Article summary:

– State Environmental Planning Policy (Koala Habitat Protection) 2019 replaces the former SEPP No 44 – Koala Habitat Protection.

– The SEPP was introduced 1 March 2020 but was amended on 16 October 2020 due to concerns raised by the National Party.

– A development occurring in core Koala habitat, as identified during an assessment by a “suitably qualified Ecologist”, triggers the need for a Koala Assessment Report (KAR) to accompany a DA.

– This article discusses whether the SEPP could be improved further.

Steven Ward
Associate Ecologist

02 9493 9500
sward@emmconsulting.com.au

Has much changed between the SEPPs? 

As discussed in Breaking through the noise – part 1, a key change between the two SEPP’s is the longer list of tree species. In the original version of the Koala Habitat Protection SEPP these were identified as being Koala ‘feed’ trees, which was inaccurate as the list also includes trees Koala use for shelter.

The simplest example of this is a tree called Turpentine (Syncarpia glomulifera). This tree species occurs along or close to drainage lines, and is thick and bushy. I conducted Koala radio-tracking as part of my PhD thesis research, and two female koalas with access to this tree species would preferentially seek it out for shelter. Other research by Alan Sluiter¹ looked at what species Koalas were eating by analysing the leaf fragments in their droppings, which were collected from the animals that were radio-tracked. There was no evidence that the Koalas were eating Turpentine. However, being thick and bushy, these trees would be a great place for a Koala to sit and shelter. It is therefore pleasing to see that the terminology has been changed to refer to the longer list as ‘Koala use tree species’.

Another key change that was originally introduced was, the ‘Koala Development Application Map’, which has since been removed. The Nationals Party threatened to cross the parliamentary floor over concerns about the mapping of Koala habitat over agricultural land, before eventually backing down. I also held concerns about the accuracy of this mapping, but from the perspective that it did not capture all areas that I know were used by breeding female Koalas from my PhD research.

A real-life application

Another female Koala that I radio-tracked, called Franchesca, best illustrates this.

Franchesca was radio-tracked over 7 years (1995 – 2001) and consistently used an area of bushland (her home range). The area that she used was located on sandstone soils, which I found Koalas could survive on. These soils, though, were found to be poorer quality habitat than where Koalas had access to vegetation influenced by shale soils, which is more fertile and provides better quality Koala habitat. Nonetheless, Franchesca, survived and raised Koalas joeys there. From sampling of tree species with her home range, the vegetation present would not have triggered an assessment of Koalas under the old SEPP 44, as the proportion of Koala food trees was less than the 15% trigger.

Whilst some vegetation in the area used by Franchesca was captured under the ‘Koala Development Application Map’ (when it was available), some of the vegetation she utilised was not (ie some of the vegetation would not have automatically triggered a Koala Assessment Report if there was a Development Application proposal). Thus, the ‘Koala Development Application Map’ would not have adequately resulted in the “conservation and management of areas of natural vegetation that provide habitat for koalas”; the aim of the Koala Habitat Protection SEPP. I note that accurately mapping Koala habitat, especially across an area as large as NSW, is incredibly difficult.

 The significant increase in tree species listed under the Koala Habitat Protection SEPP means that the area utilised by Franchesca, if assessed now under the revised SEPP, would require a Koala Assessment Report. Thus, whilst the ‘Koala Development Application Map’ could have been faster for proponents, due to its inaccuracy in identifying all Koala habitat, removing this map is likely to benefit Koalas and move toward achieving the aim of the SEPP. This may not have been the Nationals intent, but nonetheless overall is likely a positive outcome for the Koala.

An opportunity missed? 

A key opportunity to improve outcomes for the Koala would have been to align the Koala Habitat SEPP with the requirements of the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 (BC Act).

The BC Act sets out the processes for assessment of impacts on threatened species, including major projects (State Significant Development and State Significant Infrastructure) and assessment of projects under Part 5 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act) via Review of Environmental Factors. Currently the Koala Habitat Protection SEPP does not apply to these types of developments. Is this an opportunity missed, to provide greater protection for Koalas across all types of development? The SEPP could have included assessment processes for these types of developments which, if aligned closely with BC Act, could have achieved greater clarity and alignment for assessment of development across all types of development.

The Koala Habitat Protection SEPP identifies that all options to avoid, minimise and manage impact to core Koala habitat should be explored before compensatory measures (or ecological offsets) are used, which is consistent with the BC Act. However, the Koala Habitat Protection SEPP does not provide any guidance on how the compensation should be determined.

The BC Act allows conservation, or Stewardship, sites to be established and biodiversity credits, including Koala credits, to be generated at these sites. Credits generated at a Stewardship site are sold to offset impacts elsewhere, and the sale of the credits goes into a trust fund which then is then used to fund ongoing environmental management of the Stewardship sites. Habitat Protection SEPP could have been set up to clearly utilise this process. For example, for proposals which demonstrate that removal of trees cannot be avoided, the SEPP could have assessed how many Koala credits under the BC Act are required. This wouldn’t have to have been the more complex data and formulas used under the BC Act, but could have been a much simpler calculation.  This would have explicitly allowed the use of the offset process under the BC Act to deliver outcomes for the Koala when impacts couldn’t be avoided.

The benefit of aligning the Koala Habitat Protection SEPP with the credit retirement process under the BC Act is a simplified and consolidated assessment and offset process across NSW biodiversity assessment framework; larger projects that have to prepare a full Biodiversity Development Assessment Report (BDAR) could have used the full BC Act processes while providing a simplified assessment process for small size developments not captured under the BC Act.

Requiring all types of development that impact on Koala habitat to retire credits, would also create demand for the positive management of Koalas. This new demand could mean that farmers could establish part of their land as a Stewardship site, and effectively get paid to manage areas of Koala habitat on their land. This opportunity may have allayed some of the concerns of the National Party through provision of a mechanism for farmers to earn some additional income through good land management practices; something that many farmers excel at.

Options for farmers is something that the National Party could get excited about!

About the author:

Dr Steven Ward is an Associate Ecologist who has led assessments for multiple large-scale projects and has wide-ranging experience across sectors including infrastructure, urban development, water, and power. He holds a Bachelor of Science (Hons) and a Doctorate in Philosophy (Koala ecology in southern Sydney). Steven is also a Biodiversity Assessment Method (BAM) Accredited Assessor.  

¹AF Sluiter, RL Close and SJ Ward, 2002. Koala feeding and roosting trees in the Campbelltown area of New South Wales. Australian Mammalogy 23: 173-175; available at https://www.publish.csiro.au/am/pdf/am01173