koalas

Lendlease must be wary of its next move if it is to maintain its reputation as one of the most sustainable housing companies in the world, environmentalists warn. 

At Figtree Hill, Gilead, in NSW’s Macarthur region near Campbelltown, south west of Sydney property developer Lendlease began clearing trees after Campbelltown Council gave the green light to begin work on a 1700-home estate early last year. The development is planned to be 100 per cent renewable and all-electric, with a community facility, bike paths, and walking trails.

Environmentalists have tried to block the problematic development because the location is the only koala habitat listed in New South Wales as expanding. It also straddles the shortest route between two breeding populations.

Koalas were early month finally listed as endangered after a long decline in numbers due to land clearing, catastrophic bushfires and a pervasive chlamydia epidemic. Since 2001 62 per cent of the NSW koala population has been lost. 

The Australian Koala Foundation estimates that there are possibly as few as 43,000 koalas left in the wild. A NSW parliamentary inquiry in 2020 found koalas could be extinct in the state by 2050

Despite putting forward a detailed koala conservation plan for Mount Gilead that included koala proof fencing and two underpasses beneath the road, last year Lendlease began work on stage 1 without any underpasses or corridors being built. 

“The Gilead development has become the flash point for the koala protection issue west of Sydney,” Jeff Angel, director of the Total Environment Centre told The Fifth Estate on Thursday. 

“It’s becoming quite a serious reputational risk.”

Environmentalist Jon Dee, founder and managing director of advocacy organisation Do Something and co-founder of Planet Ark made stronger claims.

 “Now that koalas are endangered, Lendlease should not be able to chop down a single Koala habitat tree…I’ve lost trust in them as an organisation,” Mr Dee said 

Environmental groups have totally lost faith in Lendlease” Mr Dee said.

Artist rendition of the proposed koala underpass. Image: Lendlease koala conservation plan

In September 2021, the NSW Land and Environment Court dismissed a legal bid to overturn the development approval. 

The challenge by environmental group Save Sydney’s Koalas against developer Lendlease and Campbelltown Council was a “last-ditch attempt to save a koala habitat corridor that is crucial for ensuring the survival of the Campbelltown Koala population – the last significant chlamydia-free colony in NSW”. 

According to a 2020 study, up to 100 per cent of some populations are positive for the deadly sexually transmitted infection. A vaccine is currently being tested in a large clinical trial at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in Beerwah, Queensland.  

In November 2021 the NSW upper house supported a motion to halt any further rezoning and development of the site until the underpasses and koala corridors on the Mount Gilead property, Menangle Creek Noorumba (Stage 1) and Woodhouse Creek (Stage 2), were protected, “consistent with the Chief Scientist & Engineer’s Advice”. 

Save Sydney’s Koalas told The Fifth Estate that if development continues it “cannot rule out further court action”. 

However, development has not been halted. In an emailed statement from Save Sydney’s Koalas the group said: “We agree with the NSW Chief Scientist that if urban development proceeds, it will seriously compromise the viability of the Campbelltown koala population”.

Lendlease’s koala corridor, which runs along a gully with a body of water, will be located at the heart of the community. Plans are to include a buffer zone with koala-proof fencing to direct the animals through the corridor and keep them away from people and roads. The plans include two underpasses or tunnels under the roads designed to protect the koalas from being hit by passing cars. 

The company says that the proposed koala corridor “will restore safe east-west habitat links between the rivers for the first time in more than a century”. 

The proposal includes:

  • funding and constructing wildlife underpasses on Appin Road, one at Noorumba Reserve (northern boundary of the Estate), and another at Beulah Reserve (southern boundary) to improve road safety
  • removing physical barriers to east-west connectivity that exist today like fencing in the water supply canal
  • rehabilitating bushland in the proposed corridors

Speaking with Lendlease the company says that environmentalists are incorrect in their views around this development. 

Lendlease says that the $35 million commitment has a cash value of at least $30.5m, covering; habitat restoration and creation, training and community awareness programs, koala protection fencing, koala underpasses, monitoring, research, and land dedication. 

“Our koala conservation plan meets the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer’s expert advice and is currently the only fully-funded plan that will deliver new protections and connections for designated koala corridors, and increase the quality and quantity of habitat in Campbelltown,” Lendlease head of NSW communities Ranisha Clarke told The Fifth Estate in a written statement.

“The Figtree Hill project site is located on a pre-cleared paddock… The current works being undertaken are contained within this project site and are outside of any designated koala corridors. The commencement of works has environmental approvals from local, state and federal governments.”

But environmentalists say Lendlease’s designs for a koala corridor are inadequate. 

Proposal for koala corridor and koala exclusion fencing at the Mt Gilead site. Image: Lendlease koala conservation plan.

The proposed corridors will have an average width of 400m, following the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer recommendations. An actual minimum width is not provided by Lendlease.

The koala conservation plan states that the optimal average corridor width for koalas in Campbelltown has been calculated to be 425m wide. 

And while construction has begun on the land that is koala habitat, Lendlease has not  yet started any koala tunnels or the corridor. This leaves the koalas exposed to risk. 

Lendlease told The Fifth Estate that the underpasses have not yet been constructed because the plans have not yet been approved. 

“While we wait for the NSW Government to approve our proposal for underpasses, construction can be safely undertaken on the project site as the works are outside of any designated koala corridor. Additionally, prior to works, thousands of hours of on-site surveys were completed by ecologists on foot and with thermal imaging drones to ensure there was no evidence of koalas on the project site.”

Mr Angel of the Total Environment Centre called this “a silly Catch-22 exercise.”

“Lendlease has always been manoeuvring to avoid having significant koala corridors across Gilead and delegate the decisions to planning bureaucrats, who clearly have a pro-development outcome in mind,” he said.

Mr Dee claims that in December a koala was found dead on the road, “quite near the construction site”. 

Lendlease denied that any dead koalas had been found, and responded: “Our koala conservation plan meets the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineers expert advice, including widths of proposed corridors.”

Save Sydney’s Koalas explained: “We are still concerned that work has started for Stage 1 without any underpasses having been built and an inadequate corridor along Meanangle Creek (Corridor A). This corridor was deemed too narrow by the Campbelltown Local Planning Committee which… stipulated that it had to be widened to 250m.”

“Lendlease may claim they have done more for koalas than others before. But the critical question is, have they done enough?” said Mr Angel. 

“They started off virtually denying that koalas would cross the property. They’ve now lost that argument, and now it’s incumbent on them to stop pushing their development claim above koala protection.”

“If Lendlease thinks stage 1 was a difficult battle for them, just wait for stage 2.”

Protesters at the site of the Figtree Hill construction site in January as Campbelltown Council gave permission for Lendlease to cut 50 trees. Image: Facebook group Save Mount Gilead Inc

“Many evironmentalists are saying this is the koala equivalent of Adani campaign. We need to draw a line in the sand,” Jon Dee told The Fifth Estate

Jon Dee penned a letter to Lendlease chair Michael Ullmer on January 12 last year, followed up in November with a request for answers. 

He stated that some of his key questions were ignored and other questions were only answered in “vague terms”.

The letter included questions about the width of the koala corridor and the likelihood that the koala underpasses will be built.

“I wrote a letter to Lendlease and they refused to answer. I went on location with them with WWF [World Wide Fund for Nature] and spent hours on site,” Mr Dee said. “At one point in part of the koala habitat they made it clear they would totally clear it – 35 hectares, medium to high quality [habitat].” 

Lendlease failed to reach out to Mr Dee and DoSomething with updated plans despite earlier engagement, he said.

“They have stopped engaging with us,” he said. “They’ve added a new road to the map that wasn’t on any maps beforehand. They’ve gone back and asked for denser development and more commercial, which means more vehicles. 

“They are chopping down 300 year old, completely healthy trees and claiming they are not healthy. They are replacing them with seedlings and claiming there will be no loss of habitat. You can’t compare a 300 year old tree with a young sapling.

Images of cleared land at Mt Gilead taken January 29. Image: Facebook group Save Mount Gilead

“This is the first time since 1990s logging in Tasmania by Gunns that I’ve gone publicly against big business on the record. 

“Lendlease has been exemplary in sustainability with Barangaroo and other developments. But in this instance they’re trying to convince people you can put 5000+ homes, plus more cars, chop down the trees and destroy habitat, and somehow the koalas will still be there.

“It is misleading the public.”

Lendlease says there will be just 1500 homes on the estate.

Environmentalists have labelled claims made by Lendlease in regards to koala conservation as greenwashing:

  • Lendlease claims “there will be no net loss of ‘core’ koala habitat. No one I know uses this term” Mr Dee said
  • Lendlease is implementing a $35 million conservation program to protect the local koala population, but has provided no breakdown of expenditure. Is that cash or land value? Mr Dee says Lendlease representative told him it is cash and not the price of land. But as yet no breakdown has been released

“That’s some serious dosh… and they haven’t done anything yet” [in terms of the proposed corridor or koala tunnels]. 

“It’s disappointing, they are throwing away all of their credibility in one hit.” 

Lendlease told The Fifth Estate: “The current works being undertaken (Figtree Hill Stage 1) are outside of the identified koala corridors. We’re able to safely deliver these works while we wait for Government approval to build the underpasses. We also commit to meeting government policy and recommendations from the NSW Chief Scientist regarding corridor widths.”  

Lendlease investor Australian Ethical Super has spoken out in a public media statement against the development, but says it will not divest from Lendlease over the matter. 

The superannuation fund also made several public statements via twitter stating that they may divest if Lendlease does not “meet their protection commitments”.

The Fifth Estate reached out to Australian Ethical Super for comment but was directed back to its public press release. 

In 2019 Dr Mike Freelander, federal member for Macarthur met with then environment minister Matt Kean for an inspection tour of some of Campbelltown’s bushland areas.

“I ask that no further development occurs until we have a koala and wildlife national park in the area and appropriate protection fencing and movement under or over passes on Appin Road,’ stated Dr Freelander. 

“We need to halt all development along this corridor until adequate protections are put in place.”

Environment minister James Griffin told The Fifth Estate that he agrees with Mr Kean’s expectation for development proposals to meet the Chief Scientist’s recommendations for protecting koalas. 

According to minister Griffin, the Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan and the Mount Gilead Stage 2 proposal have been developed to meet the requirements for approval under the strategic biodiversity certification pathway of the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016

“Ideally these areas are protected from the impacts of future development”.

The NSW government has committed to create a 1885 hectare Georges River Koala Reserve of fragmented and existing koala habitat as part of the draft Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan at a cost of $84 million for koala fencing, habitat restoration and connecting koala corridors. 

In a recent media release Nature Conservation Council NSW chief executive Chris Gambian accused the government of sitting on its hands. 

The organisation said that it is ready to start work with Mr Griffin “developing and implementing long-overdue protections for the state’s threatened koalas.”

“Koala habitat continues to be destroyed because of weak government policy at both state and federal levels.

“The infamous koala wars of 2020 has now seen the NSW government sit on its hands while this iconic species has been in decline. It’s time they resolved the impasse on land clearing and private native forestry codes and properly protect habitat. 

“The NSW koala strategy expired on 30 June last year and we are yet to see a new one. There are many opportunities for the NSW government to drastically improve how koala habitat is managed in this state,” he said.”

Lendlease told The Fifth Estate: “Until recently, it has been NSW government policy to protect koalas from vehicle strikes on Appin Road by restricting koala movement to the east of Appin Road with fencing.

“However, as the NSW Chief Scientist and Campbelltown City Council have stated, fencing on Appin Road may protect koalas in the short term but will prevent the expansion of the Campbelltown colony if their movement is restricted between the Georges and Nepean Rivers.” 

This comes after the Morrison government last month announced $50 million to help the species, which campaigners say may have come too late.

“This decision is a double-edged sword. We should never have allowed things to get to the point where we are at risk of losing a national icon. If we can’t protect an iconic species endemic to Australia, what chance do lesser known but no less important species have?” International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Wildlife campaign manager Josey Sharrad said. One hundred other threatened species will receive just $10m in comparison. 

The Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) also commented on the funding announcement, saying that the funding was announced without any consultation or detailed habitat mapping or population data. 

“Despite many attempts to pass along this invaluable research to Minister Ley and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, AKF has been met with little more than a ‘standard response’ letter. I actually handed our maps to Minister Ley in Canberra just after the bushfires and we have heard nothing from her since,” said AKF chair Deborah Tabart.  

On 2 November, Lendlease attended a Campbelltown Council meeting to submit an amendment to the planning proposal for Figtree Hill, to: 

  • triple the quantity of public open space on site 
  • retain more paddock trees and farm dams/ponds through improved location of public open space
  • and increase environmental protection through inclusion of new land-use zones that better suit the registered bio banks.

“We’ve been engaging with government, the community and environmental groups for over five years, and we know this project meets the local community’s need for housing, and will improve environmental outcomes for the local koala population,” Lendlease said. 

UPDATED 25 February 2022: This article has been lightly edited for accuracy and clarification.

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