The Pacific Highway’s Ballina to Woolgoolga upgrade will be constructed through the middle of the region’s most intact koala colony after the state government approved the proposed western route last week.
And in response to public concerns over the endangered marsupial, the NSW roads and freight minister Duncan Gay announced that ‘a team of experts will be brought together to develop a detailed koala management plan’ for the upgrade. He says the appointment, ‘allows the next stages of early work to start, while the overall project is considered by the federal department of the environment.’
In a letter from Mr Gay to local MP Don Page (Nationals), the roads and freight minister explained why his department has ignored public calls to keep the highway’s current alignment. The minister said the route suggested by koala advocates was not ideal. ‘While a shorter route, the southern section cuts into Broadwater National Park, which has also been identified as having an important koala population.’
He also claimed such a route would be along a flood plain, would traverse underlying soft soils and therefore earth fill would be required.
‘It would require acquisition of high-yield canefields, residences and farm infrastructure… and would pose a considerable engineering risk at a much greater cost.’
But koala campaigner Garry Owers claims widening the existing highway would be the quickest and cheapest solution and would affect far fewer koalas. ‘They just have to add more lanes which they have room for, and it can be done quickly.’
Mr Owers, who works at Richmond River County Council, says he has studied acid sulfate soils and specialises in wetlands.
‘Contrary to the minister’s claims, trimming the road’s edge would not result in having to acquire a lot of canefields and residences.’
More significantly, Mr Owers says the minister’s proposal would see more flooding risk than the aligning with the current highway.
‘Dingle Creek is subject to three-metre flooding, which is far greater than the route along the current alignment,’ he says.
Mr Owers concluded by saying that by 2005 he suspected the government had already made the current plans and was just playing lip service to give the appearance of consultation.
Meanwhile Friends of the Koala president Lorraine Vass says she is concerned about the long-term decline in koala numbers as well as the actual construction phase.
‘There are no mitigation measures while the road is being built,’ she says. ‘During the construction of the section at St Helena in Ewingsdale, RMS (Road Maritime Services) records only roadkill as impacting on koala populations.
‘Our experience from this is that there will be a spike in mortality rates. Other places where upgrades have been done, for example at the Yelgun to Chinderah upgrade in the early 2000s, we were hearing that the numbers of koalas dropped dramatically.
‘But generally population decline takes time; you can construct underpasses etc but there’s no guarantees on maintaining the populations.’