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The possum or the timber industry

Rachel Carbonell for ABC Radio, Saturday 23rd August 2015

Victoria's state emblem, the Leadbeater's possum, is one of the most critically endangered animals in Australia. Fire and logging have decimated its habitat, causing Leadbeater's numbers to plummet. A fierce and secretive political debate is now raging over whether the possum and the industry can both survive, or if one has to go. Rachel Carbonell has been on the trail of the possum and the people with the power to save it.

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Rachel Carbonell for ABC Radio, Saturday 23rd August 2015

Victoria's state emblem, the Leadbeater's possum, is one of the most critically endangered animals in Australia. Fire and logging have decimated its habitat, causing Leadbeater's numbers to plummet. A fierce and secretive political debate is now raging over whether the possum and the industry can both survive, or if one has to go. Rachel Carbonell has been on the trail of the possum and the people with the power to save it.

The Leadbeater's possum was upgraded to critically endangered this year, and the Victoria Government is under more pressure than ever before to save it.

Background Briefing investigation has revealed it is now secretly considering a highly sensitive plan that could buy the timber industry out of the possum's habitat.

Fire and logging has decimated Leadbeater's habitat in the central highlands mountain ash forests.

Scientists are warning the tiny marsupial could die out within a generation if radical action isn't taken to save it.

The federal environment minister, Greg Hunt, has said wants Victoria to make a decision.

'I think that the state government has to make it clear what their plans are in relation to native forests in Victoria,' he says.

'We listed the Leadbeater's possum as critically endangered, and it's up to them now to be absolutely clear what their plans are, because I understand that logging has recently commenced in new areas, and I think it’s time for the Labor government in Victoria to be upfront on their plans.'

The minister has invited the Victorian government to apply for funding that could pave the way for it to buy the timber industry out of the central highlands mountain ash forest.

If the submission was approved, it would allow Victoria to bid for millions of dollars a year from the Emissions Reduction Fund to not log in Leadbeater's possum forests.

The state government corporation that harvests the mountain ash, VicForests, says it's not that simple.

The corporation's general manager of planning, Nathan Trushell, says even if substantial funds were available, moving the industry out of the mountain ash forests isn't necessarily easy or desirable.

'We're talking about a substantial industry. The reality is the solutions aren't easy. The alternatives aren't easy. Ultimately, if you were to close down the timber industry in eastern Victoria, you would need to substitute from somewhere else,' he says.

The Victorian government refused to be interviewed for the program, saying only that it has set up an industry taskforce on the issue.

Even the question of how many possums are left is a matter of dispute, with ANU research suggesting the population is down to 2,000, and the forestry industry quoting a number up to five times higher than that.

Many of the forest's big old habitat trees are collapsing and dying. The forest took huge hit in the 2009 Black Saturday fires, when about half of the Leadbeater's best habitat was wiped out.

Lachie McBurney, a senior research officer at the Fenner School of Environment at the Australian National University, says: 'The declines were reaching a point where it was quite significant for the possum, and then we had the Black Saturday fires, which took half the habitat as well.

'With the decline of the animals before the fires we thought there was about 4,000 left based on our modeling. Since then, with about half the habitat being lost and then the decline and collapse of the old trees in the unburnt environment … that is where the number of 1,500 to 2,500 comes from.

'The modelling that we do is based on large old hollow tree collapse and decay and those rates are drastically high even before the fires.

'We're yet to see any animals come back to burnt sites once they were lost.'

Timber industry says species won't be extinct in short termMr Trushell disagrees with the ANU figures. He says there is at least somewhere between 4,000 to 11,000 animals left.

'I think clearly the baseline numbers now show that the issue isn't urgent in a sense that the species is going to become extinct in the short term,' he says.

The figure used by VicForests comes from the Victorian Government's biodiversity research body, the Arthur Rylah Institute. The principal research scientist at the institute, Lindy Lumsden, says it's just an estimate.

'The figures that we came up with are very broad ballpark figures,' she says.

'They shouldn't really be treated as absolute numbers, because really nobody has got any idea of exactly how many animals are out there.

'One of the things that at the time we were really stressing was not to focus on the number of individuals so much. We want to be able to see the trends and everybody agrees that the trend is still going down and that the habitat will still be declining.

'It's predicted ... that the trend is still to be downward over the next 50 years.'

VicForests is adamant that the numbers of Leadbeater's possums are not as dire as the public has been led to believe.

'We're not having problems finding possums there today,' Mr Trushell says.

'I think the challenge is really about ensuring we mind our habitat for the species in the long term.'

Protection zones set up immediately after sightings.

The Arthur Rylah Institute has received substantial funding to find as many possums as it can so they can be protected from logging.

Background Briefing has seen the Victorian government's latest survey results, which Dr Lumsden says are encouraging.

'We've sampled 113 sites and found Leadbeater's at 50 of those, so 44 per cent of the sites that we've been sampled, which is really encouraging,' she says.

When the confirmed sightings from other organisations and community are included, the official figure is 65 possums in the last year. Dr Lumsden says the areas where these sightings were recorded are quickly excluded from logging.

'The exclusion zone happens almost immediately,' she says.

'As soon as we come back from the field, we go through all the photos we get from the cameras, we then send a report into our head office policy colleagues, and then almost immediately everyone is notified that those areas have got Leadbeaters in them and that they will get a 200-metre exclusion zone around them.'

What Dr Lumsden calls a 200-metre exclusion zone, Mr Trushell calls a 12-hectare conservation zone—it's the same thing.

'When colonies are sighted, a 12-hectare conservation reserve is placed around each colony. I think there has been around about 200 of those 12-hectare conservation reserves that have been put right across the forest area,' he says.
The Arthur Rylah Institute's research is the first time the government has surveyed for possums before logging goes ahead.

One of the interesting figures to come out of the new results is how many of these possums were found in areas earmarked for logging. About half of the possums were found in logging coupes. 

ANU scientists say the fact that so many possums are being found in logging areas shows that the timber industry has almost certainly been cutting Leadbeater's habitat down. And they say a 200-metre buffer will not protect the possums anyway.

'We'd suggested that needed to be a one-kilometre buffer, based on a lot of science that we did, and that was watered down to a 200-metre buffer,' says the ANU's David Blair.

'That happened because a one-kilometre buffer would simply tie up too much forest. It's a compromise … we've already done studies that show that a 200-metre buffer will not be adequate to protect Leadbeater's possums if it's logged around.'

The new survey work and 200-metre logging buffers are recommendations handed down last year by the previous state government's Leadbeater's Possum Advisory Group. The multi-million-dollar advisory group's agenda to save the possum was strictly tied to finding solutions which allowed logging to continue.
The Victorian government is would not be interviewed for this investigation, but provided a written statement saying it had set up a new industry taskforce.

'The Industry Taskforce met for the first time recently and is made up of members of government, industry and science who are working together to reach common ground on issues facing the industry, including the protection of our unique native flora, fauna and threatened species.'

The government would not reveal who the members of the new taskforce are but Background Briefing understands it is currently made up of three environment groups, the peak timber industry body, two timber companies and unions.

The government also declined to answer any questions about what the taskforce is specifically trying to achieve, except for a brief statement from a government spokesperson to say that the terms of reference are currently being formalised.

Background Briefing has seen an email from the state environment minister Lisa Neville's office sent the day before Labor won government in Victoria suggesting a new national park is on its agenda.

'If we are elected, I know Lisa will move as quickly as possible on the Taskforce as a first step towards a Great Forest National Park—we'll get it done, just need to go through this process,' the email says.

It's a highly sensitive issue for the Victorian government because of the potential to upset one of the key members of its union powerbase, the CFMEU, which represents timber workers. There is argument over the number of jobs the industry provides in Victoria with estimates ranging from 500 to more 10,000.

There is also significant dispute over where the timber from the mountain ash forests ends up. The industry says about half goes to sawlog mills for products such as floorboards, building materials and furniture, with the other half going to make Reflex paper. Other analyses suggests more than three quarters of the mountain ash logs are going to pulp to make paper.

Either way, if the taskforce is aimed at creating a national park for the Leadbeater's possum and bailing the industry out, it's going to need a lot of money for compensation, transition and exit packages.

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