By Sarah Brugler
Sometimes it takes a cute, furry species on the brink of extinction to get people thinking about nature protection laws.
And when a federal politician recommends the furry creature’s threatened species status be downgraded to allow its dwindling forest habitat to be logged, well that’s sure to get the public’s attention.
There has been intense public concern about the closure of the sawmill at Heyfield in Gippsland, as there has been about the fate of the beautiful Leadbeater’s possum, Victoria’s faunal emblem.
Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce recently linked the two issues, announcing that he had asked the federal environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg, to downgrade the possum’s critically endangered status so more Victorian native forests could be logged, in the hope that would save 250 jobs at the Heyfield sawmill.
Leadbeater’s possum, once widespread across Victoria, is now found almost exclusively in Victoria’s central highlands.
It is listed as threatened under Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act and was elevated to critically endangered in 2015 under the federal environmental law.
The main threat to Leadbeater’s possum is commercial logging, which has cut a swathe through its remaining habitat, along with bushfires becoming more frequent and more intense due to climate change.
Federal conservation advice from 2015 states “the most effective way to prevent further decline and rebuild the population of Leadbeater’s possum is to cease timber harvesting within montane ash forests of the Central Highlands”.
Despite this advice, logging in the central highland’s native ash forests continues.
Barnaby Joyce’s unhelpful intervention in the debate threatens not only to mislead Australians on how legal environmental protections operate, it also offers false hope that removing protection for the possum would somehow provide ongoing jobs for the Heyfield community.
Although Victorian politicians spoke up against Barnaby Joyce’s comments, it remains to be seen how serious this state government is about the twin challenges of helping workers from Heyfield mill’s closure make a transition to sustainable employment and protecting the Leadbeater’s possum for future generations.
This public debate occurs while the Victorian Government has been seeking feedback on how to reform the state’s main nature protection law, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act.
This review of the FFG Act could improve the prospects for threatened species like Leadbeater’s possum – or it could make changes that weaken the law and push the possum to extinction.
Recent changes to forestry regulation are supposed to provide additional protection to the threatened possum, but when you examine them closely, they are woefully inadequate.
Under the amended regulations, when a Leadbeater’s possum colony is discovered – and verified – in an area earmarked for logging, the loggers must leave a small protection zone.
The size of the protection zone applied around each verified colony is one fifth of that recommended by scientists.
So, in summary, clearfell logging is permitted in the remaining habitat of Victoria’s critically endangered state faunal emblem, with piecemeal and resource intensive management measures designed to soften the blow.
Forestry regulations also establish some Leadbeater’s possum ‘reserves’ but the areas are much smaller than what is required to guarantee the survival of the species.
This reserve system is also outdated. It has not been properly redesigned since the catastrophic 2009 bushfires that burnt 36 per cent of the possum’s Mountain Ash forest habitat, including a significant proportion of its designated reserves.
If we are serious about protecting the Leadbeater’s possum so future generations of Victorians have a chance of seeing the state emblem in real life, more habitat in the central highlands must be protected from logging.
The FFG Act – in its current form – is obviously failing to set a standard of protection that will allow for the continued survival of the Leadbeater’s possum in the wild.
We watch with interest to see if a reformed FFG Act can do better.