Respected koala ecologist Dr Steve Phillips
Respected koala ecologist Dr Steve Phillips

Koala expert quits Pacific Highway project, slams RMS

ONE of Australia's most respected koala ecologists has resigned from a contract to undertake habitat assessment along the proposed Wardell bypass because he said the RMS "had changed the game rules".

Dr Steve Phillips was working for a company called Ecosure to assess koala activity along the planned route.

He had originally declined the work because it was only looking at a limited number of "flora connectivity structures" (underpasses and overpasses) that had already been identified by RMS.

He said the locations of the structures were "poorly informed" and "a matter of convenience", rather than being based on a thorough ecological evaluation.

But Ecosure negotiated a new tender that Dr Phillips considered to be a comprehensive assessment of the koala population.

There was a clause that allows the RMS to change the rules of the game and I can't be a party to that. I'm not interested in being part of a bad survey

- Koala ecologist Dr Steve Phillips

He had been on it for a couple of weeks but when he made comments in the media last week about populations around Meerschaum Vale being a "linchpin colony" for the region, he was effectively told "to pull his head in".

He was told he was subject to a confidentiality agreement and therefore not permitted to speak to the media, and also that RMS had changed the brief back to only looking at their proposed crossing points.

"There was a clause that allows the RMS to change the rules of the game and I can't be a party to that. I'm not interested in being part of a bad survey," he said.

"As an ecologist, everything we do should be transparent. The RMS is a public service and it annoys me that this happens ... I thought this was about the best outcome for koalas."

Dr Phillips had conducted studies for Ballina Council's Koala Habitat Study.

Ballina councillor Jeff Johnson said the RMS "obviously didn't like his findings".

"If the preferred route goes ahead, a nationally important colony will be wiped out."

The RMS said the scope of the project had not been changed and Dr Phillips had a conflict of interest because of his work for council.

"Ecosure has been asked to survey sites not covered by the council study to reduce the duplication of data. Both studies will be used to inform the best location of animal crossing points," the spokesperson said.


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