Doomed Planet

Greenies stir the possum

The endangered Leadbeater’s Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) is Victoria’s faunal emblem. Apart from two known exceptions, the small arboreal marsupial lives within wet eucalypt forests in Victoria’s Central Highlands, although early records suggest it was once more widely distributed.

These forests are dominated by mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans), alpine ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis), and shining gum (Eucalyptus nitens) and are also highly productive sources of arguably Australia’s most valuable and marketable hardwood timbers variously retailed around the country as ‘Vic Ash’ or ‘Tas Oak’ (for the same species produced from Tasmanian forests).

This intersection between a high profile endangered species and a valuable timber industry has resulted in Leadbeater’s Possum becoming the central figure in the latest round of the environmental lobby’s 30-year campaign to shut-down Victoria’s native hardwood industry. This has also fuelled broader political campaigning against the environmental performance of the Baillieu State Government.

It is no accident that these campaigns have ramped-up following the 2010 State election. Unlike the previous decade under Labor, the LNP Coalition Government has expressed strong support for the state’s rural primary industries. However, to the green-left demographic and its associated environmental lobby, any support for continued natural resource use, even at low levels of production, is viewed as being contemptuous of endangered and threatened species.  Accordingly, it has become clear that getting an environmental tick requires that governments actively work to end resource-use activities, such as native forest timber production.

Revealing insights from a recent biography by former Premier Steve Bracks suggests that this is essentially what Victoria’s previous Labor state governments were doing. In the decade under Bracks and then Brumby, small local native hardwood industries were (largely unnecessarily) closed or substantially down-sized in Victoria’s Otways, Wombat, Portland, Bendigo, Mid-Murray, and East Gippsland regions; mostly to facilitate new national parks. This has essentially concentrated the remaining native hardwood industry into central and eastern Victorian forests and, in concert with a series of recent mega-bushfires, has appreciably reduced the annually harvested forest area to its lowest level in a century. 

With only around 9% of Victoria’s State forests still being managed for long-term timber production, and the annually harvested area dropping to around 5,000 hectares (or around 0.0008 of the state’s public forest area), activist campaigns against the native hardwood industry could have been expected to decline. Instead they have intensified, particularly in Victoria’s Central Highlands, where large areas were severely burnt in 2009, thereby placing an additional focus on unburnt areas within the designated production forests where timber harvesting is continuing.

The environmental lobby groups specifically campaigning to “save” Leadbeater’s Possum includes The Wilderness Society, the Central Highlands Action Group, My Environment, and The Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum; with support from other groups such as Markets for Change, and The Last Stand who are campaigning more generally to end Australian native forest timber production. Meanwhile, the Australian Greens continue to provide political support for such an outcome.  

Despite the efforts of these groups, the greatest publicity surrounding this issue in recent years has been generated by media-savvy ANU ecologist and Leadbeater’s Possum specialist Professor David Lindenmayer, whose high profile ensures that virtually his every public utterance finds its way into the ABC or the Fairfax press.

His most recent effort was sensationally reported in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper in mid-September 2012 under a screeching headline: “Making himself extinct: scientist quits over ‘absolute disgrace’ surrounding Leadbeater’s Possum”. In trademark style, Professor Lindenmayer, had very publicly resigned from a Victorian Government body overseeing the recovery of the possum following 2009’s Black Saturday bushfires.  

With a long list of academic achievements, it is understandable that elements of the media have adopted Professor Lindenmayer as their go-to man for commentary on forestry issues. Unfortunately, they have ignored the reality that he is a conservation biologist, rather than a forest scientist fully conversant with the planning and management of forests for commercial timber production. Accordingly, the media’s thrall of his academic credibility has at times allowed misinformed or errant views about forest management to pass unchallenged into the conventional wisdom, whilst far more informed perspectives have been ignored. 

A year earlier in the Canberra Times, Professor Lindenmayer justified his penchant for promoting his views through the media by saying, “There is general disrespect for science these days among politicians. The Government will pick up the phone to talk to lobbyists before they will if ever talk to a scientist.” Ironically, this is exactly the problem faced by forest scientists seeking to give much needed perspective to errant views of forestry being peddled through the media by environmental lobby groups. 

While publicising objective scientific findings can be beneficial, Lindenmayer’s regular forays in the media over the past few years have at times extended beyond his scientific expertise into areas of forest management, where he has strong but often poorly substantiated opinions. Invariably these opinions reflect the highly exaggerated and agenda-driven views of the environmental lobby.

This was evident in the recent Age article in which Lindenmayer described the Victorian Government as an “environmentally bankrupt administration” whose efforts to guarantee a future for the Central Highlands’ timber industry “will lock-in the extinction of Leadbeater’s Possum” within 20-years.

What such a view ignores is that most of the Victorian wet forests which provide current possum habitat are simply not used for timber production, or are excluded by prescription. Indeed, in the Central Highlands, all present and future timber harvesting is limited to within a net area comprising only about one-third of the region’s wet forests, with the other two-thirds being comprised of formal and informal parks and conservation reserves, closed water-supply catchments, and management reserves where harvesting is excluded.

In the approximately one-third of these wet forests where the timber industry is permitted to operate, harvesting is restricted to regrowth forests, with any larger pre-1900 origin trees being identified during planning and excluded from harvesting. Along with streamside reserves and exclusions due to other Code of Practice requirements and management prescriptions, this provides nesting habitat for birds and arboreal mammals in the designated wood production forests, and complements the much larger area of protected habitat residing in neighbouring parks, closed water catchments and other reserves (the animal’s distribution is detailed in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment map below).

In view of this, the Victorian Government’s support for a sustainable timber industry which is restricted to approximately a third of the Central Highlands’ wet forests will not make the Leadbeater’s Possum extinct, as Lindenmayer has claimed. It is also fair to say that ending timber harvesting would not provide any immediate benefit to the possum, given that it is largely absent within the net harvestable area of designated wood-production forests.

Professor Lindenmayer’s resignation was also covered as part of an ABC TV 7:30 Victoria segment several days after The Age article mentioned above. This further exemplified his propensity for straying beyond his scientific expertise, this time into economics, when he remarked that “most Victorians would be unaware that VicForests (the state’s commercial forestry agency) ….. has been running at major losses over the past 10-years.”

This is factually incorrect. As was pointed out during the ABC’s segment, VicForests has returned a profit of $11.6 million since it was established in 2004. This modest result reflects the struggle that VicForests has had in providing substantial returns due to a range of factors largely beyond its control. These include two huge bushfires in 2006 and 2009, which significantly impacted on wood-production forests, an unfavorable business climate, and the costs of dealing with incessant anti-logging activism, including several very expensive legal actions brought by environmental lobby groups in the past few years.

The 2011/12 financial year is a good example. During that year, VicForests suffered a significant financial penalty from lost productivity associated with the drawn-out sale of the state’s largest sawmill, formerly owned by Gunns Ltd; and from having to expend several million dollars on legal actions brought by environmental lobby groups. These legal costs essentially prevented VicForests from recording a multi-million dollar profit, rather than incurring the $96,000 loss it recently announced.

Professor Lindenmayer’s ill-founded attack on the financial performance of VicForests mirrors the long-standing tactic of the environmental lobby to misrepresent the returns from selling logs as the ultimate measure of the worth of timber harvesting. In fact, timber harvesting’s socio-economic value is overwhemingly based on the subsequent utilisation of those logs by a diverse industry which includes businesses associated with forest harvesting, log haulage, primary log processing, secondary timber manufacturing, and retailing. In addition there are the government-employed resources associated with planning and managing timber harvesting and securing forest regeneration.

Although there are difficulties in accurately determining the socio-economic value of Victoria’s native hardwood sector, it is estimated to generate at least a $1 billion per annum in economic activity and to support around 5,000 jobs including secondary timber processing and indirect employment. This, rather than just VicForests’ returns for selling logs, is what would be lost if timber harvesting were to cease in response to calls by environmental lobby groups.

Even though attempting to pin the decline of Leadbeater’s Possum solely on the timber industry is demonstrably wrong, concerns for the possum’s future are not unfounded, given that reportedly 43% of its current known habitat was burnt in the 2009 bushfires. However, is important to appreciate that the possum is ultimately dependent on severe bushfire because, in fire’s long-term absence over several hundred years, its preferred wet forest habitat will eventually revert to an unsuitable non-eucalypt forest type.

In the decades after a severe bushfire, developing regrowth amongst old standing dead or alive nest trees provides ideal habitat. Accordingly, the positive upshot from the 2009 bushfires should be future high quality Leadbeater’s Possum habitat in the tens of thousands of hectares of wet forest that burned in closed water catchments, parks, and reserves. Admittedly, this will take time to develop and relies on an absence of follow-up severe bushfires, which cannot be guaranteed.

Given the structural requirements of suitable Leadbeater’s Possum habitat, there is also potential for modified timber harvesting to improve future prospects for the possum.

One option would be to significantly extend the time between harvests (the rotation length) in the designated wood-production forests. While this would enable trees in these production forests to stand for long enough to develop tree hollows and provide arboreal mammal habitat, it would be immediately problematic for timber volumes unless it was expanded into reserved areas – which would be unlikely. In addition, it would also have no positive benefit for decades, given that the wood-production forests are currently a mix of 73-year-old bushfire regrowth and younger regrowth from recent harvesting, where Leadbeater’s Possum will be largely absent until trees become old enough to develop nesting hollows.

Another option already in use in Tasmania, is a harvesting system that retains older trees in close proximity to regrowth. This involves planning to ensure that at least half of each harvested site is within one tree length of retained forest, so that post-harvest regrowth as it develops, becomes foraging habitat for Leadbeater’s Possums nesting nearby.

A further option being considered in regrowth forests is to commercially thin them in order to remove poorer stems and promote growth on the better trees. This would include a variation from normal practice by deliberately damaging some retained trees to promote decay and facilitate the earlier development of nesting hollows. This approach requires knowledge of where optimal and sub-optimal possum habitat occurs in the landscape. The Baillieu Government’s current program of across-landscape assessments of habitat and possum presence can provide such knowledge, and is an unheralded environmental initiative.

While Professor Lindenmayer has spent many years advocating similar approaches as the best way to harvest timber while minimising wildlife impacts, over the past two years he has refused several invitations to assist VicForests to improve habitat management. Arguably, this suggests his focus is on achieving a political outcome, rather than implementing practical conservation strategies that would help both an endangered species and an important regional industry.

Apart from raising questions about the conduct of a prominent scientist, the Leadbeater’s Possum issue exemplifies that, largely through uncritical and supportive publicity afforded to environmental activism, we have become a society in which “green” urban myths are accepted as absolute truths, while rural realities are dismissed as self-serving myths.

Forestry is far from perfect — no activity so subject to the vagaries of nature can be planned and implemented with absolute precision. However, beyond the reality that timber production involves trees being cut down, there are rational explanations for almost every criticism levelled against it. Unfortunately, these are often so complicated that they rarely find their way into a mainstream media beset by time and space constraints to a degree that favours simple answers to complex questions.

Mark Poynter has been a professional forester for more than thirty years. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and the author of Saving Australia’s Forests and its Implications

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