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‘Teetering on the brink’: Half a billion dollars sought to aid wildlife recovery

The spreadsheet, compiled in the middle of February, does not detail how much of the money has been approved, nor how much will be diverted from existing programs.

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Among the biggest totals agencies are seeking is $60 million – with $40 million for this year and next – for feral animal controls such as aerial shooting and horse mustering. Post-fire weed control efforts need $45 million, with $15 million earmarked for the first two years.

The “Koala Bushfire Strategy” – including restoration of habitat and assisted reproduction – will need $57.9 million over the four years, the spreadsheet shows.

Researchers familiar with the estimates say the figures are early estimates of recovery needs after fires burnt through about 5.5 million hectares, much of it in national park forests. A top priority should be to repeat 1997 biodiversity surveys to understand first what had been lost, one of them said.

A spokesman for Matt Kean, the energy and environment minister, said the government was “committed to the recovery of our native animals, plants and landscapes across NSW following this summer’s unprecedented fires”.

The budget process was ongoing, with all agencies planning for the 2020-21 year, he said.

Logging machinery in the Styx River State Forest. The area was heavily burnt and ecologists fear for the remaining Hastings River mouse and other endangered species now that logging is resuming in what remains of unburnt.

Logging machinery in the Styx River State Forest. The area was heavily burnt and ecologists fear for the remaining Hastings River mouse and other endangered species now that logging is resuming in what remains of unburnt.

While officials wrangle over conservation funding, industrial-scale logging has resumed in fire-hit regions such as the Styx River, inland from Coffs Harbour on the NSW north coast.

Chris Gambian, chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council, said the logging would have “immensely negative ecological impacts” given so little of the Styx River forest was unburnt.

An endangered Hastings River mouse, from a photograph taken in January 2018.

An endangered Hastings River mouse, from a photograph taken in January 2018.Credit:Doug Beckers

“The fires mean that whatever we thought before about wildlife and species has to be scrapped and reassessed,” Mr Gambian said, adding he had asked the Environment Protection Authority to issue a statewide stop-work order for logging in native forests state until the effects of the fires are known.

“Logging remnant forests after such a disaster is like sending a demolition crew in to conduct a cyclone recovery operation,” he said. “It is hard to imagine a more harmful intervention.”

Mr Gambian noted the government’s own analysis indicated at least 32 threatened animal species alone had lost at least 30 per cent of their habitat due to fires, and were now “teetering on the brink”.

The Sun-Herald sought comment from John Barilaro, Deputy Premier and resources minister.

An area of the Styx River State Forest that could soon be cleared.

An area of the Styx River State Forest that could soon be cleared.

A Forestry Corporation spokeswoman said the majority of production crews on the north coast had moved from native forests to hardwood timber plantations after the fires.

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“A small number of selective harvesting operations that commenced prior to the fires have continued under the strict regulations governing native forestry in NSW,” she said, adding that crews in the Styx River State Forest were “finalising work in this location” and will move some harvesting operations into fire-affected forests “in the near future”.

The Corporation was in talks with the NSW Environment Protection Authority and other agencies to determine how to manage operations “to ensure that flora and fauna values are maintained, while allowing for the recovery of some burnt timber”, she said.

An EPA spokesman said the agency was investigating the planning of logging operations in the Styx Forest.

“The EPA will be continuing regulatory oversight of forestry activities to ensure [Forestry Corporation] are complying with the strict environmental rules that apply, including the Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals and additional site-specific operating conditions that apply to burnt forests,” he said. “This includes compliance checks of current operations in Styx River State Forest.”

“Protections around streams have been significantly increased to reduce soil and ash washing into rivers and impacting on water quality and fisheries,” the spokesman added. “Areas of unburnt forests at these sites will be protected so that food and shelter for animals that have survived following the fires are maintained, and wildlife recovery efforts are not impacted.”

Separately, Kate Washington, Labor’s environment spokeswoman, said delegates to the Country Labor Party meeting this weekend in Singleton will likely vote on Sunday to demand the government reverse previous cuts to the National Parks and Wildlife Service and to boost spending to assist the recovery after the fires.

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