The clearing of protected vegetation in an area of littoral rainforest next to Black Head Bowling Club has sparked an official investigation by both MidCoast Council (MCC) and the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.
The vegetation, which lay on an expanse of Crown Land managed by MCC, was cleared on Wednesday, November 13, during the week-long state of emergency in NSW.
However, the circumstances surrounding the clearing and whether or not it was done lawfully has been called into question.
On Tuesday, November 12, Black Head Bowling Club general manager, Neil Patchett, sent an email to member for the Myall Lakes, Stephen Bromhead, requesting permission to clear the bushland around the club because of potential fire danger.
Mr Bromhead, who said he was in an RFS fire truck at the time attending a fire, granted him that permission.
"I said, 'It's a state of emergency, if people need to put in a firebreak or clear around a structure to protect it because they're in danger they're entitled to do it,'" Mr Bromhead confirmed.
Armed with written permission from his local sitting member, Mr Patchett then had contractors come in and begin clearing the vegetation the following day, before they were ordered to stop by MCC rangers who had been alerted to what was happening by members of the Black Head community.
By that time, an area of littoral rainforest approximately 40 metres long and 12 metres wide, which was protected under State Environmental Planning Policy 2018 and contained at least one endangered plant species, had been cleared.
Mr Patchett maintains he was responding to a genuine threat.
"It seemed the common sense approach to me; it got pretty dry and dangerous," he said.
"A change of wind could've caused major concerns."
However, member of Hallidays Point Landcare, Alan Pursch, sees it very differently.
He and his fellow members have been working in rainforest areas around Black Head and Diamond Beach for decades.
"It is very clear their land was not at risk," he said.
"There were no active fires in the area at that time."
Furthermore, Mr Pursch believes the bowling club used the state of emergency to achieve something they never would've been able to achieve under ordinary circumstances.
"We know the bowling club have wanted to clear that land for a number of years," he said.
"It seems to us that this was a very opportunistic act."
It is understood management at Black Head Bowling Club have made a number of requests to MCC in recent years to have the vegetation around their premises cleared, but on each occasion they've been advised that because of the protected status of the land, an environmental impact assessment would need to be completed by the club first.
This has never been done.
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Mr Pursch believes the clearing has had a long-lasting environmental impact on the rainforest.
"It will probably take at least a generation to restore it," he said.
He says he and his fellow members are horrified by what has been done and hope the appropriate measures are taken to address it.
"I hope there is a thorough investigation and the authorities that have responsibility for this rainforest ensure it happens as soon as possible."
Given Mr Bromhead's involvement, however, Mr Patchett believes he acted within the confines of the law.
"I don't see that there can be any repercussions," he said.
He also believes there has been a failure on MCC's part to provide a safe and appropriate evacuation area to the community of Hallidays Point during a bushfire crisis.
The investigation is ongoing.
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