Cocanarup Conservation Alliance celebrates clearing permit refusal as lithium explorer Bulletin Resources flags appeal: ABC News

ABC Esperance / By Emily JB Smith

The Cocanarup Conservation Alliance celebrates the clearing permit refusal. (ABC Esperance: Emily Smith)

Chris Biddulph sits beneath a canopy of centuries-old salmon gums and bellows a triumphant “cheers!”

Corks fly off champagne bottles and the Ravensthorpe farmer is on his feet, filling plastic flutes, as the toasts begin.

“It’s never tasted so good,” his friend and fellow Cocanarup Conservation Alliance member Rosemary Jasper declares, taking a sip.

“Here’s to Cocanarup.”

On a bright Friday afternoon, the group gathered in the Cocanarup Timber Reserve, about 600 kilometres east of Perth, to celebrate a “historic decision”.

Branches poke from the right hand side, two birds sit on a branch to the left
A pair of endangered Carnaby’s black cockatoos sit on a bare tree branch. (ABC Esperance: Hayden Smith)

The WA Department of Energy, Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety refused ASX-listed Bulletin Resource’s application to clear 2.3 hectares of native vegetation in the reserve.

It determined the impacts to flora, fauna and the land could not be minimised, and noted a particular concern for numbats and the endangered Carnaby’s black cockatoo.

The decision took the local advocates by surprise, given five previous clearing permits within the reserve had been granted.

“So I’m just absolutely staggered and delighted,” Ms Jasper said.

‘Striking the right balance’

Bulletin Resources, which wanted the permit so it could explore for lithium, has told the ASX it will appeal the decision.

It said it was surprised by the refusal given the “significant body of work” it has done to put “avoidance, mitigation, and rehabilitation” measures in place to minimise environmental impacts.

“Bulletin sees no reason why approvals sought should not be granted given the low impact nature of the proposed drilling,” it told the market.

The ABC has contacted Bulletin Resources for comment. 

A large, gnarly tree with the light hitting one side of the truck, creating contrast
Carnaby’s cockatoos need mature trees to nest in.(ABC Esperance: Hayden Smith)

Independent corporate analyst Peter Strachan said it made sense for the company to appeal.

But he said even if the project did get going, the market was tough for smaller lithium producers and prices had fallen dramatically in the past 18 months. 

“It’s not a hugely compelling commercial opportunity at the current market prices,” he said.

Mr Strachan said it was increasingly common for the critical minerals sector to face opposition from conservationists.

He said the industry was responding with “raised arms and loud shouts”, given the pressing need to increase renewable energy sources.

“[But] if you’re having to destroy rainforest or very valuable biodiversity hotspots … it’s not necessarily a fair swap, is it?” he said.

The Cocanarup Conservation Alliance agreed.

“It’s a balance. Striking the right balance is not going to be easy,” Mr Biddulph said.

A hand on a tree
The trees are a critical habitat for birds and other native wildlife. (ABC Esperance: Emily Smith)

A culturally significant area

The area also has enormous cultural significance as local Aboriginal people were massacred at Cocanarup in the late 1800s.

Local Aboriginal groups are hoping to search for the remains of the people who were murdered, as they have not yet been located, and do not want the area disturbed.

“We do not know, today, where these people were actually shot and left to die and take their last breath,” Wudjari Nyungar elder Doc Reynolds said.

“So the decision by the government to not grant this [clearing permit], it’s a fantastic result for Aboriginal people.”

He wears a big hat and hi-vis and looks into the distance
Wagyl Kaip Southern Noongar Aboriginal Corporation’s Stewart Hansen does not want clearing at Cocanarup.(ABC Esperance: Emily Smith)

Goreng Kaneang man Stewart Hansen, who is on the Wagyl Kaip Southern Noongar Aboriginal Corporation cultural advice committee, agreed.

“It should just be left sacred as it is,” he said.

“[And] the trees are what we want to keep for the future. It’s no good getting rid of them.”

Protecting endangered cockatoos

The endangered Carnaby’s black cockatoo nests only in very old salmon gums with large hollows, which also need to be within reach of their feeding grounds on the coast.

She wears a wide brim hat and stands in the bush
Kate Biddulph is passionate about protecting Carnaby’s black cockatoos. (ABC Esperance: Emily Smith)

Widespread clearing means the Cocanarup Timber Reserve is one of few remaining places that fits those requirements.

“It takes a really long time for them to be able to nest anywhere,” Mr Biddulph’s granddaughter Kate, who has just done a school project on the bird, explained.

“That’s why this site is so rare.”

In October the group camped in the area and, while battling swarms of flies and regularly shaking bull ants out of trouser legs, they surveyed 206 bird hollows.

A cockatoo in a hollow
The survey detected eggs, chicks, and cockatoos in the hollows.(Supplied: Sam Rycken, BirdLife Australia)

Fifty-six showed signs of breeding.

“It’s just magical,” Ms Jasper said.

“As locals, we know the value of this area.”

Calls for Class A reserve

The Shire of Ravensthorpe has written to the state government in the past to request the area become a Class A nature reserve.

They stand in middle distance, one with binoculars to her face, one holding a pole
The volunteers work together to survey the tree hollows. (ABC Esperance: Hayden Smith)

“We are generally supportive of our mining industry,” Ravensthorpe shire president Tom Major said.

“It’s just that one particular area in the Cocanarup Timber Reserve that has been identified as having significant environmental value and therefore not suitable for mining.

“So [classifying it as a Class A reserve] is still something council would like to see happen.”

A group of seven is pictured from behind walking into the bush
Volunteers head into the bush to look for birds.(ABC Esperance: Hayden Smith)

The idea has long been on the table, with a South Coast Regional Management Plan recommending the area receive protected status back in 1992.

But until the recent appeals process is resolved, the state government said it could not comment.

Mr Biddulph believed, until that happens, more conflict will likely lie ahead for Cocanarup.

“They’ll continue to attempt mining exploration here,” he said.

Read the article on the ABC News website here