Vic govt declines to comment on possum extinction

MARK COLVIN: Last night we ran an interview with the leading expert on Victoria’s faunal emblem the Leadbeater’s possum who warned of the creature’s likely extinction.

Professor David Lindenmayer of the ANU draws on more than 30 years of work in the Victorian Ash forests studying the possum.

He argued among other things that a new national park was needed to protect the Leadbeater’s possum, because without areas completely free of logging, it had no chance of survival.

We said then that we’d be seeking a substantial response from the Victorian government tonight.

Today, the Victorian Environment Minister, Ryan Smith, declined our invitation to appear.

He referred us to the Agriculture Minister, Peter Walsh, who was also unavailable.

PM then approached the Premier’s office, but he too declined.

Mr Walsh’s office suggested we talk instead to the loggers’ peak body, the Victorian Association of Forest Industries.

Its Chief Executive is Lisa Marty.

LISA MARTY: Look I, I think given the impact of the 2009 bushfires, which burnt 45 per cent of the Leadbeater possum reserve area, the survival of the Leadbeater possum is a concern for many Victorians, certainly including those in the forest and wood products industry.

MARK COLVIN: You don’t accept what Professor Lindenmayer says, that it’s the effect of both logging and bushfires?

LISA MARTY: Look I think there’s a range of challenges facing the Leadbeater possum, but overwhelmingly the impact of the 2009 bushfires has made the situation very critical. As an industry and certainly as the Victorian Association of Forest Industries we’re committed to responsible forest management and to the recovery of the Leadbeater possum alongside a sustainable local forest and wood products industry.

MARK COLVIN: And critical means urgent doesn’t it? I mean what’s being done in the very short term?

LISA MARTY: It is about the short term future of the Leadbeater possum but it’s also about the future of the possum in the long term.

David Lindenmayer’s work does show that over time there are a range of challenges facing the possum; so there are both short and longer term challenges.

MARK COLVIN: But this advisory committee, this Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group, when is that going to produce any real results?

LISA MARTY: The group has been requested to provide recommendations back to the government before the end of the year. It’s quite a short timeframe but we will be drawing on the latest science, including the work of Professor Lindenmayer, as well as the outcomes of recent work by the Arthur Rylah Institute, which was commissioned by the Victorian government, last year as well as the contributions of stakeholders.

MARK COLVIN: Well he tells me that he’s been writing to the government and has had really no response, is he going to have any guarantee of being properly listened to by this group?

LISA MARTY: Certainly. It is absolutely crucial that the work of respected scientists such as Professor Lindenmayer, the scientists at the Arthur Rylah Institute, forest scientists, social scientists, provide concrete recommendations to the advisory group to draw on alongside the contributions of key stakeholders.

MARK COLVIN: What about his proposal that there should be a new national park; that there should be an area which is specifically reserved from logging because he says that’s the only way the Leadbeater’s possum, which is the emblem of Victoria, is going to survive.

LISA MARTY: Look it’s difficult at this stage to pre-judge what might come out of the work of the advisory group. Suffice to say that Professor Lindenmayer is one of the key experts being engaged, and his work will…

MARK COLVIN: But isn’t it fair to say that the Forest Industry Association and its previous iterations have always opposed any attempt to lock off more land for the protection of the possum?

LISA MARTY: Look I think in reality there has been an increase in reserves for the possum. It’s very unfortunate that along with the impacts on the community of the 2009 bushfires, 45 per cent of the Leadbeater possum reserve area was effected. And unfortunately the Leadbeater possum has been shown to be incredibly fire sensitive and does not continue to exist in the areas which have been effect by fire; so that is really driving a more critical situation.

MARK COLVIN: You would have heard your predecessor, Robert Bain, of the Forest Industry Association last night on the Four Corners program in 1991 saying that he was not worried in the sense that good management would maintain a healthy population of Leadbeater’s possum. And he told me at the time it would be alright because they’d be putting in nesting boxes. Now David Lindenmayer says that he did a 10 year study on that nesting boxes idea and the possums simply don’t use them. So why would your optimism now be anymore well placed than his then?

LISA MARTY: Look I think that’s true, that research has shown that in the Ash forests, where this population of Leadbeater’s possums exist, nest boxes are not preferred. They do work very well in Yellingbo, it’s difficult to look back and‚Ķ

MARK COLVIN: That means that you have to have what they call “stag trees” those are the old trees that have the big old hollows in them.

LISA MARTY: That’s right.

MARK COLVIN: And the pattern is, isn’t it, that the foresters have tended to clear fell them and not leave enough for the possums?

LISA MARTY: Look there are a range of prescriptions in place at the moment to protect Leadbeater possum habitat. Obviously this is a challenging situation and we need to look at what needs to be done in the future, certainly we can look back and we need to learn from the past. But we need to understand based on the work of key scientists right now, what do we need to be doing in the future to ensure the recovery of the Leadbeater’s possum. And we certainly believe that the sustainable local timber industry can co-exist.

MARK COLVIN: Lisa Marty, the chief executive of the Victorian Association of Forest Industries.

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