November 2, 2012, The Age , Tom Arup
The federal government is reviewing whether Victoria breached a national forestry deal by not properly protecting Leadbeater’s possum, the state’s endangered faunal emblem, from logging.
In a letter to federal independent MP Tony Windsor, Environment Minister Tony Burke said his department was reviewing documents from a recent Supreme Court case over three proposed logging coupes near Toolangi from state-owned timber company VicForests.
Mr Burke said that, if necessary, the department would then consult with the federal forestry department to see whether a regional forestry agreement for Victoria’s central highlands had been breached.
The tiny Leadbeater’s possum is listed as endangered under national environment laws, and suffered a major hit in the Black Saturday bushfires, which cut its habitat in half. Its numbers in the wild have been estimated at below 2000.
Conservationists argue logging by VicForests in the central highlands threatens the survival of the species.
VicForests successful defended a Supreme Court challenge last year from anti-logging groups trying to stop proposed Toolangi coupes, with Justice Robert Osborn finding they did not breach state protection conditions for the possum.
But Justice Osborn added there was strong evidence for an urgent review of the protection of the possum’s habitat following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.
The federal and state governments have been redrafting national recovery plans and state action statements for the possum since the fires.
Drafts of the new plans, seen by Fairfax Media, recommend 25 steps to recover the species, but state and federal laws have not been enforced through changes to state and federal environment law.
It is understood a state expert panel set up to oversee recovery of the species — including representatives from the Victorian environment department, Parks Victoria, and scientists — last year recommended increasing protection of the possum.
They recommended listing logging as a threat to its survival and increasing protection of habitat during timber harvesting.
In October last year the recovery panel discussed a temporary moratorium on logging in the central highlands until the possum was better protected.
Meeting notes say the panel’s chairman took the moratorium proposal to senior bureaucrats, but was told it was not the groups’ role to make a recommendation to halt logging.
A state environment department spokesman said a new plan to save the possum would be shaped by a $1.82 million research program examining Victorian endangered species. The panel’s recommendations would be considered once the research was finished.
VicForests’ Nathan Trushell said substantial areas of prime central highlands habitat had been identified and reserved for the possum, and the timber agency would continue to take steps to protect endangered species.
Sarah Rees, from the Healesville-based green group MyEnvironment, said: ‘‘The Leadbeater’s possum story is a litmus test for environmental law. It is going extinct and this is because outmoded laws, initially designed in good faith, are now failing to safeguard it’s future.’’