MyEnvironment Inc / Opinion / Conserving Central Highlands Forests

The case for conservation verses exploitation in Victoria’s spectacular Central Highlands Forests

Scientists from many countries are recognizing the importance of native forests in their multiple roles of storing carbon, regulating climate and weather systems, providing clean water run-off to streams and supporting biodiversity. Mountain Ash Eucalyptus regnans dominated forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria, are exemplars of the above characteristics. It has now been clearly demonstrated that simplified forest structures such as plantations cannot achieve the same environmental benefits. It is the complex ecosystem structure of a natural forest that provides all of these outcomes, which are further enhanced as the forest ages, and are maximised in a mature (or old growth) forest. Consequently, native forests should be left standing to deliver benefits to environment and society as they grow old naturally and gracefully.

The case for conservation verses exploitation in Victoria’s spectacular Central Highlands Forests

  22 July 2013

Scientists from many countries are recognizing the importance of native forests in their multiple roles of storing carbon, regulating climate and weather systems, providing clean water run-off to streams and supporting biodiversity. Mountain Ash Eucalyptus regnans dominated forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria, are exemplars of the above characteristics. It has now been clearly demonstrated that simplified forest structures such as plantations cannot achieve the same environmental benefits. It is the complex ecosystem structure of a natural forest that provides all of these outcomes, which are further enhanced as the forest ages, and are maximised in a mature (or old growth) forest. Consequently, native forests should be left standing to deliver benefits to environment and society as they grow old naturally and gracefully.

The environmental damage caused by clearfelling wipes out these benefits and, in fact contributes directly to increased carbon emissions, while rendering the forest more combustible in a bushfire. The ominous influence of global warming must now be factored into our assessment of the value of native forests. Victoria has a magnificent mountain forest region in the Central Highlands, as well as East Gippsland, the Otways, the Strezelekis and pockets of remnant forest such as Mt Cole, the Pyrenees and the Grampians in the west. All of these together comprise less than 40% of the original pre-1788 forest cover of Victoria, and represent a minimal basis for providing the natural ecosystem services that this State needs for a healthy environment. We must value and preserve what we have left.  It is time now to accept our responsibilities and refocus logging industries entirely on plantations that are already in existence on degraded farm land, and can be much refined and further developed for future needs. Leave our natural forests and the native fauna they support to stand protected for future generations.

Leadbeaters mace

    Photo B. Mace 1995

        Leadbeater’s Possum Gymnobelideus leadbeateri, Sylvia Creek Rd Toolangi

Leadbeater’s Possum – Its fate is in the balance

The adverse effects of clearfelling

Clearfell logging has been a major contributor to the decline of the now critically threatened Leadbeater’s Possum (LBP) in several ways:

1. It increases the fire susceptibility and frequency of fires in the ash forest habitat. Logging and associated road works dries out the landscape. Regeneration burns are a threat to surrounding forests and fauna, and the often dense regenerating regrowth provides very combustible ‘fuel’ in a wildfire. Widespread clearfelling is now known to change the nature of the forest ecosystem from ‘wet’ to ‘dry’ forest vegetation structure which is producing a more fire-prone landscape.

2. There is direct mortality of LBPs that may be sheltering in hollow ‘stags’ (dead hollow trees favoured by LBPs as nest sites). Most of these hollow stags are knocked down by contractors in typical clearfelling operations, although there is no monitoring of native animals killed by any clearfelling practices.

3. It destroys LBP habitat (feeding as well as breeding habitat), and disturbs any nearby resident possums that may be trying to survive in whatever remnants of forest are left for them.  Clearfelling operations begin with the bulldozing of the complex and often centuries old understorey vegetation. Logged coupes regrow as a simplified forest structure, often devoid of nest hollow opportunities for Leadbeater’s, and thus the landscape is being progressively sterilised by VicForests operations, with the blessing of the Victorian Government and their agencies.

All of this destruction of native forests and fauna, is unjustifiable, in terms of ecological sustainability, ethical and economic considerations. Plantations grown on readily available areas of degraded agricultural land provide income opportunities in rural areas, and could be the answer to our present needs and future projected needs for timber and pulp.

In summary, please consider the following facts:

1. Leadbeater's Possum (LBP) is Victoria's state faunal emblem.

2. It is endemic to the Central Highlands (found only in that area).

3. It is adapted to living principally in Mountain Ash forests which represent a minor percentage of the total forest area of the Central Highlands, and are the main target of VicForests logging operations.

4. It has been studied by scientists for decades, and has suffered long term population decline while being studied - and while its home forests continue to be logged.

5. The Black Saturday fires wiped out nearly half of its known habitat, and presumably half of its seriously declining population. It has not recolonised burned areas.

6. Its continued existence is dependant on having unburned Mountain Ash dominated ecosystems with sufficient hollow-bearing trees to provide nest sites and shelter. They also need well developed understorey vegetation (treeferns, wattles etc) to provide access (they are not gliders, and avoid descending to ground level) and food sources.

7. The remnant unburned ash forest areas near Toolangi have been intensively clear-felled since 7th Feb 2009, despite continual protests from scientists and community alike. These forests (see below) have become critical refuges for surviving native animals recovering from the fires.

Central Highlands

    Photo B. Mace

This serene and important habitat for native animals, and iconic remnant landscape for the nearby people of Toolangi, contains huge old Mountain Ash and giant Tree Ferns. It is a reasonably intact catchment, which is a rarity because of excessive clearfelling. It is scheduled for imminent logging.

The Appeal

On Monday 24th June 2013, MyEnvironment and its many thousands of community supporters, will contest VicForests in the Supreme Court of Appeal, over the protection of three important areas of remnant Leadbeater’s Possum habitat. Following the events of Black Saturday, 7th February 2009, some areas of Toolangi State Forest remained, miraculously, unburned. These green refuges were obviously of critical importance to any surviving native animals, and in a civilized society should be respected as such and protected from any other threats. To the astonishment of local residents, and to professional scientists, VicForests commenced  clearfelling of some of the finest areas of unburned Mountain Ash forest in the region (while the ashes were still smoking). This was in addition to salvage logging of burned areas, also against the advice of prominent scientists.

It is now on the historical records, that exhaustive efforts by concerned locals, over a protracted period, failed to halt VicForests business-as-usual approach to continued logging, as if no bushfires were going to interfere with their planned operations. Every other business in the area was curtailed, and some were destroyed, but continued logging of remaining forests plus salvage logging, represented a bumper outcome (in terms of volumes) for VicForests. Later, in the midst of desperate efforts by local residents to protect a superb area of forest adjacent to Sylvia Creek, MyEnvironment launched an injunction through the Supreme Court to stop the logging and protect three critical areas of “classical mixed age forest” to quote a professional ecologist. We also had indications of active Leadbeater’s sites in and around the subject areas, resulting from surveys conducted at that time. Some of this habitat was destroyed before MyEnvironment obtained a Supreme Court injunction to stop the logging.

Despite powerful scientific evidence that Leadbeater’s Possum (the State Faunal Emblem) was under serious threat in a remnant and shrinking habitat, the court ruled that VicForests could continue their operations. The decision was appealed by MyEnvironment, and the outcome for the highly endangered possum, its magnificent native forest habitat and its many associated native animal species will be decided by a legal process on Monday.

Australia has a regrettable, world-leading record for extinction of native mammals, and our foremost biologists are warning that Leadbeater’s Possum is headed for oblivion if current attrition of their numbers is allowed to continue. Politics and law are determinants of the processes of justice, and the functioning of a 21st century society. Most of us instinctively know the difference between right and wrong, and perhaps it is the processes of governance and the legal system that are really in the spotlight here. Will they deliver an appropriate 21st century outcome, responding to the real and changing needs of our time? Please help with the cost of the appeal, and by visiting the Supreme Court on Monday to offer your support to our quest to protect this animal in crisis, and its beautiful environment.

Bernie Mace                                                                                                  

Toolangi