Victoria’s tall montane ash and mixed species forests in the Central Highlands provide some of the last remaining habitat for the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum and the vulnerable Greater Glider. These nocturnal possums need the tall canopies and deep hollows of old-growth eucalypts to survive.
But right now, under Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs), the Victorian government agency – VicForests – is logging their habitat and driving these fragile creatures closer to extinction.
Citizen scientists have documented sightings of Leadbeater’s Possums and Greater Gliders in more than 100 of VicForests’ logging coupes in the Central Highlands forests, yet VicForests continues logging these coupes.
RFAs give logging operations a limited exemption from national environment laws. These agreements between state and federal governments mean logging agencies are not required to comply with national environment laws. No other industry has this kind of exemption.
Logging continues in threatened species habitat while RFAs are in place across the country. Despite the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires, Victorian RFAs were recently extended for another 10 years. In the 20 years that Regional Forest Agreements have been in place, logging has pushed iconic Australian species like the Swift Parrot, Leadbeater’s Possum, and the Koala closer to extinction.
Federal Court case
After a three-year David and Goliath battle in the Federal Court, community group, Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum (FLbP) proved that VicForests’ logging operations contravened federal law and failed to protect the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum and the threatened Greater Glider.
This historic win has huge implications for forest protection across Australia. The case has already prompted Bunnings to stop stocking VicForests products and inspired a number of challenges to native timber logging across the country.
The evidence is crystal clear that logging practices are destroying some of the last remaining habitats for the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum and the vulnerable Greater Glider.
A huge win with national significance
On 27 May 2020, the Federal Court delivered its judgment in a huge victory for Victoria’s threatened possums. Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum (FLBP), successfully argued that logging by state-owned VicForests in 66 areas of habitat critical to the vulnerable Greater Glider and critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum contravenes federal law. The court found that VicForests has not and is unlikely in future to comply with both state and federal laws designed to protect threatened species.
This landmark decision sets an important legal precedent applying federal threatened species protection law to the logging industry, which has operated under a special exemption from federal environment law for more than 20 years. It will have national implications for species threatened by logging under Regional Forest Agreements across the country which will now face much greater scrutiny. The court win has already prompted Bunnings to stop stocking VicForest products and started a number of challenges to logging operations across the country.
Justice Mortimer found that logging operations in certain areas of forest in Victoria’s iconic Central Highlands failed to comply with the Victorian Code of Practice for Timber Production, a requirement under the Regional Forest Agreement. RFAs are the basis for the exemption for logging operations from national environment law. The non-compliance with the RFA means the exemption does not apply and VicForests must comply with national environmental laws.
The central breach of the Code found that VicForests did not comply with precautionary principle laws in certain forests where Greater Gliders are living, because those logging operations do not avoid serious or irreversible damage to the species wherever practical. The species is known to be threatened by logging yet logging occurred, and is planned, in habitat where Gliders have been sighted. The Court also found a number of other breaches of the Code – including relating to protection of Leadbeater’s Possum habitat.
On 21 August 2020, the Federal Court delivered final orders on the case to determine how what relief would be granted to FoLP. Justice Mortimer’s orders granted final injunctions to protect the 66 areas of forest home to the threatened Greater Glider and critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum subject to the case.
The Judge also made formal declarations of unlawful logging by VicForests in those 66 areas and ordered VicForests pay Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum’s costs of running the case.
VicForests appeal the decision
Instead of taking their bulldozers out of threatened possum habitat and focusing on the transition out of native forest logging, VicForests, a government-owned business enterprise, is taking volunteer-run Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum back to court to try to log more critical habitat and risk killing hundreds of Greater Gliders. VicForests is appealing the decision on 28 grounds.
In April, 2021, we were back in court defending our clients Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum for a three-day appeal hearing to the full bench of the Federal Court. Our legal team worked around the clock preparing the case and we have engaged some of the best legal partners to put the strongest case forward to defend this landmark decision. We now await judgement.
We are confident that the evidence is clear that logging practices are destroying some of the last remaining habitats for the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum and the vulnerable Greater Glider.