Long battle to save Campbelltown koalas

Paws for thought: Advertiser columnist Dr Robert Close gives koala-spotting advice to students at Leumeah High School last year. Many playgrounds, reserves and even backyards are now part of koala migration routes.
Paws for thought: Advertiser columnist Dr Robert Close gives koala-spotting advice to students at Leumeah High School last year. Many playgrounds, reserves and even backyards are now part of koala migration routes.
Two decades ago: A protest at Wedderburn in 1991-92. This spot, at the end of Victoria Road, is now the main entrance to Dharawal National Park.

Two decades ago: A protest at Wedderburn in 1991-92. This spot, at the end of Victoria Road, is now the main entrance to Dharawal National Park.

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FOR two decades Campbelltown people have been on the front line — literally — of koala protection.

Yet standing in front of bulldozers was only part of the story.

In the 1980s the local branch of the National Parks Association discovered koalas at Wedderburn, on the edge of O'Hares Creek gorge.

This caused great excitement because the marsupials hadn't been seen locally for about half a century and were thought to be extinct.

But it wouldn't be easy to protect and nurture them.

Campbelltown Council had already, unknowingly, approved a housing estate on the same Wedderburn bushland site.

In 1988, the developer, Indonesian-based Yap Yan Pin, moved ahead with plans to build.

The council begged premier Nick Greiner to intervene. He refused. And the battle began.

The NPA led protests and the unfolding drama was covered in detail by the Advertiser. When a protest rally was held at Mawson Park it was dominated by family groups and school children.

Public petitions were collected, debates raged in State Parliament and the CSIRO studied the site.

But in 1989, koala campaigners got their most influential scientific ally - Robert Close, of the University of Western Sydney.

Dr Close began an exhaustive research program, checking koalas for diseases and fitting them with tiny radio transmitters to accurately confirm their eating patterns and corridors of travel.

The Advertiser launched a weekly koala column — still going strong — and helped financially back the studies of Dr Close and his assistants, PhD students Stephen Ward and Tristan Lee.

Yap Yan Pin took legal action against Campbelltown Council in the NSW Land and Environment Court — and it won, in May 1990.

Enter a new champion of the koalas — the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Electrical Union, rallied by campaigner Sue Dobson (now a councillor).

The union placed a green ban on the Wedderburn site preventing construction work. It would later win a National Trust award for this vital action.

The stalemate continued until January 1991, when Yap Yan Pin moved in with non-union contractors. Protesters and bulldozers came face to face.

The problem was, the protesters were not radical green warriors; they were mums and dads, politicians, retired folk, even kids. So when the police moved them aside, complete with heartfelt apologises, there was no need for tear gas or riot shields.

The developer then built a sealed road into the site and to even the most hardened campaigners it seemed as if the battle to save the koalas had been lost.

That is why it was considered a miracle when, just a week later, Yap Yan Pin was forced into receivership after the Australian Taxation Office took action over unpaid taxes and penalties.

The site fell into the hands of a Singapore bank which had no real interest in the controversial housing estate.

The Advertiser and NPA took then-opposition leader Bob Carr on an inspection of the habitat and he vowed to not only protect it but turn its leafy surrounds into a Dharawal National Park.

Prompted by this, premier John Fahey - lobbied also by Liz Kernohan, the MP for Camden — announced that the Wedderburn land had been resumed and would be declared a reserve.

After more than six years of protests and pickets and the longest-running green ban in Australian history, the battle had finally been won.

Mr Carr broke his promise to create a Dharawal National Park but the site was protected from any housing threats.

From that core habitat at Wedderburn, the koala population then exploded across the city of Campbelltown.

By the early 2000s the animals were being found in suburban streets, backyards and school playgrounds.

Dr Close's studies also collected more data and now entire koala family trees and feeding patterns have been documented.

And our koalas, moving through wildlife corridors, have been found as far away as Douglas Park and Wilton in the south, Holsworthy in the north and Menai and Heathcote in the east.

Dr Close is even trying to confirm a koala sighting west of the busy freeway in the Australian Botanic Garden at Mount Annan.

And, in a wonderfully ironic twist, that controversial sealed road built by developers in 1991 is now the main entrance way to Dharawal National Park — announced by Premier Barry O'Farrell in March.