There was heated debate on the floor at the first council meeting for the year and a good deal of it centred around Australia’s favourite marsupial: the koala.
On Thursday night councillors voted on whether the Nambucca Shire Council should formally support the proposed Great Koala National Park – a move that would see 175,000 hectares of Nambucca, Bellingen and Coffs Harbour Shires’ state forests added to the existing 140,000 hectares of protected Blinky Bill zones.
In August last year council resolved that it wouldn’t make a decision on the NSW National Parks Association’s proposal until it had sought more information about possible loss of revenue and local jobs (among other things) if they were to support the idea.
The response from Timber NSW stated that the timber industry supply chain employs over 22,000 people and that if the Great National Koala Park was to come about it would “severely impact more than 50 percent of those jobs”.
The response also highlighted that in order to meet demand for hardwoods, the reduced supply (as a direct result of the park) would likely mean sourcing tropical hardwoods from countries like Indonesia where deforestation is wreaking havoc on the native populations of orangutans and other native animal species.
Only one local sawmill responded to council’s request.
Owner of Bowraville Sawmilling Matthew Dwyer said the decision to support the koala park would end his business which currently employs 18 staff and directly supports two logging crews.
“I have operated and employed staff for 15 odd years and this business has continued to thrive through many obstacles, but I believe this would destroy the business and industry that it is today,” Mr Dyer said.
The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage also responded to council.
They said that while they are aware of the 26 percent decline in koala populations over the past 20 years, they were still sitting on the fence in regards to the park.
“Ultimately, a decision on the proposal and associated considerations is a whole-of-government matter,” conservation branch director Richard Kingswood said.
Meanwhile Forestry Corporation said there was no scientific evidence that timber production detrimentally affected koala populations, as they had been existing side-by-side for over 100 years.
“Recent research published last year showed that there were more than 1.5 million hectares of moderate and high quality koala habitat across northern NSW and only around 14 percent of this is in the timber production areas of state forests,” CEO Nick Roberts said.
At last Thursday’s meeting, councillor Anne Smyth moved to defer the decision on whether to support the proposal until more information was made available.
“I think we’re being a little preemptive here...don’t forget that this isn’t going to happen unless there’s a change of government at the next election,” Cr Smyth said.
Cr Susan Jenvey supported the motion to defer.
“Until Labor releases its policy, which will take in forestry workers’ concerns, council will be hitting itself in the knees with a baseball bat if it makes its decision based on what we have here today,” Cr Jenvey said.
Mayor Rhonda Hoban was on the fence about whether to make a decision yet.
“I don’t want to cut off my nose to spite my face,” Cr Hoban said.
“There is a danger that if Labor is elected they’ll bring this in, as all three shires are in safe seats for their opposition, and I don’t want to lose the chance to have a say in their policy as a result.”
She also said that despite claims from the NSW National Parks Association that there would be an upturn in tourism revenue from the park, that she is still yet to see any figures to support them.
Councillor John Ainsworth took issue with the motion to defer the decision on grounds that it would create undue uncertainty in the local timber industry.
“I’ve said all along, just get rid of the [wild] dogs and you’ll have more bears than you know what to do with,” Cr Ainsworth said.
“But as soon as you create more room for bears, you’ll get more dogs.”
Cr Smyth promptly corrected Cr Ainsworth that koalas are, in fact, not bears.
“Forestry is an important industry but it’s not the only one – tourism is just as important,” Cr Smyth said.
“Like we’ve seen down south, there will be bus tours employed to take people around.
“They [koalas] are our national icon and they do bring tourists – we shouldn’t knock our tourism industry on the head for the benefit of another.”
As an aside Cr David Jones, who generally supported the principle of the koala park, opined that Australia couldn’t seem to move away from proselytising “icon species”.
“I see koalas as an important part of the greater natural ecosystem.”
Cr Janine Reed reminded the council that the recommendation on the table was not a full stop but rather a motion to not support the proposal “unless it can be demonstrated that jobs lost will be compensated”.
“But council can revisit this later,” Cr Reed said.
“And anyway, I think [the Great Koala National Park] has already happened; In the 90s we went from some 320 national parks to 770.”
Cr Smyth replied that she still wouldn’t be able to support the recommendation because the tone of it was “negative”.
“We’re making a statement here based on what one mill has said,” Cr Smyth said.
A division was called on the motion for deferment and it was voted down 5:4, with Cr Rhonda Hoban casting the deciding vote.
An amendment was passed which called for remuneration to local timber businesses if the council was ever to consider supporting the proposal.
A division was called again to vote on the original motion with subsequent amendment and it was passed with Crs Wilson, Ainsworth, Reed, Finlayson and Hoban’s support.
The motion was resolved as follows:
That Council not support the proposed Great Koala National Park unless it can be demonstrated that the number of jobs created by the additions to the National Park network will exceed the number of jobs lost in the timber industry and subject to adequate compensation for any financial losses associated with the proposed Great Koala National Park.
An additional motion was then carried: “That if and when further information relating to the [auditors] KMPG report, State Labor policy or a transition package come forward, that they be reported to council.”
Nambucca Shire Council’s decision to not support the Great Koala National Park (GKNP) has shocked and baffled some community members.
“We are astounded that council has decided to state its position with so little information to base its decision on,” Nambucca Valley Conservation Association (NVCA) president, Paula Flack said.
“This premature stand makes no sense when there is no urgency for council to decide whether it will or will not support the proposal to create an iconic koala reserve system on public native forests across the Coffs, Bellingen, Nambucca region.
“This rash move seems to be based solely on timber industry misinformation, dodgy employment figures and feedback from only one of the shire’s three sawmills.
“It’s understandable that council would be concerned at the potential for local timber jobs to be lost, but it doesn’t even know if that will be the case.
“It has not received any information from local mills that clarifies what percentage of logs comes from private, public or plantation forest, nor has it received any information regarding any transition strategy for effected timber workers. Why council couldn’t wait to form an opinion after being better informed is beyond me,”
Ms Flack said that council had shown a lack of vision and open mindedness.
NSW Greens MP Dawn Walker also expressed her disappointment in the council’s decision.
“It’s a real shame that despite a very close vote, Nambucca Shire Council has seemingly succumbed to the fear campaign being run by the logging industry who have used inflated jobs figures to argue against the Great Koala National Park plan,” Ms Walker said.
“A recent study by economists estimated the similar Great Forest National Park proposal in Victoria could generate up to 750 full-time jobs, attract an extra 400,000 visitors annually and add more than $70 million to economy annually. That’s far more than what a declining logging industry can provide locals.
“Local timber mills will continue to operate following the creation of the Great Koala Koala National Park, as they will continue to source timber from private native forestry operations and plantations. Information suggesting otherwise is misleading.
“Yet the State Government seems hell-bent to allow our native forests and precious koalas to be logged towards extinction, rather than explore the economic opportunities that come from conserving them. It’s time they showed a bit of vision for their communities and commission a study into the job-creation potential of a Great Koala National Park.
“The Great Koala National Park will become a major election issue at the 2019 State Election and the Greens believe that Nambucca Shire Council should revisit their recent decision and support the Great Koala National Park plan.”
Guardian News has contacted two of the sawmills for comment on the council’s decision but no response has been provided by the time of publishing.
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