LOGGING exclusion zones around Leadbeater’s Possum sites should be reconsidered, according to the latest review by the Department of Environment, Land Water and Planning.
The report recommended the 200 metre circumference timber harvesting buffer zones around sightings of possum colonies in the Central Highlands be reviewed to ‘optimise for timber availability, protection for Leadbeater’s Possum, threatened species and other forest values’.
The review, released on Tuesday, estimated that, while the zones had been “effective in protecting locations where the species is known to occur”, they will cost the state nearly $15 million in lost revenue from sawlog harvesting to 2030.
The review also confirmed more possums had been detected than expected, with 340 confirmed colonies located from March 2014 to January 30, 2017, and even more found recently.
The report found the Leadbeater’s Possum was still at risk of extinction, but highlighted this was most likely because of future bushfires, and would remain so until 1939 regrowth developed habitat hollows, predicted by 2050-70.
DELWP admitted that any predictions on possum numbers increasing with the exclusion zones were based on the “highly unlikely” future scenario of 200 years without bushfire, the possum’s greatest threat to survival.
Further, DELWP admitted there was only limited data on the number of Leadbeater’s Possum colonies and habitat in Victoria’s National Parks and reserves, and more than 90 per cent of the possum’s potential habitat in the Central Highlands had never been surveyed.
With only six to 10 per cent of the possum’s potential habitat surveyed, the majority in state forest available to industry, it is impossible to update estimates of total population size.
“Further surveys across all land tenures and habitat quality are required to improve estimates of the overall population and the long-term effectiveness of (exclusion zones),” says the review.
DELWP recommended changing to a strategic landscape-scale planning to better manage and recover threatened species such as the Leadbeater’s Possum.
“A landscape-scale approach that moves away from the use of detection-based prescriptions will also provide greater certainty and reduce costs to industry,” the report reads.
The report advised reducing unnecessary indirect impacts on the timber industry, while ensuring adequate protection for Leadbeater’s Possum, and undertaking additional field studies to improve Leadbeater’s Possum knowledge.
“The largest impact ... is resource isolation, including forest areas adjacent to the (exclusion zones) becoming more difficult and in some cases, uneconomic to access,” the report says.
Other indirect impacts on VicForests have been management costs, such as field assessments, road planning, field marking, site preparation and infrastructure, as well as planning costs to reschedule coupes.
Heyfield’s Australian Sustainable Hardwoods and Australian Paper in the Latrobe Valley are the companies most affected.
Gippsland East MLA Tim Bull said currently there were 618 confirmed Leadbeater’s Possum colonies, a huge increase on numbers two years ago, from surveying in a relatively small area of general public forest.
“The Andrews Government must urgently get on with recommended comprehensive survey work across all landscapes, because this review makes it crystal clear past population estimates were grossly inadequate and have distorted public debate,” he said.
Shadow Minister for Agriculture Peter Walsh said that in order for the timber industry to survive, the state government must rapidly change its policy direction to accept that the possum and a viable forestry sector can co-exist.
“Daniel Andrews must decide if he’s backing a $7 billion industry that support up to 50,000 jobs across Victoria, or if he’s going to sacrifice all of that in order to save a couple of inner city Labor seats with Greens preferences next election,” he said.
Environmentalist group The Wildnerness Society campaigns manager Amelia Young said the buffers had been a helpful, short-term measure.
“What’s needed now is a comprehensive protected area that is consistent with previous scientific findings; these show that for the Leadbeater’s Possum to escape extinction, forests in Victoria’s Central Highlands must be protected from logging,” she said.
The review can be found at www.wildlife.vic.gov.au.