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Environment and Communications References Committee
Status, health and sustainability of Australia's koala population

SOMERSET, Dr Bronte Jean, Private capacity


ACTING CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you for coming to talk with us today. The committee has received your submission, which it has numbered 96. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to that submission?

Dr Somerset : Yes, I do. I intimated in my submission that there had been some anecdotal evidence regarding the mistreatment of koalas. I have subsequently received some more anecdotal evidence to support that claim and I would like to provide an explanation as to the significance of those claims. All of these claims are based on anecdotal evidence, so I cannot claim that they are correct. The evidence I received initially was that, prior to logging, some koalas had been shot. Because that was such a ghastly statement, I thought I would make some inquiries as to whether anyone had heard of other cases of mistreatment, and I did find some anecdotal evidence which might support it.

In Yurammie State Forest a logging crew found the carcass of a koala which had been shot. They took it to their supervisor, who decided that the koala had fallen from a tree onto a stick. A few years ago several koala carcasses were found in a quarry in Tantawangalo. Tagged koalas later found dead were assessed as having fallen out of a tree. In 1977, koalas were found in Nadgee State Forest. In 1980 a 20-tonne post-logging bark dump was built. It ignited in November and burnt 46,000 hectares in six hours, releasing huge amounts of energy. In 1986, environmental impact statements were called for. One resident asked whether the koalas had survived the 1980 fire. Her question was translated in the report as: 'Did the koalas survive the 1952 fire?'

These individual anecdotes may be tenuous. However, it was stated that residents soon twigged as to what was happening. As a body of knowledge, it at least raises suspicion; at most, it is sickening. To me, it makes little difference whether the koalas were intentionally destroyed by random acts or whether logging processes destroyed them, their colonies and their habitats. The results are the same.

ACTING CHAIR: We will now go to your submission. Would you like to speak to that?

Dr Somerset : With regard to the evidence of a lack of consultation which I mentioned in my submission, there is one more addition I would like to make. I inquired further into that. In my submission, I noted that Forests NSW appears not to have undertaken the legally required consultation with certain groups prior to logging. To me, the constitutional definition of consultation goes beyond just an advice letter. They are required to consult with several groups which I name hereunder. Janine Green, president of the animal welfare group WIRES, confirms that WIRES has not been consulted with regard to logging that is currently being undertaken in areas around Bermagui and in the Five Forests area in the far south-east of New South Wales. Suzanne Foulkes, from the conservation and environment group Friends of Five Forests, based in Bermagui, confirms that there was no consultation from Forests NSW regarding either its 2009 or 2011 logging campaigns in the Bermagui State Forest. Five Forests is well known to Forests NSW. Two members of the Gulaga and Biamanga board of management told me that neither the traditional owners nor other board members had been consulted.

Rather than depend on hearsay as to whether residents had been consulted, on 16 July I conducted a door-to-door survey of all the people whose residences abut the Bermagui State Forest. I found only one person who said they had been consulted, and almost 100 per cent said they opposed the logging. Some had not received a letter of advice. I would like to add this clarifying information to my submission. Today I would like to make some comments regarding what is happening on the ground and the reality of what we are experiencing in my area. I present as a private citizen. I do not have any other benefit or impetus for submitting or speaking today. I just represent the view of many of my friends and the residents who live in the area of the five forests. I would like to talk about that reality, about activism and about the experience of a resident in Bermagui and I would also like to make some recommendations to this inquiry as to how it might proceed.

My submission to this inquiry was confined to Bermagui and to the state forests of south-east New South Wales because it is where I live. I am sickened by the treatment of our forests and consequent habitat destruction, including for the koala, by clear-felling and native forest logging. We live on an island but we cannot use this as an excuse to absolve ourselves from global criticism. The world is watching, just as we watch what happens in other countries. After I posted some images of a local logged forest on Facebook, my cousin in North Carolina commented, 'Bronte, wow! I thought that perhaps only us Yanks had perfected the art of denuding forest. This is criminal and I'm sorry to see that this is occurring.'

This is such a global threat. Many more people are paying attention these days. Tourists do not want to see denuded forests; they want to experience the lush, beautiful natural forest that we value intrinsically. We need to recognise that and work towards protecting their beauty and securing their unique carbon storage and habitat capacity. This might save the few remaining koalas, especially considering the rarity of the genotype in this area. We can no longer blindly accept the status quo of chipping approximately 90 per cent of Australia's logged native forest timber and selling it overseas. Over 2,500 trees enter the Eden woodchip mill each working day. To me, the woodchip pile there represents native species' habitats, forest larders and forest homes, lying in a huge dump on the ground as a commodity to be sold—our native forests of beauty, rich and rare, pulverised.

I thought you may like to know a little about what is happening in Bermagui at present. The residents of Bermagui and Tanja recently received letters notifying them of timber harvesting and acknowledging that the forests to be logged contain koalas. Compartment 2069, near Gulaga, contains koalas and logging is imminent. A map is in my submission, showing the proximity of the known koala population to the logging. They do not have a 10-kilometre buffer, either.

As stated in submission No. 61, the continuation of intensive logging activities on state forest lands in this area poses the single greatest threat to the survival of this particular population of koalas. So Bermagui residents are hopping out of bed early every Monday morning and lining up peacefully, dressed in black, on the tourist drive and the main road into Bermagui and witnessing the logging. There is supposed to be a visual impact zone, but it is not fooling anybody. We know what is happening and the destruction is awesome.

What the public sees, feels and smells after intensive logging is disturbing. To me, the woodchipping industry defies logic because, according to the Garnaut report, the financial benefit does not outweigh the natural worth of a forest. We feel deep grief, which finds no comfort in the phrase 'They'll be right again in 30 years or so.' One of the workmen on a Bermagui compartment was heard to say that he doubted these trees would regrow. They have been logged too many times. Regarding activism, 24 of the 25 conservationists charged with offences relating to protecting Mumbulla Estate forest from logging of known koala habitat have had their cases dismissed. It creates an anomaly when Australians are charged for trying to protect our natural wilderness and after examining the issues judges dismiss their cases. Thus friction is created, as the edges of nature, politics, science, the law, the timber industry and activism collided and grind against each other like tectonic plates. I see the collateral damage of these ongoing collisions on the back of logging trucks going down the Princes Highway.

ACTING CHAIR: Dr Somerset, do you have much longer to go on this submission? We will need some time for questions as well.

Dr Somerset : Sure. I just want to relate to you Julie's experience. Julie lives within 50 metres of where logging is taking place. On her regular walks through the forest beside her home next to compartment 2001, Julie has seen bird life, including lyre birds, sea eagles, swift parrots, owls, wedge tailed eagles; and animals, including a kangaroo with a joey, echidnas, yellow-bellied gliders, turtles, a monitor lizard and a little microbat, which she took to NANA. She practices the principles of sound environmental stewardship as she picks up rubbish in the forest and stays on the track so as not to damage creatures lurking beneath leaf litter. Heavy machinery is destroying this forest. The creatures cannot go to the forest over the road because they could get run over and it has been logged. There are no hiding places.

I do have more to say, but I will wait to see if you have some questions on what I have said.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. We will need to make sure that you have time to tell us what else you have to say.

Senator CAMERON: For the record, I would like to indicate that I wrote to the chief executive officer, Mr Nick Roberts, of Forests New South Wales in relation to this specific issue of the logging in known koala habitats in the Eden area. I did get a response and I will forward a copy of that to the committee for our consideration, because we may want to talk to Forests New South Wales. Dr Somerset, has there been any response to the issues that you have raised with the company in the Bermagui?

Dr Somerset : I have not contacted the company on this issue. We have contacted them on various issues in the past. But they quote the regional forestry agreements, which is the law under which they are entitled to log. However, we have a legal person in our conservation movement in the Far South Coast who has itemised logging breaches pertaining to koalas and inadequate surveys. I have copies of all of the letters that she has presented to the Department of Environment, Heritage and the Arts and Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water.

Senator CAMERON: The koalas in the Bermagui forest are some of the last of a special group, aren't they?

Dr Somerset : Yes. They belong to the special genotype that was mentioned by Dr Alistair Melzer in his evidence. Whether there are any koalas in the Bermagui forest or not I do not know. They have been photographed there as recently as 2009. I do not know where they are still in the Bermagui forest. But Forests New South Wales indicated in their letters to residents that there were koalas there so no doubt they have done the surveys. But there are definitely koalas in compartment 2069, which is due for logging.

Senator CAMERON: Right. From any of the arguments that have been put forward by the forestry industry, do you think that their ecological management of the forest benefits the koala population?

Dr Somerset : I would not have any personal experience of that or any scientific evidence of that, but I do not believe that it does. It is tragic what we see, and I cannot imagine anything being able to survive in the forests after they have logged them.

Senator CAMERON: Has Forests New South Wales attempted to consult or discuss these issues with the local activists in the Bermagui area?

Dr Somerset : In this present spate of logging around the Bermagui area, I know of no such case where they have consulted. I have a letter from the WIRES group stating that they have not been consulted regarding either this current spate of logging or the previous spate in 2009. I have that letter to submit as well.

Senator CAMERON: How do you respond to some of the submissions that have been made to this committee that some of the submissions are substantially affected by emotional issues as distinct from scientific issues?

Dr Somerset : I must admit it is personally distressing to see what is happening. I think you do not need a scientist to tell you it is devastating when we see our forests logged. Yes, people do get emotional about what is happening, but it does not take away from the fact that many people have submitted to this inquiry that the habitat destruction is one of the major causes of koala decline in numbers.

Senator CAMERON: Thank you.

Senator McKENZIE: For a point of clarification for my own understanding of the issue, is this state forest native plantation being logged?

Dr Somerset : No, it is natural native forest. They are not plantations.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: We have Forests New South Wales appearing later in the day. You have said that residents have received letters noting that it is koala habitat that is intended to be logged. How is that stated in those letters?

Dr Somerset : I have copies of the letter here.

ACTING CHAIR: Would you like to table a copy of that letter as well as your earlier opening statement?

Dr Somerset : Yes. I have tabled that. It says: 'I am writing to inform you that Forests New South Wales are planning forest activities in Tanja State Forest. There are known koala records on various tenures around this area. Forests New South Wales seeks any additional information you have on koala activity in the area that you believe may be of interest.' The letter to Bermagui says: 'Database searches show that koalas have been detected around the area. If you have any additional information'—and this led me to ask: why did they want additional information about koalas in the area? If they have done their surveys, they will know what is there and what is not there.

ACTING CHAIR: We will potentially be able to ask that. You have a second letter there. Do you wish to table it?

Dr Somerset : Which letter was that? I have tabled both of the letters from Forests New South Wales, one to Bermagui and one to Tanja. They are in the appendix.

ACTING CHAIR: Would you care to table your opening statement that you have written?

Dr Somerset : Yes. You are receiving that now.

ACTING CHAIR: I just want to go back to the allegations about the shooting of koalas. Have you got any more tangible evidence on that?

Dr Somerset : That is purely anecdotal evidence. It was told to me by a lady. I said to her, 'Why would Forests New South Wales want to know where koalas were if they had done their surveys correctly?' She has been in the area for a long time. She said, 'That is so they can destroy them before logging.'

ACTING CHAIR: But there is no evidence of that.

Dr Somerset : No, I have no evidence of that.

ACTING CHAIR: We may be able to ask them about that as well.

Dr Somerset : I found that surprising myself, but after investigating and asking some older citizens in the area I discovered those stories that I have previously mentioned.

ACTING CHAIR: Have you got any information that might help us about the number of koalas in the Bermagui region?

Dr Somerset : There are people with much broader knowledge of that. Yes, I can take that on notice and provide you with that information.

ACTING CHAIR: We have had some evidence that it is 50 or less, but it is not very clear. Again, we can ask other experts later in the day about that.

Dr Somerset : Certainly.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you very much, Dr Somerset.

Proceedings suspended from 12:01 to 13:38