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It's time to choose between Leadbeater's possum and timber

Steve Meacher for ABC Environment, Sunday 25th August

Unfortunately for the tiny, critically endangered Leadbeater's possum, its home is where the logging industry's preferred timber grows. On the edge of extinction, it's time for Victorians to choose between the possum and timber.

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Steve Meacher for ABC Environment, Sunday 25th August

Unfortunately for the tiny, critically endangered Leadbeater's possum, its home is where the logging industry's preferred timber grows. On the edge of extinction, it's time for Victorians to choose between the possum and timber.

In the few decades after it was first discovered and scientifically described in the 1860s only a handful of specimens were identified, mostly from southern Gippsland. It was called the Bass River possum. It didn't stand a chance. As the forests were cleared and the swamps drained, the landscape was converted for farming. The last specimen was collected in 1909 and the animal was declared extinct in the Bass River area in 1921.
But a glimmer of hope remained. One of the specimens in Melbourne Museum's collection had been shot on the roof of a hut at Mount Wills — 250 kilometres further east, raising the possibility of other, more widely distributed populations.
Museum director Charles Brazenor, considered it, "probable that a systematic search would re-establish this small creature". By 1960 all searches had proved fruitless and the animal, not having been seen for fifty years, was declared, "almost certainly extinct."
It was finally rediscovered the following year by Eric Wilkinson. A young geologist at the museum, he had seen a specimen in the collection and was spotlighting with friends in Mountain Ash forest near Marysville in the Central Highlands when he saw his first living Leadbeater's. "The hair still stands up on the back of my neck when I remember that moment," he said.
His discovery was first met with incredulity, then with delight when it was officially confirmed. But the joy was tempered — the rediscovery site was in a logging concession zone granted in 1936 by the Victorian government to Australian Paper Manufacturing to guarantee supplies of woodpulp to APM's factory at Maryvale in Gippsland.
And so the stage was set for decades of conflict.
By the 1970s it was already clear that the possum's habitat preferences clashed with the demands of the logging industry. The same forests that were suitable for feeding chippers, also provided foraging sites for feeding possums. Both possums and loggers avoided steeper sites in the mountainous region.
In August 1976 P. A. Rawlinson told a Senate Woodchip Inquiry, "Leadbeater's possum is actually threatened with extinction by the oldest woodchip agreement in Australia. Urgent action is needed to preserve the species."
At times the debate has even divided government members. In 1980, Leigh Ahern of the Fisheries and Wildlife Division prepared a report. Describing clear-felling as "the most drastic form of forest habitat destruction", the report predicts that economic pressures will not permit the Forests Commission to take a "conservative" approach to forest utilisation. This raised the ire of the Minister for Forests, Rod Mackenzie who wrote to the Minister for Conservation, Evan Walker, that the implication "is quite objectionable. I am astounded that any Department would allow such a statement to be published."
Walker responded firmly. "I feel the statement merely recognises the different priorities of the two government agencies, one charged primarily with timber production, and one with conservation of fish and wildlife." He hoped the report would be seen as, "a turning point in the conservation of wildlife".
Sadly it was not. Conservation legislation adopted since that time contains built-in loopholes and get-out clauses that ensure that restrictions on the forest-logging industry are negated or minimised. Under governments of all persuasions, those "economic pressures" flagged by Ahern always take precedence over conservation. Current legislation seeks to facilitate logging while superficially giving the appearance of enhancing conservation.
The Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act of 1988 required the development of action statements for endangered species. The Leadbeater's Possum Action Statement was published in 1995 but it was implemented through a Forest Management Plan, developed with input from the industry. Extraordinarily, in hindsight, the animal itself received no protection. Only habitat was protected, and then only if it satisfied definitions so restrictive they would almost never be met.
Similarly, when the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 was enacted, it contained a section that excluded logging occurring under Regional Forest Agreements.
When Victoria's Coalition government created the Leadbeater's Possum Advisory Group in 2013, its terms of reference mandated the maintenance of the logging industry and its membership included government and industry but no independent conservation scientist. Predictably, the recommendations that passed through its filters were nominal. The only significant inclusion was the introduction of a 200-metre buffer around colonies. It is unlikely colonies in such isolated 12 hectare islands surround by logged forest will survive very long.
Nevertheless the Liberal member for Seymour, Cindy McLeish, has recently inaccurately written that evidence that possums were found in areas harvested for timber challenges a long-held view "that Leadbeater's Possum only lives in the hollows of trees typically found in old growth forests." That's a bit like saying that seeing people in street cafes challenges the view that they live in houses.
What Rawlinson told the Senate inquiry in 1976 remains true, "The case put forward is completely false — there is no documented case of a Leadbeater's possum population recolonising a clear cut and regenerating pulpwood site."
It's time to end the pretence — you can conserve the state's faunal emblem or you can continue to log the habitat it needs to survive, but you can't do both.
It's time to choose.
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