Tree harvests not so sweet

INCREASING camphor laurel clearing across the Northern Rivers is threatening endangered plants and animals, according to conservationists and ecologists who believe the practice should be urgently reviewed.

Lorraine Vass, president of Friends of the Koala, said she has seen a dramatic increase in large-scale camphor harvesting in the past three months and believes much of it is being used to fuel the co-generation power plants at Broadwater and Condong sugar mills.

Camphor laurel was always earmarked to supplement an expected shortfall in the cane bagasse and trash required to fuel the co-generation plants, but recent droughts and floods have adversely affected the supply of cane refuse.

“It’s happening all over the place. Since September we’ve seen a tremendous increase in clearing,” Ms Vass said.

“It’s becoming very obvious driving around the region, and we are deeply concerned about damage to biodiversity, habitat for significant species, soil erosion and the risk of further weed infestation.

“Harvesting is in full swing in Tweed, Byron and Lismore with virtually no regulation. Contractors were also working in Ballina until that council insisted on the lodgement of a development application.”

Ms Vass said residents near a 40ha property recently cleared on Friday Hut Road in Byron Shire observed koalas migrating from the site with their young.

The co-generation plants are a $220 million renewable energy joint venture between the NSW Sugar Milling Co-operative and the State Government-owned Delta Electricity.

The very viability of the plants is also being questioned due to a dramatic fall in renewable energy certificate prices following a flood of certificates on to the market after the Federal Government decided to heavily subsidise domestic solar energy.

Ms Vass said a forum including local governments, the Northern Rivers Catchment Authority, Department of Environmentm Climate Change and Water, Far North Coast Weeds, and Delta Energy was currently working on a voluntary code of practice for camphor clearing operations, but she believed more needed to be done.”

“We never seem to learn that short-term gain for the few usually results in a mess that others are left to clean-up, sometimes at considerable public expense,” she said.

Dr Claudia Catterall, from the School of Environmental Science and Management at Southern Cross University, shares Ms Vass’ concerns.

“We know camphor laurel is a weed but it is now firmly established in the landscape providing ecological benefits and cutting won’t eliminate it,” she said.

Dr Catterall said a reassessment of camphor laurel management and removal was urgently required as it now served a vital role in the survival of remnant rainforest species and provided wildlife habitat, corridors and food supply.

“It is a complex issue. We’re not against the removal of camphor laurel per se, but experts now recognise its ecological role,” she said.

“There is less than 1 per cent of the Big Scrub remaining and camphor laurel now provides potential for rainforest to persist in the area. The seeds of most rainforest trees and vines are spread by birds which also now rely on camphor laurel, and many rain- forest species grow beneath camphor laurel trees.

“There needs to be staged removal and replanting with native species to protect habitat and prevent erosion and weed infestation.

“Any clearing other than isolated paddock trees needs some sort of ecological assessment, and a buffer zone should be left around patches of remnant rainforest.”

Camphor laurel is listed as a noxious weed across all the Northern Rivers and therefore falls outside general tree preservation orders.

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