SBKN was recently alerted to the approval for clearing of 27 hectares of koala habitat by NSW Local Land Services for agricultural purposes within Limeburners Creek in the Mid-Coast LGA. The clearing of this old growth habitat will damage and fragment an important corridor for wildlife which feeds down to Port Stephens and the Hunter at the northern end of the Sydney Basin Bioregion.
Alarmingly, the clearing of koala habitat is completely permissible under the Land Management (Native Vegetation) Code 2018, with hundreds more hectares under threat. And unlike development on council and state land, there is no public exhibition, consultation, or transparency about the environmental impact of this clearing before it occurs, so the public is powerless to review and object. We are only aware of this approval of widespread land clearing after concerns were raised from the local community. After inquiries with Local Land Services (LLS), we were denied access to any details, most crucially the environmental assessment process.
A Priority Koala Population
The stakes are high. This koala population is deemed a priority at all levels of government as Limeburners Creek falls within an Area of Regional Koala Significance (ARKS) and the local koala population is listed as a priority population for investment by the NSW Koala Strategy. The local council (Mid-Coast council) has also received funding for a draft koala plan of management. This particular area (Limeburners Creek) provides a corridor linking Koalas from the north and south of NSW directly into the Karuah National Park. The NSW SEED Portal confirms the area where this clearing will occur sits at the top of the Preferred Koala Tree Index which indicates this is prime habitat that can readily support koalas. Sightings data in SEED also shows the prevalence of koalas both in Limeburners Creek and the surrounding areas, indicating any koala habitat in the area is valuable for the recovery of the species.
Fig 1: Koala Habitat in Limeburners Creek. Fig 2: Koalas Sightings in surrounding areas. Source Figs 1&2: NSW SEED Portal
A Climate Refugia Corridor
This area also sits within a critical climate corridor for wildlife seeking refugia as temperatures rise and available habitat declines, which has been documented by the Hunter Community Environment Centre. Climate corridors identify landscape-scale wildlife migration pathways of optimum habitat.
Source: Hunter Community Environment Centre (2023)
A Habitat Protection Zone
Limeburners Creek is also a Habitat Protection Zone in the Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park Zoning Map. Run off from the agricultural use of the land may pollute the creek and the sanctuary zones, further downstream.
Despite the many factors that identify this habitat as critical to the survival of koalas and other endangered species - because this land is zoned as “rural” there is currently no specific avenues to prevent koala habitat being cleared under the the Land Management (Native Vegetation) Code 2018, which is administered by NSW Local Land Services, not by councils. Rural, agricultural and forestry lands (zones RU1, RU2, RU3) are exempt from protections under the Koala SEPP 2021 or a council's Koala Plan of Management.
According to the Auditor-General for New South Wales “the clearing of native vegetation on rural land is not effectively regulated and managed. The processes supporting the regulatory framework are weak and there is no evidence-based assurance that clearing of native vegetation is carried out in accordance with approvals”. The NSW Environment Protection Authority found land clearing of woody vegetation has tripled since the introduction of the Local Land Services Act by the Coalition in 2013, and risen by a jaw dropping 73% since the laws were further relaxed in 2017.
And a great deal of this clearing is "unallocated", which includes both illegal land clearing and self assessed “allowable” activities which include sustainable grazing, rural infrastructure, and air strips. Native vegetation that has been planted without public funds can also be cleared without a permit. The self assessment process is clearly failing and we will never know the number of koalas lost by these activities.
However, the activities which do require certification under the code, such as bulldozing large tracts of old growth habitat (as in Limeburners Creek) are still exempt from specifically protecting koala habitat. Even the few areas of rural land that are classified as ‘environmentally sensitive’ are vexed. The Local Government Association has expressed concerns that because the fines for illegal land clearing cost less than the cost to offset environmentally sensitive land there remains more incentive to clear land illegally and face the consequences, rather than follow the code. Worse still, the prosecution of such illegal land clearing is abysmally low, so there is even less incentive to follow the rules.
Urgent Reform Recommendations
In short, this code, and the application of it is largely an unregulated botch job, criticised by the NSW Auditor General, the NSW Environmental Protection Authority, and the NSW Local Government Association. In a report to SBKN, the Environmental Defenders Office has also called for an end to code based clearing.
They also advise to:
- Maximise protection of koala habitat by mandating appropriate and consistent levels of oversight
- Direct all proposals likely to have an impact on koala habitat into the most robust assessment pathway. In particular to strictly limit the scope of allowable activities under the Local Land Services Act 2013.
- Ensure only genuinely low impact activities are permitted as allowable activities.
- End code-based clearing of koala habitat for agricultural and urban development. All such proposals must be subject to full environmental assessment. This can be achieved by: - updating the definition of environmentally sensitive area to explicitly include koala habitat; or - ensuring all koala habitat (not just that currently mapped as core koala habitat in approved KPoMs) is categorised as category 2 sensitive land.
- Ensure consistent, robust mapping and protections for koalas across all land tenures
As koalas in NSW are now listed as endangered, reforming the LLS Act is urgent. The Sydney Basin Koala Network is very concerned about the fragmentation of a key koala corridor in Limeburners Creek and its knock on effect in the Sydney Basin Bioregion, and urges immediate action so that the Koala SEPP is applied to rural areas.