Why is the Rural Boundary Clearing Code a concern for Koalas in the Sydney Basin?

The Rural Boundary Clearing Code (RBCC) was introduced by the Liberal State Government after the Black Summer Bushfires. It allows landholders to clear 25m of vegetation (including trees) on the borders of their properties. This is in addition to several other forms of land clearing that are already permissible on rural land, such as the 10/50 scheme.  The RBCC was not one of the 76 recommendations in the Bushfire inquiry. It is not backed by experts, and its introduction was labeled anti-science as it may give a false sense of security in a bushfire. It is also another cause of unregulated clearing of koala habitat in the Sydney Basin.

An important rule in the RBCC is that koala habitat must not be cleared in Local Government Areas (LGAs) where there is a koala plan of management in place. However, of the councils in the Sydney Basin with significant koala populations where this code applies, none have a koala plan of management in place. The LGAs in the Sydney Basin that contain strategically important koala populations and habitat on private land at risk of being cleared under the RBCC include Wollondilly, Wingecarribee, Hawkesbury, Cessnock and Lake Macquarie.

rbcc_clearing.jpgThe impact of unregulated clearing on boundaries is that vital koala corridors become heavily fragmented, increasing the risk of predation and car strikes as koalas need to travel to find new mates and new habitat in order for koala numbers to grow. In addition, as this process is “self-assessable”, other sensitive ecological communities are at risk of being incorrectly cleared. Unfortunately, the RBCC mapping tool provides no guidance to land holders about threatened vegetation types or impacts that may be a matter of environmental significance under the Environmental Biodiversity Conservation Act, and often councils have not done this work themselves.

There is no clear process in place for monitoring and reporting clearing under the Rural Boundary Clearing Code, so its impacts are largely unknown. This makes it difficult to understand the impacts of the Code, including cumulative impacts, and impacts on koalas. 

According to the EBPCA Guidelines, “where there is a risk of serious or irreversible damage, a lack of scientific certainty about the potential impacts of an action will not itself justify a decision that the action is not likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance” (pg.6)

Protecting koalas and koala habitat, including by responding to community concerns about the Code and its impact on koalas, should be a key priority for Councils,  consistent with the principles for local government set out in Chapter 3 of the Local Government Act 1993, including responsibility to consider the principles of ecologically sustainable development and the long term and cumulative effects of actions on future generations, in its decision-making.

Our view is that Councils with koala populations should opt-out of the Rural Boundary Clearing Code, at least until:

  • they have an approved Koala Plan of Management in place;
  • have taken steps to understand the impact of the Code’s use in the LGA on koalas;
  • have put in place effective measures to monitor and enforce the Code.

It was the intention of the Code that koala habitat be protected. But you cannot protect what is not mapped. It is contingent on governments and their officers, both local and state, to resolve these significant barriers that are having real world consequences for an endangered icon.

Further reading: 
Use of loopholes put Hawkesbury's koalas at risk