Instead, the pace has quickened further, with farmers giving notice they would clear 51,000 hectares and Local Land services approving a further 288,000 hectares for native vegetation removal, Mr Gough said.
The day-long inquiry heard from a range of witnesses. Senior forestry and primary industries officials defended the expansion of forestry into northern NSW coastal forests known to contain koala colonies, saying improved monitoring and adaptive management could moderate the impact on the marsupials.
“We believe we can have koalas and a sustainable timber industry,” said Brad Law, principal research scientist in the forestry unit of the Department of Primary Industries.
Similarly, the expansion of new housing planned for south-western Sydney – including almost 70,000 homes between Campbelltown and Wilton alone – could also co-exist with the healthiest koalas in NSW, the officials said.
South-west Sydney’s koala populations are chlamydia-free, while as much as 70 per cent of the animals in the Liverpool Plains are infected with the sexually transmitted disease that leaves them infertile, the inquiry heard.
Environmental groups stressed the threat posed by developments such as Lendlease’s Figtree Hill at Mt Gilead.
They pointed to the use of the existing Noorumba Bush Reserve as a biobank to offset the loss of koala habitat trees, and argued the federal government’s Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act would likely end up rejecting the move even though NSW Planning had approved the swap.
“Anything that decreases habitat is not going to be positive for koalas,” Matthew Crowther, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, told the inquiry.
The fragmentation of forests and the destruction of corridors also placed the remaining isolated colonies of the animals at risk of bushfire or other threats, he said.
The Environmental Defenders Office also noted that some projects were now proceeding with approval provided they offset predicted koala losses with protection for other species.
“We heard very strong evidence today that NSW koalas are in crisis and will go extinct if action isn’t taken now to protect their habitat,” Cate Faehrmann, the Greens MP who chaired the inquiry, said.
“Forestry Corp also admitted that koalas are almost always present in the forests they manage,” she said.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.