The NSW planning minister has insisted his government’s new koala conservation planning rules are “not a diminution” of rural koala protection measures, adding they will be buttressed shortly.
The state government on Monday agreed to new environmental planning regulations for koala habitats, ending a disagreement that threatened to rip apart the Liberal-National coalition.
Rural NSW land zoned for farming or forestry, or “core rural zones”, will not be subject to the new Koala State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) 2021.
It will instead be subject to the old regulations, SEPP 44, until new codes on private forestry and local land services can be established, likely by April.
The government argued the new SEPP would enhance koala protection in areas such as Greater Sydney, the Blue Mountains and the Central Coast, where more than 95 per cent of development occurs.
Stronger protections would also be created in the Tweed and Byron shires.
But the NSW Greens argue the regulatory changes “set koalas up for extinction” and say they are a victory for the logging industry.
Planning Minister Rob Stokes insisted in budget estimates on Tuesday the government had not capitulated to National preferences, saying SEPP 44 had not been loosened and remained in force in core rural zones.
And while those zones may not be immediately subject to SEPP 2021, Mr Stokes said imminent forestry and land service code changes would at a minimum maintain existing levels of protection.
He said he hoped they would in fact enhance koala protection, and he would not support or endorse new codes that diluted protective measures.
“I genuinely think this is a step forward – do I think this is the totality of what’s required to achieve the government’s stated objective of stabilising and increasing the number of koalas in the wild? Clearly not,” Mr Stokes said.
“It’s just one lever, there are many other things that need to be done as well.”
However, Nature Conservation Council chief executive Chris Gambian said excising farming and forestry zones from the koala SEPP was “a catastrophic setback”.
He said logging and land-clearing on forestry and agricultural land accounted for 90 per cent of koala habitat destruction.
NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann said the policy favoured logging over koalas, and criticised the government’s plan to strip councils of their ability to rezone land used for primary production to protect the marsupial.
Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who last year threatened to blow up the Berejiklian government over koala policy, said the deal struck the right balance and would prevent farmers being “strangled by red tape”.
Environment Minister Matt Kean, meanwhile, said the new SEPP would facilitate the government’s push to double the koala population by 2050.
The Koala SEPP 2020 came into effect in March 2020 and sought to simplify the process by which koala habitats are recognised and protected, extending the number of protected tree species from 10 to 65.
But the Nationals were concerned the policy would restrict land clearing, as more trees would be classed as koala habitat.
Operations ultimately reverted to the former SEPP 44.
A NSW parliamentary inquiry found in July that koalas would lose their habitat and become extinct in NSW before 2050 without urgent intervention.
The government in January committed to only 11 of the 42 recommendations made by the inquiry and supported 17 of the recommendations in principle.