Earlier this year the Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group (LPAG) delivered its reports to the state government. The group had been established by the government to make recommendations to support “the recovery of the Leadbeater’s Possum while maintaining a sustainable timber industry”. The group included no specialist expertise, being composed entirely of government employees and representatives of the logging industry. Predictably its recommendations were mediocre and all were accepted by the government.
Now the government has used the 13 LPAG recommendations as the basis for a new Leadbeater’s Possum Action Statement, the document that is supposed to be prepared for each threatened species to support recovery. The previous version, adopted in 1995, had become ineffective and was well overdue for revision. But to review it without input from specialist conservation ecologists while giving strong influence to the extractive industry that is one of the greatest threats to the species marks a new low in policy development.
The new Action Statement was not made available for public submissions or expert comment. It was not even referred to the Leadbeater’s Possum Recovery Team, a specialist group that was created largely to consider, and advise the government on, just such proposals. Instead it was furtively signed by the DEPI secretary and placed on the departmental website. At the same time the 1995 version was quietly revoked. No formal public announcement was made.
To give credit where it is due, some aspects of the new Action Statement represent potential improvements though, in practice, the benefits are likely to be minimal. An example is the introduction of protection for identified colonies of Leadbeater’s Possum. That was not included in the 1995 version because the animal is known to be difficult to observe in the wild and a decision was made only to protect suitable habitat. The new document introduces a 200 metre buffer zone around colonies from which logging will be excluded. This will protect an area of around 12 hectares. Field studies have shown this is too small and unlikely to protect the species. There is also a proposal to shift from clearfelling to retention logging in 50% of coupes in Leadbeater’s range. Obviously this would leave the other 50% of coupes to be clearfelled. But it gets worse! The industry imposed a limit on the reduction in timber yield of 5% during the LPAG process, so it is unlikely 50% retention will be rigorously adopted, especially given that it is flagged within the Action Statement as “not enforceable”.
Of the thirty-five actions and sub-actions proposed in the new Action Statement, only four appear to be mandatory; the inadequate 200m buffer around colonies, a 100m buffer around areas of old growth forest, protection of 30% of ash forest in each Leadbeater’s Management Unit (LMU) and a minor revision of the definition of ‘optimum’ habitat. These four recommendations were all analysed by LPAG as likely to make little, if any, difference to the conservation of the possum.
More effective proposals were deemed to be outside LPAG’s Terms of Reference and so could not be included in the recommendations or the subsequent Action Statement. These included proposals to expand the Leadbeater’s Reserve System. After years of consideration and negotiation with industry the reserve was finally declared in 2008. Within months 43% was destroyed in the Black Saturday fires. Not only does the new action statement fail to compensate for this loss, it explicitly refuses to do so. Sub-action 2a is to “Retain the existing reserve”. In other words, not to enlarge it. This contravenes earlier advice given to the government, noted in the document though not acted upon, that, “the parks system in conjunction with the Leadbeater’s Possum Reserve was insufficient to ensure the long term survival of the species”.
Taken as a whole this so-called “Action Statement” cannot be considered a serious contribution to the protection of our state’s faunal emblem. It is little more than a thinly disguised restatement of the present government’s declared policy to permit and support the continued industrial logging of our Mountain Ash forests that provide the Leadbeater’s Possum with its primary and most critical habitat.
In July CSIRO published an assessment declaring Leadbeater’s Possum to be “Critically Endangered”, the last category before “Extinct”. This Action Statement deliberately permits habitat destruction that will push the animal inexorably towards oblivion. It is a dishonest and misleading document that deserves only to be treated with contempt. If it is allowed to stand, the anonymous authors, the secretary, the department, the minister and the Napthine government all deserve to be thoroughly ashamed.
To add insult to injury, it is understood that of the $11 million pledged to be spent on implementing the Action Statement over the next 5 years, over $7 million is to be given to VicForests!