A Great Koala National Park (GKNP) proposed more than a decade ago on the NSW mid-north coast is now likely to become a reality.
The NSW Labor Party committed $80 million to establish the park between Coffs Harbour and Kempsey during the state election campaign.
Following Labor’s election win, the party says the park will be formed within its first term.
Conservation groups have welcomed the long-campaigned-for park, but its establishment raises questions for the NSW forestry industry, which logs in some of the areas within the proposed park.
What will a Great Koala National Park look like?
The GKNP, as it’s proposed, would connect 175,000 hectares of state forests with existing national parks, creating a nature reserve of more than 300,000 hectares.
According to the National Parks Association of NSW, the area is home to 20 per cent of the state’s koala population.
The 2023 election was the third time Labor took the promise to voters.
This time however, it was able to point to the 2020 NSW parliamentary inquiry into koala populations, which found the animal was on track for extinction by 2050 without urgent government intervention.
Incoming Environment Minister Penny Sharpe said the GKNP was Labor’s plan to prevent that outcome.
“I would hope at the end that we fulfilled our commitment but importantly, there’s an incredible conservation legacy that fundamentally is about saving koalas from extinction in the state,” she said.
The finer details will be worked through during the consultation period, but Ms Sharpe said there were plenty of elements on the table that went beyond conservation.
A visitors centre, walking trails and a koala hospital are part of the current proposal.
“[The GKNP could be a] big tourist destination and opportunity for the community, where people want to come and visit and see koalas in the wild, and also enjoy a beautiful national park,” Ms Sharpe said.
Who will be consulted?
Ms Sharpe said consultation would begin soon, canvassing views from conservationists and the timber industry.
But those who have been campaigning for the park want a moratorium on logging within the proposed area during the consultation phase.
“It makes absolutely no sense spending $80 million of taxpayers’ money to create a GKNP, while those very values we’re trying to protect are being destroyed,” said Paula Flack, from the NSW National Parks Association.
Ms Sharpe has ruled out a moratorium.
“That’s not the plan … we need to obviously do the conservation work, but we also need to involve industry and unions about the impact,” she said.
But in a sign the issue may be far from settled, Greens environment spokesperson Sue Higginson has written to the three independent MPs — Joe McGirr, Greg Piper and Alex Greenwich — about the matter.
The letter calls for the trio to meet and discuss potential support for a moratorium.
“Whilst we are so welcoming of the decision of the incoming Labor government, we now know that the numbers actually mean there is a capacity to make this government do the things it’s promising to do,” Ms Higginson said.
“[If] we’re going to put $80 million of public money into it, then let’s make it the best koala national park we can.”
At a time when the building industry has been suffering a shortage of supplies, Australian Forest Products Association chief executive Victor Violante said the timber industry needed to be able to co-exist with the GKNP.
“That would be our starting point, around how can we have a GKNP alongside a strong timber industry,” he said.
Mr Violante said a recent research paper, supported by the industry, showed it remained a significant jobs contributor in NSW.
“The economic contribution of the industry to NSW is around close to $3 billion a year, [employing] close to 20,000 people across the state and particularly on the North Coast,” he said.
Will jobs be created or lost?
A 2021 report from the University of Newcastle found the GKNP could create close to 10,000 jobs, while seeing about 600 forestry jobs lost.
Ms Sharpe said affected communities, industry, scientists and conservationists would all be heard during the consultation period.
“I know that there’s going to be disagreement, but I’m very much someone who thinks that we start off with people around the table.”