A group of residents have growing concerns about the future of koalas in and around their town after finding out about plans to log a plantation in which many live.
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Several weeks ago some Gordon residents received a notice, stating a 16-hectare blue gum commercial plantation "grown as a resource for material used in timber and paper production industries" on the north west corner of Cartons Road and the Western Freeway was planned to be logged.
"The pending harvest operation will involve the use of heavy equipment for felling and transporting the trees," the letter reads.
The blue gums that form the plantation are understood to have been planted about 20 years ago on land now owned by Central Highlands Water, where a wastewater treatment plant is operated, with the plantation leased to Geelong-based wood grower and processing company Midway Ltd.
While the plantation - on a parcel of land of approximately 45 hectares - is relatively small, residents say it provides important habitat for wildlife and also hides the wastewater plant from view.
Resident Stephen Derrick said koalas inhabit the plantation and it was concerning that part of their habitat was now under threat.
Mr Derrick said koala habitat, along with all habitat for native animals, was declining across Moorabool Shire.
He said wildlife, including koalas, is increasingly under threat as more people make a tree change to the country-meaning more blocks of land are being carved up by developers and trees felled, as well as increasing dangers posed by vehicular traffic and threats posed by companion animals.
The area in Gordon was also damaged by the recent storms in winter, putting koalas and other wildlife under further pressure.
Mr Derrick said these reasons, as well as a changing climate, meant the availability of safe areas were vital to help animals continue to survive in extreme weather conditions.
"We need to protect every bit we have to give the koalas the best chance of survival,' he said.
The plantation is next to the Western Freeway, prompting concerns that if the trees on the northern embankment are removed wildlife will lose their relatively safe crossing place on the overpass at Cartons Road and face almost certain death trying to cross the freeway, where motorists travel at 110km/h instead.
"Dedicated native animal crossings (installed elsewhere around the state) are non-existent on the Western Freeway at Gordon, making this overpass and plantation critical to the current koala population as a vital link to remaining forested areas to the North and South."
The growing group of concerned residents have been in discussions with CHW to ensure both koalas and other wildlife living in the area are protected.
Mr Derrick acknowledged the facility was an important asset for the region not only as it treats the area's wastewater but because of its status as a wildlife refuge and corridor.
"The Gordon community has a strong interest to ensure best use of the site in future for the protection of wildlife, maintenance of a clean and green local environment, as well as safe and efficient farming for those who call the Cartons Rd landscape home."
He described Cartons Road as "a beautiful and very quiet rural road regularly visited by locals enjoying the tree change, with opportunities to see native wildlife and surrounding farmland".
He said harvesting the blue gum trees would not only destroy the koala habitat, but would also expose the treatment facility to public view, thereby ruining visual amenity and affecting the community's enjoyment of the unique landscape.
Mr Derrick said the pandemic had created a high demand of people seeking to move to regional areas such as Gordon and those families, as well as families who had lived in the area for generations, enjoy exploring the area through the quiet bush and farmland.
"This highlights the importance of ensuring bush areas and wildlife are not only protected but strategically increased as the world of climate change and extremes of weather increasingly impact us all.
"Locals have fought against big projects steamrolling ahead, such as the huge Ausnet Western Transmission powerline towers, planned for the area. Our landscape and animals are what the locals are demanding to be protected."
Local resident and wildlife rescuer, Heidi Johnson, has been collating koala sightings in the area from the last few years and said there was a "fairly healthy population of koalas" in the Gordon area.
She said there was first grade but predominantly second grade koala habitat around Gordon but it needed to be maintained, while the increasing risks of wildlife becoming victims of road trauma needed to be mitigated.
"Given all the threats to them, including disease, there is a lot to be said for maintaining islands of habitat."
She is focused on trying to maintain corridors for wildlife to cross the freeway, including by making the Cartons Road overpass a safer wildlife crossing, but also to reduce incidents of wildlife being hit by cars in other parts of the area.
"I'd like to see Cartons Road overpass certainly kept with as much of the plantation vegetation as possible, especially the part that's up against the road.
"At the moment koalas, possums and other animals use the trees that are on the embankment of the overpass. The tree branches droop down onto the overpass so they drop down from the trees onto the railing of the overpass and then trot along the side of the overpass - a relatively short distance - and back onto the other side.
"People report seeing them doing this and have taken photos and videos from their cars."
She would like wildlife crossing signs installed along the overpass, as well as the speed limit dropped to 50km/h.
"We really need to make sure that we can reduce road trauma and keep safer crossing places," Ms Johnson said.
Though she believes wildlife crossing signs would also be beneficial on other thoroughfares, such as the Old Melbourne Road between Gordon and Ballan, which is frequently used by trucks.
Speed enforcement through having speed cameras move around the areas is another idea, while revegetating cleared areas is another way to help at-risk wildlife.
Western Victoria MP, Andy Meddick, has also weighed into the debate and last week posed a question to the Environment Minister in Parliament.
"...The contractor has the right to clear fell the whole plantation at the end of this contract. That period comes to an end this month.
"Unsurprisingly, this area has become home to a diverse wildlife population. Local volunteers have found evidence of Sugar Gliders, Boobook Owls, Tawny Frogmouth, Swamp Wallabies, Eastern Grey Kangaroos, Feathertail Gliders, Phascogales, as well as Koalas.
"This forest has become an important wildlife corridor connecting the Wombat Forest to the Whipstick Forest, and allowing wildlife to safely cross a freeway.
"Residents fear another incident akin to the recent Cape Bridgewater koala massacre. What measures are being taken by the department to protect this environment and the animals that have made it their home?"
He is yet to receive a response.
Mr Meddick told The Courier koalas deserved protection.
"It was only last year that we saw a massacre of koalas at a property near Warrnambool when their habitat was cleared. I have fears we could see this happen again if the Gordon koalas aren't protected.
"We already know that in some states, koalas are on the road to extinction. We can't let the same happen in Victoria.
"It's clear that my constituents in Gordon care for these koalas deeply, with my office being bombarded with requests to help them.
"I'm calling on Central Highlands Water and the Minister for Environment to do the right thing - and ensure the plantation that the Gordon koalas call home is not cleared."
Managing Director of CHW, Paul O'Donohue, said the blue gum plantation next to the Gordon Wastewater Treatment Plant was "required for future irrigation to provide sustainable recycled water for agricultural use and to service the growth of the Gordon township into the future".
He said CHW had been engaging with stakeholders to understand their concerns about site plans and future management arrangements.
"This blue gum plantation is a commercial plantation owned by a third party, on land leased from CHW, which is proposed to be harvested due to the lease ending."
He confirmed the lease had been extended into mid-2022 to enable further consultation.
"CHW has been working with the community around the opportunity to maintain a vegetation buffer strip to act as a wildlife corridor for koalas and provide a visual amenity screen," he added.
Midway Ltd, meanwhile, was the company embroiled in what has been described as a "koala massacre" near Cape Bridgewater early last year.
A Midway spokesman said South-West Fibre Pty Ltd (SWF), a joint venture between Midway Limited and Mitsui, managed the harvest of a blue-gum plantation near Portland in October 2019.
After the company logged the land and left some trees for wildlife, it was handed back to a private landholder who without the involvement of Midway later proceeded to log the remaining trees, killing and injuring hundreds of koalas.
"SWF and its contractors did not cause, and are not alleged to have caused, any harm to wildlife, including koalas, in performing that role," the spokesman said.
The Conservation Regulator is continuing to investigate and work through the legal process in relation to the incident, a spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said where koalas inhabit blue gum plantations intended to be harvested, operations must occur under an authorisation to disturb koalas issued by the Conservation Regulator and subject to the conditions of an approved Koala Management Plan.
"No harvest can occur until this authorisation is approved and harvest operations must occur in a way that avoids impacts to koalas during and after harvest operations."
In a wildlife emergency contact Wildlife Victoria on 03 8400 7300
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