Last Chance For Victoria's Fairy Possum


In 2010, the Baillieu opposition went to the election without an environment policy. Two and a half years and a change of premier later, it's still not a priority for Victoria's Coalition government.

In the meantime, Victoria is watching its animal emblem, the Leadbeater’s (Fairy) possum, head towards extinction.

The "Brown Mountain" Supreme Court case of 2010 was a big win for conservationists, who prevented the government from logging one area of endangered species habitat in East Gippsland. The state government under then premier Ted Baillieu moved to dilute environmental controls soon after.

Baillieu's proposed reforms to the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act would exempt government logging agency, VicForests, from laws designed to protect threatened wildlife. So far this year, protection for the Leadbeater's possum and its habitat has been watered down in the bogus new Department of Sustainability and Environment “Leadbeater's Possum Survey Standards”.

In September last year Professor David Lindenmayer, the global expert on the Leadbeater's possum, resigned from the Baillieu government’s recovery program for this species. He chose to discontinue with a government program that, in his view, was only going to manage the possum into extinction.

"Almost half of Leadbeater's possum's habitat was fried in [the 2009 bushfires]yet there's been absolutely no change to the amount of logging that is going on in those forests," Lindenmayer told New Matilda.

His resignation came amidst the government’s review of major logging legislation. Recommendations included entrenching VicForests, and boosting the ailing native forest logging industry by allowing VicForests to offer contracts over two decades, up from the previous five-year maximum.

VicForests is a government business entity; it is obligated to make a return to the public purse for logging our publicly owned state forests. But, year after year, VicForests costs Victorian taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Last year’s annual report shows a loss of $96,000, and does not refer to logging’s irreversible costs to Victorian environment.

More than one-third of the possum's highland forest habitat was burned during the 2009 bushfires. VicForests say they will factor in the fires' impact on how much they log and from where. Four years on, they are yet to do so. In the meantime more intensive logging is taking place in the remaining green forests.

Last week, on the cold slopes of Toolangi (an hour from Melbourne), a group of grandmothers staged a “knit-in” — one of a series of protests against logging the surviving green forests.

The “Knitting Nannas” are working on a 150 metre scarf — the length of the buffer zone that prohibits them from entering forest area subject to active logging operations, without risking steep fines or arrest. It is now an offence to be present in a “forest restriction zone”, including to monitor for threatened species.

On the slopes of Mount St Leonard, where locals fought hard to halt logging last year, massive stumps now remain. The forests were logged for woodchips, mostly to make Reflex copy paper, and for overseas export.

The Toolangi grandmothers and other local residents support local advocacy group My Environment, who will take the matter of logging in the possum's remnant habitat to the Court of Appeal in June.

The possum, smaller than a human hand, is notoriously shy. The species was thought extinct until 1961, when it was rediscovered in the tall forests of the Central Highlands.

Estimates vary, but surveys show only a few hundred to 2000 Leadbeater's possums exist outside zoos. By way of comparison, a 2004 study estimated the wild population of Orangutans to be in the vicinity of 61,000.

The Leadbeater's possum recovery team, an expert panel made up of representatives of the state Environment Department, Parks Victoria, Zoos Victoria and the scientific community, continue to struggle to halt the species' slide into extinction, after their recommendations for a moratorium on logging were ignored.

A captive breeding programme is underway at the Healesville Sanctuary. The Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve also has a small number of possums, around 60, concentrated in an area just four kilometres by 120 metres.

Getting the Leadbeater's possum off the endangered species list will require some enlightened policy thinking, an expansion of forest reserves, and investment in an innovated wood products industry.

This is not the stuff of fairies; the major buyers of Victoria’s native forests and makers of Reflex  brand paper have approved the construction of a recycled paper factory in Gippsland, to be operational next year.

The logging to extinction of our state animal emblem is an outrage and an embarrassment. New Premier Denis Napthine should cast off Baillieu's legacy and fast-track the logging industry out of native forests, and into the existing plantation estate.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.