Tuesday, 12 Sep 2000

KOALA BEACH, Pottsville, New South Wales

We’re meeting this morning with developer Brian Ray and project manager Steve McRae to discuss stages three, four, and five of the Koala Beach development — the first koala-friendly housing estate (in the U.S. you’d call it a subdivision) to be built in consultation with the Australian Koala Foundation.

Can development be koala-friendly?

This is an unusual alliance, one that was hard won. During our original negotiations, many people in the community did not trust this alliance. Many felt that AKF had compromised its integrity by working with a developer, but I believe very strongly that unless we look for solutions like Koala Beach and work proactively with the people who own the land, we’ll never have a hope of saving the koala. Many of these landholders need direction in terms of environmental management and we need to be there with them — walking the hard yards with them,influencing them with our ethics and belief in conservation, and listening to the problems they face.

Koala Beach is a residential community within one of the most beautiful areas of coastal bushland in northern New South Wales and it has been designed to sit gently amongst the bush and animals that surround it. Koalas, sugar gliders, swamp wallabies, blossom bats, glossy black cockatoos, bandicoots, ring-tailed possums, green tree frogs, curlews, lorikeets, king parrots, and many other species live there.

In the past the land was grazed for cattle, farmed for market vegetables, and at one time supported a piggery.
Like much of the surrounding farming land, it is now being urbanized as the human population presses south from the Gold Coast, which itself is south of Brisbane. (The continual growth along our eastern seaboard is comparable to the growth along the west coast of the U.S.)

Koalas are running short on places to curl up.

We’ve been doing fieldwork in this area for about five years and over that time we’ve seen significant changes. Once there was only a little bakery (with excellent vanilla slices — an Australian pastry to die for), a pub, a service (gas) station, and a fruit and veggie shop. Now there are new roads, new shopping centers, and more and more houses. You can feel the pressure on Koala Beach already. It will, one day, be surrounded by housing estates where there are no measures to protect wildlife or the environment. I often wonder what will happen, because even if we put everything in place to protect the koalas that live there, there is no guarantee that they will survive long term because of the impacts of all those people and their dogs, cats, and cars. Sometimes the situation can feel futile.

With 80 percent of koala habitat on privately owned land, we need to give direction to planners, landowners, and people who come to live here. We need to avoid mindless urban sprawl and create places where people want to live, places that nourish people’s souls and social needs as well as the koalas and other wildlife.

I don’t think we can dictate to people what they can and cannot do. All we can do is tell them how they can help the koalas and other animals survive and hope they will listen. Will they make the necessary changes to their lifestyles? Will they tie up their dogs at night? Will they not own a dog? (I myself own three and know the joy they bring me.) Will they reduce the speed of their cars when driving through koala habitats? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I suspect that people would change if they knew the gravity of the situation.

A koala in a tree, happy as can be.

Brian Ray has walked a long way with us. Sometimes his developer friends think he’s a bit strange for working with us, but to his credit he has stuck with the constraints we’ve placed on the development, like prohibiting cats and dogs, keeping special koala home trees, etc. Most notably, he has dedicated some 500 of 750 acres of bushland to be preserved forever to support the animals and plants that live there. This is a huge commitment to conservation. How many of us would give up nearly 500 acres to protect wildlife?

Today we are discussing whether the new stages of the development will also have a dog ban. Sales of the first stages were slow and many say it is because people do not want to give up their beloved pets to live with wildlife.

It’s such a complex issue. We want the dog ban because dogs kill koalas and even having one dog on site could wreak havoc. Lifting the dog ban would give a clear message to people that we have had to compromise. What would that compromise mean to the koalas on the site? Could we keep the dogs under control? Would the people on the site still understand that they have to be responsible? Many questions today.

The lesson I have learned from working with Brian is that some areas of koala habitat should never be developed. Koala Beach is core koala habitat, and any dog will destroy a colony living there. But I am sure that less sensitive habitat could be managed differently.

Perhaps if we had a National Koala Act in place, things could have been different. We might have been able to buy this land from Brian. The government might have determined that it was too precious to develop.

I will have to make the hard decision about whether to lift the dog ban. The buck will stop with me. I will have to think of what is best for the koalas and for humans, since we must live somewhere .

It’s going to be an interesting day!