voting structure of the NSW Legislative Council.

If the ALP concedes to the Greens then the Bill will become law. 

With the election of Ben Franklin (Nationals) as president and Rod Roberts (One Nation) as Deputy Speaker, the likely voting on a forestry matter is:

  1. Government supports the anti-forestry measure. Opposition opposes the government: for 21, against 16, unknown 3.
  2. Both major parties support ant forestry measure: for 29, against 2, unknown 3.

The two known MLCs for forestry are from the Shooters, Fishers, and Farmers. The unknowns include an MLC from the Liberal Democrats and two MLCs from One Nation.

The Coalition is an unknown commodity given that the last two times forestry matters went to the Upper House, the Coalition fractured.

Changes to the NSW Forestry Act: Forestry Operations in ‘Koala Habitats’

The Forestry Amendment (Koala Habitats) Bill 2023 proposes an amendment to the Forestry Act in its integrated forestry provisions: Part 5B. 

What is sought is an integrated forestry operations approval process prohibiting forestry operations from being carried out in koala habitats.

It is the Greens’ method of closing native forestry by the Forestry Corporation of NSW’s definition of harvesting on NSW state government-owned land.

A seemingly simple proposition. But look a little deeper, and the facts reveal another story – one not apparent on the first read.

‘Koala habitats’ are defined in the Bill as an area of regional koala significance or an area declared by the minister, by order published in the Gazette, as Koala Habitat.

An ‘area of regional koala significance is defined as the area of regional koala significance identified in the Koala Prioritisation Project – Areas of Regional Koala Significance Dataset – as in force on November 2 last year and published on the SEED map on the NSW government website for ‘sharing and enabling environmental data in NSW’.

This SEED map is in the public domain. 

Areas of Regional Koala Significance have been plotted on the NSW ‘SEED’ website.
Modeling from the NSW Environmental Protection Authority

So far, all looks to be in order. However, the SEED map is based on modeling by the NSW EPA.  This government agency does not have ground truth data sets.  There is a map produced by the Department of Primary Industries based on real datasets from which they carried out modeling. 

The EPA decided not to use this material; it went its own way. 

An owner of a rural property checked the SEED map on May 15. His property and those other rural landowners nearby, all have koala populations on their land.  Populations that are monitored and nurtured as native fauna. These properties are not on the SEED map identified as part of the Koala Significant Dataset.

This is nonsense as the area concerned has always been regarded as koala country even if you couldn’t see one. This is just one example.

The EPA mapping was allegedly based on vegetation maps that were created in a rush for the NSW government’s vegetation legislation.

These maps are well recognised as being inaccurate. 

Commentary from a former NSW government employee who knew the system told their aged parents on a rural coastal property affected by drought and then fire, to take lots of photos of the changed vegetation.  The reason: the satellite photos would indicate land clearing and not natural elements.

Satellite surveillance is used with desk audits against the vegetation maps and not ground truthing!

Data in the mapping is widely inaccurate. In a rush to get vegetation mapping, the department modeling areas using desktop audits.

The Greens and the ENGOs know this, so it’s a very ‘inconvenient truth’: the SEED map has a flawed basis and should not be relied on for a purpose like that in the Bill.

The convenient mistruth is to conflate the biodiversity and assertions of deforestation with native forestry.  However, in NSW, it is koalas.

The Greens and ENGOs know what legislation is in place in NSW with state government and private native forestry. To assert they do not know is nonsense given the resources the Greens have with a personal research assistant that has access to a parliamentary library with its research staff and access to government departments.

Native forestry practice, ground truthing, and koalas

The Integrated Forestry Operations Approval (IFOA) conditions and protocols already exist and can be viewed under Coastal IFOA Conditions and Coastal IFOA Protocols (all 350-plus pages) on the Environmental Planning Agency website

The Forestry Corporation of NSW must apply under these IFOA processes to harvest any area if they seek approval under the integrated forestry operation provisions.  For some years, these were the only approvals sought by the Forestry Corporation.

This Coastal IFOA is a detailed and highly prescriptive set of approval requirements created between the EPA and the predecessor to FCNSW.  FCNSW brought to the table forest science knowledge and lots of field experience.

This approval process is similar to an application in NSW for a development application with very strict environmental conditions.

There are no automatic approvals, which can take some time to obtain. Approval is not always forthcoming. The approval is assessed by the EPA.

The Coastal IFOA Chapter 3, Planning Conditions, Division 3 deals with environmentally significant areas (ESAs).  This division details frogs, bandicoots, gilders, indigenous mice, and threatened plants.

Threatened habitats and retained trees are addressed in the chapter, including koala browse trees. Division 4 covers species-specific conditions for fauna, and koala conditions are included. These conditions tie in with the protocols.

There is a big difference between the desktop SEED map and practical Coastal IFOA conditions regarding koala protection. 

The Koala Wars

The former Coalition government created the ‘koala wars’ by failing to address the blurring of biodiversity with native forestry, thereby assisting the Greens and the ENGOs. 

Through political naivety, the former government, in late December 2019, pushed through a State Planning Policy that altered the previous Koala SEPP.

Through naivety or deliberate policy, agricultural and native forestry sectors in NSW were informed in late December 2019 of the immediate gazettal, which was then, through protests delayed to March 2020.  Briefings eventually occurred days before the gazettal.  

The fallout from this is what is known as “the koala wars” when the NSW Coalition cabinet had a public brawl between some Liberal ministers and the National Party.

Footage courtesy of @10NewsFirst

There are now two Koala State Planning Policies (Koala SEPPS): ‘Koala habitat protection 2020’ and ‘koala habitat protection 2021’, which require koala habitat to be recognized by intensive fieldwork based on vegetation.

The Koala SEPPs and this second part of the Bill acknowledge the only way to determine significant koala habitat is on the ground assessment. The irony is part two of the Greens’ definition points out the flaws in the first part. Another inconvenient truth was publicly ignored.

To progress this issue, the ALP might consider acknowledging the good work done by the NSW DPI Forest Science Group and using their data sets. This will mean standing up to the bullying ideology of the Planning and Environment Science Group sections. The Coalition could not.

The DPI Forest Science Group is an invaluable resource that could greatly assist the new NSW Government. For more information, visit DPI Forest Science Group.

With its current heavy compliance and regulation, the ALP might ensure that forestry is politically disassociated in policy from koalas. This does not mean a lack of care and concern for native fauna. The Coalition was never capable of such clever politics.

The ALP Cabinet, unlike the Coalition cabinets, might take forestry advice from:

  • Environmentalists in the Department for the Environment, the Department of Primary Industry, and the Department of Housing.
  • Business and industry.
  • The departments who are responsible for these sectors.
  • The relevant two unions

Forestry is a complex industry and not just one silo.

People engaged in forestry care about the environment and comply with environmentally professional standards. This does not mean that some might break the law like every other industry sector and even individuals. However, the vast majority understand that preserving and nurturing the environment is their present and future. 

Another inconvenient truth the Greens and ENGOs carefully ignore.

The environment groups in Australia follow a mantra set in the 1970s and have not matured or moved on because it allows them to tug at heartstrings and elicit donations based on their science and manipulated pictures.  

They might like to look overseas to the European Greens that actively engage with forest policy in a highly productive manner with real commercial gain. 

European Industry and ENGO’s have a strong consensus over the importance and environmental sustainability of productive forests. Footage courtesy of @ForesteuropeOrg

But then, with this approach, there will likely be no donations and no signatures for petitions. After all, the environmental sector, including political parties, is as much an ‘industry’ as other sectors fighting to retain their position.

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