The Great Koala National Park

The Great Koala National Park (GKNP) was first floated in mid-2014. Picked up by then NSW Opposition Environment Spokesperson. The proposed GKNP on paper covers an area from just north of Kempsey in the south to Woolgoolga in the north. It roughly runs west from the Pacific Highway to as far as a line aligned with the beginning of the Dorrigo Plateau in the east. At the north of the park it runs west to around Clouds Creek. Adding 175,000-hectares of State forests to existing protected areas to form a 315,000-hectare reserve. As such it will run through all three Local Government Areas of the Coffs Coast. It has arisen as an idea that grew out of numerous local campaigns aimed at protecting the region’s Koala habitat over the past 26 years.


The history of the GKNP


The first serious local campaign to save koalas was a community protest against logging high quality koala habitat in compartments (Cpts) 26 and 27 in Pine Creek State Forest in 1992. Logging was stopped. and there was much ‘gnashing of teeth’ and $100,000’s spent by the then Forestry Commission on various studies and ‘koala plans’ until After hundred of thousands of dollars was spent by the Forestry Commission on Koala studies and plans, the Carr Labor government extended Bongil Bongil National Park in July 2003 by adding 3,156-hectares of the former Pine Creek State Forest.


Interestingly Cpts 26 and 27 were left out of the park and remain threatened by logging today. The reason they were left out of the extended Bongil Bongil National Park was that environmentalists were forced by the Government in 2002, to make a choice between protecting them or some old growth west of Woolgoolga where the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) had protested against logging in 2000.


In 2010, North Coast environmentalists started to become seriously concerned about the state of koalas on the North Coast. There were increasing reports of widespread declines from landholders, ecologists and wildlife carers. In 2011, The Senate held an inquiry into koalas and it was reported that koalas in eastern Australia had declined by 50% over the last twenty years. In 2012, the then Rudd/Gillard Federal Labor Government listed koalas as vulnerable in NSW and QLD.


NEFA states that it was about the time Forestry Corporation of NSW (FCNSW) started to increase logging intensity of coastal forests from 50% tree removal to up to 90% tree removal — a practice environmentalists argue is virtual ‘clearfelling’. The increase in logging intensity was viewed as illegal by many in the local environmental movement, and they argue that this was a view held by the NSW Environment Protection Agency (EPA), but it was believed that they would not act against FCNSW. The NSW Government has now legalised this intensive logging prescription.


In 2012, four local environment groups — Bellingen Environment Centre, Clarence Environment Centre, Nambucca Valley Conservation Association, and North Coast Environment Council — combined with the NSW National Parks Association to raise $3,000 to engage experienced ecologist David Scotts to undertake mapping and reporting on Koala populations on the Mid North Coast between the Macleay and the Richmond Rivers.


“We want it to be a place people can go and interact with nature. To walk, bike, stay overnight or longer. It is not proposed to lock up so many hectares and just throw away the key. We want it to be a great national and globally significant attraction within our region”, quoting a local environmental spokesperson.


Scott’s original work identified and described three Koala meta-populations in the region, including seven regional populations and 25 sub- populations. He reported on the population size, status, density, threats, confidence limits and land tenure for each population class. The three meta-populations described; the Clarence-Richmond, the Coffs Harbour-Guy Fawkes and The Bellingen-Nambucca-Macleay, were each identified as being of national conservation significance.


Environmentalists reviewed Scott’s work and developed a conservation proposal covering native forests on public land within the Coffs Harbour-Guy Fawkes and The Bellingen-Nambucca-Macleay meta-populations.


The proposal was included as one of 13 conservation reserve proposals in the publication: “Our-environment-our-future-policies-for-the-2015-election-and-beyond”, produced by leading environment advocacy groups in NSW and originally published in September 2014, in the lead up to the March 2015 NSW State election. The proposal was to: “establish a reserve system for koalas including the Coffs Harbour –Guy Fawkes and the Bellingen- Nambucca- Macleay koala meta-populations”.

The GKNP attracts political support


The NSW Opposition spokesman for the environment at the time, Luke Foley, reviewed the policies document and, as mentioned above, was attracted to the koala reserve proposal.


A report entitled: “A blueprint for a comprehensive reserve system for koalas on the North Coast of NSW”, was presented to Mr Foley in December 2014, who subsequently visited Coffs Harbour in January 2015 when he formally announced State Labor’s support for the GKNP. Labor’s policy included $150m for the establishment of the GKNP and other conservation initiatives. This policy has since been supported by the NSW Greens Party.


Groups such as National Parks Association have continued to promote the GKNP. The original assessment work by David Scotts (2013) has now been extended north to the Queensland border and south to the Hunter River. The Office of Environment and Heritage has incorporated the ‘Koala work’ by Coffs Coast environment groups into a ‘Save Our Species’ project on Koalas, to produce areas of koala significance at regional and local scales.


Several councils on the Coffs Coast have been approached to support the GKNP concept. Nambucca Council has asked for a cost/benefit analysis, and Bellingen Shire has given in principle supplort for the GKNP proposal. Coffs Harbour and Bellingen Shire councils have contributed $25,000 each for a feasibility study.


Support for the GKNP has continued to grow


Valuable political support has been given by Labor’s candidate for the federal seat of Cowper Andrew Woodward, federal Labor Senator Jenny McAllister, and Nambucca Shire Labor Cr Susan Jenvey. The NSW State Labor opposition has committed to creating a Great Koala National Park on the north coast. In March 2019, the NSW Greens announced support for the GKNP. Valuable political support has been given by NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann, federal Greens Senator Janet Rice, ex-Greens leader Christine Milne, Bellingen Shire councillors Dominic King, Jennie Fenton and Toni Wright-Turner, and indepetent Coffs Harbour Cr Sally Townley, ex-NSW Greens MLC Jeremy Buckingham, and ex-NSW Greens MLC Dawn Walker.


Supporting organisations include: NCEC, BEC, KRFA, NVCA, NEFA, NPA.


What is the Great Koala National Park


A local GKNP spokesperson said we want the park to “be a place people can go and interact with nature … to walk or bike and stay overnight or longer. It is not proposed to lock up so many hectares and just throw away the key. We want it to be a great national and globally significant attraction within our region”.


It is proposed that it stretch from near Kempsey in the south to approximately equal to Woolgoolga in the north and that it be a park that actively encourages day and multi-day walking and biking trips with overnight stays within its boundaries. It is also proposed that it link via cross promotions with existing tourist attractions such as the Marine National Park and the wonderful new ‘Tree Tops Walk’ at Sealy Point. The Park has the potential to be a national and international destination that would give the region’s tourist and support industries a real boost and making the region a year round destination.


Map of the GNKP


The GKNP can boost the local economy


A very rough estimate can be arrived at in relation to what the proposed park might conservatively be worth economically to our region. In 1995, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service released a report: “Economic Value of Recreational use: Gibraltar Range and Dorrigo National Parks”. It showed that the economic value of those Parks then to be approximately $90m a year. In fact an erratum in the report highlighted their original estimate was too conservative and that $90m was nearer the mark. In 2018 dollars that equals $148,576,771.65. Let’s say $150m a year. Since that report was done major improvements have been made to those Parks and visitor numbers have increased as a result, so $150m is probably a conservative figure in 2018.


The proposed GKNP is three to four times the size of the Gibraltar Range and Dorrigo National Parks. It is designed to draw tourists for longer stays and to spend greater amounts of time and money in our region. It has the potential to be regionally, nationally and internationally significant and as such is just the sort of thing that the Chamber of Commerce and local tourism associations need to try and induce airlines to make the Coffs Coast an international destination.


It is not unrealistic, given the above sum of $150m for the Gibraltar Range and Dorrigo National Parks, to say that a ‘back of the envelope calculation’ is that the GKNP could conservatively be worth $300m a year to the region’s economy. The potential flow on benefits to tourism and other support industries across the State as a whole should not be underestimated either. So not only would crucial flora and fauna be saved but also they would be open to the public to be admired and interacted with in a sustainably managed way that would also potentially be a major socio-economic boost. Clearly a far more thorough cost/benefit analysis needs to be done than the figures presented above. Indeed such an analysis should be done. It should take into account what the GKNP would mean for all affected industries, including logging.


The GKNP fits with local government tourism strategies


The GKNP is closely aligned to the aspirations of relevant governments. For example the current Coffs Coast Tourism Strategic Plan states: “Tourism is one of the most important contributors to the growth and character of the Coffs Coast region comprising Coffs Harbour and Bellingen LGAs. The annual economic contribution of tourism to the region is valued at approximately $490 million. It is estimated that the Coffs Harbour LGA receives 1.6 million visitors annually and the Bellingen LGA receives 223,000. Most are domestic overnight visitors and daytrip visitors, with international visitors accounting for around 5%. Given the significance of tourism to the Coffs Coast economy and the competitiveness of tourism in regional Australia, it is important that tourism is not only maintained and strengthened as an economic driver, but also planned and managed in a sustainable way to enhance and conserve the natural environment, protect the wellbeing of residents and attract visitors with shared values”.


The Plan then identifies strategies and associated actions for each key direction. Important strategies include: establishment of working groups as part of the DCC to assist with: industry development and engagement, accommodation development and refurbishment strategies, a Coffs Coast brand review process, and development of a new nature-based tourism strategy and commencement of a stakeholder engagement process to introduce a tourism and business levy, and importantly for us…. Supporting operators to develop new products that focus on distinctive experiences related to leisure, nature-based, regional food, and arts and culture.


For Bellingen Shire, tourism is identified as a top priority as part of the BSC Economic Development and Tourism Plan 2015-2020. The Manager, Economic and Business Development works with local stakeholder organisations to foster sustainable tourism and economic development. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was established between BSC and CHCC in 2008, with BSC currently contributing $30,000 annually to CCM for marketing activities.

 "Further development of ecotourism and a National Koala Park is a must, thanks to the incredible  natural assets we have stretching from the coast up to Dorrigo."

          Dominic King, Mayor of Bellingen Shire

At the State level, the Tourism Forecasting Council predicts that Mainland China will continue its current growth trend for at least the next decade. National arrival forecasts for 2020/21 have been revised upwards to 1.039 million and visitor nights to more than 48.9 million. Total economic value to Australia from China is forecast to exceed $6.8 billion. A key outcome for NSW in the years leading up to 2020 will be to maintain market leadership by protecting and growing its share of visitors and visitor nights, and continuing to attract higher levels of expenditure. If NSW is successful in achieving this objective, it is set to almost double the value of Chinese visitor expenditure within the state by 2020/21. The Chinese tourist seeks authentic indigenous and nature based experiences. The most compelling proposition for Australian destination promotion in China is ‘City plus Nature’ or ‘Accessible Nature’ and the broader element of ‘naturalness’.


Embedding the visitor economy within wider NSW Government policy priorities the NSW Government will take the lead in ensuring that the broader economy sectors are considered when looking at visitor services and activities. It is therefore essential that NSW Government departments and agencies realise the benefits and work together to grow the visitor economy.


Research commissioned by the Taskforce showed that many NSW destinations are not perceived as unique or appealing to domestic visitors. Consumer recognition for many NSW regional destinations was not strong, even amongst NSW residents. Reference this is an important one for us as name recognition (GKNP) would help highlight the natural advantages of this region.


One specific action of the Visitor Economy Taskforce developed by the current NSW government states:’Recommendation 19. Ensure that key tourism destinations and precincts are protected against encroachment by other forms of development activity which may impact on their sustainability or potential to contribute to the visitor economy’. DNSW, NSW T&I Relevant NSW Government agencies Supported in principle, This will be considered in the development of the new destination management planning system. Reference page 33.


The alternative to the GKNP


This region has some of the most diverse tall forests in the world, the GKNP will put many of them into conservation, but not everyone supports the park and the alternative is much less positive for our koalas and forests.


The NSW Department of Primary Industry (DPI) has put forward a plan to build three wood-burning power stations in the region that would be fueled by logging waste like small trees, unmillable logs and crowns from our native forests.


FCNSW along with DPI also have plans to open up around 70% percent of the remaining old growth forests within the state forest estate to harvesting, these forests have been protected for the last 20 years and are an important part of our current reserve system. These changes offer a temporary boost to dwindling timber supplies but do not offer future supply certainty and will have a negative impact on our tree hollow dependant wildlife.


There are also plans afoot to open up about 140 000 hectares of coastal forest to a virtual clearfelling regime with up to 90% canopy removal. These forests are some of the most important koala habitat and the regions coastal forests are currently already under massive pressure from logging, development and land clearing on private property. On top of the 140 000-hectares, other forests in the region will be subject to higher intensity harvesting under new IFOA rules. Again this is to bolster unrealistic timber supply contracts. The Great Koala National Park offers a better alternative for our koalas and the regions economy.


A park for everyone


There is a go to argument against protected areas: that they will “lock forest users out”. The GKNP proposes to be a more inclusive national park that will cater for more traditional forest users like dog walkers, horse riders, four wheel drives and mountain bikes. This will be done by using two different land tenures within the park. High conservation value forests, sensitive areas, and key koala habitat will become national parks while lower conservation value areas and important places for recreation will be zoned as regional parks.


These different levels of protection would take into account a number of different factors including conservation value and potential for recreation opportunities in a way that would mean different activities are unlikely to clash, and all park users can enjoy various activities without impacting on each other or important conservation areas.


The footprint of the GKNP takes in a number of different existing parks and reserves, These conservation areas will retain the existing names, staff and management plans under the GKNP proposal. Since much of the proposed park is degraded forest that has been subjected to heavy industrial logging, weed invasion and bell minor die back, so a big part of the GKNP proposal will be jobs in bush regeneration and habitat restoration, with an emphasis in restoring koala feed trees. The GKNP will not include any hardwood or softwood plantation forests.


Visitor Center Network


Walking Track Network — the GKNP will include a number of new walking tracks.


The network will be across existing and new reserves with the crown jewel being a massive 200 plus kilometre walk. Starting from the town of Bowraville, it will follow the mountains west all the way to Point Lookout then around the watershed to near Deer Vale, where it will plunge down into the Bellinger River National Park, running around to the Dorrigo Rainforest Center then through the mountains to Tuckers Knob where the trail will split — north-east to Coffs Harbour via Sealy Lookout or east to the GKNP Visitor Center near Repton on Mailmans Track. The GKNP will also include a 75 km extension to the coastal walking track from Yamba to Sawtell — the extension will run south from Sawtell, all the way to the lighthouse at Smokey Cape near South West Rocks. The GKNP will also include a number of shorter tracks, new picnic areas and lookouts.


Bike Track Network


Mountain biking case study — Derby in Tasmania


Since 2015, when about 30 kilometres of trails were opened to rave reviews — the first stage of a planned 80km network costing $3.1 million — mountain bikers have been leaving their mark everywhere around Derby.


  • 30,000 visitors on the trails every year
  • tourists are staying four to five nights in Derby, then another five days elsewhere in Tasmania
  • It adds up to an estimated $30 million-a-year return on that $3.1 million investment.

The Great Koala National Park could offer local mountain bike clubs security of tenure allowing them to apply for funding and develop tracks and businesses within the park.