By Senior Solicitor Cerin Loane

Following its announcement on 8 March 2021 (see our earlier update), the NSW Government has now made State Environmental Planning Policy (Koala Habitat Protection) 2021 (Koala SEPP 2021). It commenced on 17 March 2021, while Koala SEPP 2020 continues to apply to some rural zones.  

Proposed changes to both the Land Management (Native Vegetation) Code 2018 and Private Native Forestry (PNF) Code of Practice, also part of the Government’s announcement, are still forthcoming – and it is these changes that could spell the death knell for koalas.   

Concerningly, a number of these proposed changes seek to implement aspects of the defeated Local Land Services Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2020 – see our earlier analysis here. Community hearings for an inquiry into the controversial bill were cancelled following the Government’s announcement on 8 March, with the inquiry committee expected to provide a brief report only. The 8 March announcement also pre-empts the anticipated three-year review of the land management and biodiversity conservation framework which is in its early stages, and a review of Private Native Forestry that has not yet reported. 

The Government intends to “remove links” between the Koala SEPP and both the land management framework and PNF framework. Currently both the land management framework and PNF framework rely on ‘core koala habitat’ – identified in Koala Plans of Management (KPoM) made under the Koala SEPP – as a mechanism for identifying koala habitat as sensitive land that’s protected from some clearing. EDO argues it is entirely appropriate that koala habitat is identified and protected as a sensitive area in both the Land Management Code and PNF Code. 

The Government’s proposals could allow clearing of koala habitat that is currently protected by: : 

  • Preventing ‘core koala habitat’ from being identified as category 2-sensitive regulated land under the Local Land Services Act 2013 (LLS Act), meaning that ‘core koala habitat’ would be able to be cleared under the Land Management Code (whereas currently code-based clearing cannot be carried out in ‘core koala habitat identified in an approved KPoM’); 
  • Removing the prohibition on carrying out PNF in core koala habitat; and 
  • Removing requirements in Local Environment Plans for development consent for PNF. 

While the government has indicated that it intends to update the Land Management Code and PNF Code to strengthen protections for koalas, it is not yet known what changes will be made to effect this. There is a real risk that changes to these codes will further weaken protections for koalas. It is hard to see how the announced changes could provide ‘strengthened’ protection compared to the existing restrictions on code-based clearing and PNF in core koala habitat.  

It is also unclear if and how any proposed changes will respond to concerns about the regulation of land clearing raised by the NSW Audit Officei, the Natural Resources Commission and the official vegetation clearing figures published by the NSW Government, which all confirm a regulatory failure to achieve environmental outcomes and effectively administer the law. The amount of vegetation authorised to be cleared under the Land Management Code continues to exceed expectations. Latest figures published on 1 March 2021 show that a total of 441,066.28 ha has been certified for clearing pursuant to 60Y of the LLS Act since March 2018.ii This amount of clearing continues to exceed the ‘trigger’ for review of the codes, namely that clearing exceeds 20,000 hectares measured in any six-month period’. Despite the greatly increased clearing rates and exceedances, there has been no tightening of the Land Management Code since the Natural Resources Commission undertook its ‘trigger review’ in 2019.iii 

Further, in the wake of Australia’s 2019-2020 bushfires, the protection of critical unburnt habitat emerges as a priority for securing the future of many threatened species, sustaining important ecosystem services and helping impacted ecosystems and landscapes to recover.  The protection of unburnt koala habitat should be a priority of government, and additional measures must be put in place to prevent the clearing of critical, unburnt habitat. 

Opportunities to strengthen koala protections 

The proposed changes to the Land Management Code and PNF Code have not yet been made, so hopefully there will be opportunities to provide evidence-based feedback and make recommendations about any revisions. In particular: 

  • Amendments to the Land Management Code and PNF Code usually require community consultation, so there is likely to be an opportunity for the community to have a say on proposed changes. 
  • An inquiry into the Local Land Services Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2020 is expected to deliver a short report on 8 April 2021 – it may provide useful interrogation of proposed changes.  
  • The Environment Minister has a key concurrence role in making and amending both the Land Management Code and PNF Code, and in that role should ensure that koala protections are strengthened to prevent koalas becoming extinct in NSW by 2050. 

EDO calls on the NSW government to clarify the process going forward and provide detail for public consultation on how the proposed changes will actually strengthen protections for koalas. 

The 2020 Final Report of the Upper House Inquiry into koala populations and habitat in New South Wales made it clear that there are significant deficiencies in NSW laws relating to the protection of koala populations and habitat. That Inquiry found that koala “will become extinct by 2050” if action is not taken to protect the species.iv Politicised negotiations on koala protection are not the way forward; it is unlikely that koalas will benefit from ad hoc, unjustified changes to land clearing and PNF rules.  

Key elements of the new SEPP framework for koala protection are outlined in the Department’s FAQs.