Unique forest dwelling animals are being pushed towards extinction by continued logging in their habitat. Ed Hill writes about the threats to their survival and the citizen scientists who are saving habitat and holding logging companies and the Victorian government accountable to the law.
Across the globe natural ecosystems and the species that call them home are in trouble. Climate change and habitat loss are firmly steering tens of thousands of species on a trajectory towards extinction. Globally, there are now 41,415 plant and animal species on the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) Red List, and 16,306 of them are endangered species threatened with extinction.
Australia is among the top ten countries with the highest number of threatened species listed on the IUCN red list, with 909 listed species found on our shores.
In Victoria, threatened species are legally protected under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act (FFGA). Legal protections for FFGA listed species are meant to restrict logging in sensitive habitats. However environment groups have been heavily critical of the regulatory system that is meant to enforce legal protections for threatened species.
State-owned logging company VicForests is legally obligated to conduct surveys for threatened species before logging commences to determine whether protected species are present in the forest and if legal protections that would restrict logging are required to be implemented.
Environment groups argue that VicForests is simply not doing a good enough job at looking for protected species and it’s a conflict of interest for it to be conducting the surveys in the first place.If VicForests find protected species, it can prevent logging. As a company whose sole interest is logging forests, it’s unsurprising that its surveys for protected species are not conducted appropriately.
Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO), a small grassroots community group based in East Gippsland, has been taking matters into its own hands to protected forest-dependent threatened species from logging.
GECO educates members of the community in threatened species survey techniques at ecology camps held in East Gippsland’s forests every three months. The survey camps focus on finding threatened species in areas of native forest that VicForests plans on logging.
Why is this so? Federal protection yet state-based industry exempt
The federal government recently added 49 species to the threatened list. The new listings included the addition of the forest-dependent species such as the Greater glider, listed as vulnerable to extinction, and the upgrading of the status of Swift parrots to critically endangered.
Species that make the list are protected under the federal Environment Protection Biodiversity and Conversation (EPBC) Act. However, the logging industry is exempt from the EPBC Act. The Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) are agreements between the state and federal governments that allow access to public forests for timber production. They hand the responsibility of forest management to the states and exempt the state-based logging from federal threatened species laws.
The exemption means that operations are not subject to the same planning approval processes that other industries, like mining and development, are subject to, such as environmental impact statements.
Citizen surveys are proving to be highly effective in locating threatened species and forcing the Victorian government to implement the legally required protections in situations where logging would normally be carried out unrestricted. In several cases citizen surveys have actually stopped logging in its tracks, or prevented planned logging from occurring in the future.
In January and again in April this year, night time citizen surveys located large populations of Greater gliders in two VicForests logging coupes on the Errinundra plateau, where logging had already commenced. The surveys actually stopped the logging and will result in a protected area for the species.
Greater gliders are Australia’s largest gliding marsupials; they eat gum leaves and are capable of gliding up to 100m through the air. They need old growth forests with hollow trees for nesting. Logging removes hollow bearing trees and can completely wipe out localised populations.
Victorian law requires greater glider habitat to be set aside in a reserve when more than 10 individuals are located on a 1km long spotlighting survey. Each logging area that is likely to contain the species needs to be surveyed before logging can commence. However, according to environmentalists, VicForests either does not conduct a survey at all, or does a poor job of surveying.
GECO’s recent citizen surveys of logging coupes in greater glider habitat located 15 gliders in less than 1km in one area that was being logged and 11 in less than a kilometre in another area. In both cases the citizen scientists photographed the animals and recorded their locations using a GPS. They reported the survey results to the Department of Land Water and Planning (DELWP), the government department responsible for regulating VicForests logging activities and enforcing the laws that protect threatened species.
The logging in both these areas was halted while DELWP investigated and conducted their own surveys. DELWP surveys found the exact same number of greater gliders found by the citizen scientists. Logging was stopped for good and the two areas will now be reserved in order to comply with the laws that protect the greater glider.
If the citizen surveys had not been conducted, logging in the areas would have been carried out illegally and hundreds of hectares of high quality habitat for the greater glider would have been logged.
The fact that citizen surveys are repeatedly finding threatened species in forests that have not been appropriately surveyed raises questions about the functionality of the regulatory system. Logging companies are responsible for looking for protected species themselves and the Department of Environment is reluctant to enforce the legal requirement to conduct a survey before logging commences.
In the montane ash forests of Victoria’s Central Highlands the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum is under immense pressure from logging of its habitat. The possum is Victoria’s faunal emblem and was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. Their numbers have dramatically declined in recent years, as much of their habitat has been logged for paper products, such as Reflex copy paper.
Leadbeater’s possums rely on hollow bearing trees for nesting, and extensive logging of the montane ash forests has dramatically reduced the number of these large old trees in the landscape, literally leaving the possum homeless.
Leadbeater’s possum numbers are estimated to have peaked in the mid-1980s, when approximately 7500 were known in the wild. Devastatingly, the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 burned around 45% of its remaining habitat. There is now estimated to be around 1500 Leadbeater’s possums in the wild. Last year the possum’s threatened listing was upgraded to critically endangered, one step below extinction.
Professor David Lindenmayer is a forest ecologist at the Australian National University in Canberra. He’s been studying the possum and the montane ash forests it calls home for over 30 years. Lindenmayer believes the only way to prevent the extinction of the possum is to protect its remaining habitat from logging in the proposed Great Forest National Park.
In April, 2016, VicForests commenced preparatory works in a logging area in the Toolangi state forest, a known stronghold for Leadbeater’s possum, within the proposed Great Forest National Park. VicForests had failed to identify any Leadbeaters possums in the forest and argued that logging could proceed, as the possum was not likely to be present in the area.
The night before logging was to commence, citizen scientists from the group Wildlife of the Central Highlands (WOTCH) conducted an 11th hour spotlighting survey in the proposed logging coupe and filmed a Leadbeater’s possum darting around the canopy of the forest where logging was to commence the next day. The discovery was reported to the state government and VicForests has since agreed to take the logging coupe off the immediate schedule.
If citizen scientists had not taken it upon themselves to go into the forest and search for the critically endangered possum, its habitat would have been swiftly destroyed by VicForests and turned into low grade paper products.
For many of the forest-dependent species that are supposed to be protected by Victorian law, they are racing against time. So are the citizen scientists who keep finding them in VicForests logging areas. Citizen scientists are now acting as an unofficial regulator of the logging industry.
Victorian environment groups are advocating for an independent body to assess areas of forest before logging takes place to ensure that threatened species are given the protections afforded to them under Victorian law. They argue that the current system is skewed towards self-regulation, where a government department regulates a government business, and independent scrutiny and enforcement is rarely applied.
As a well-resourced, wealthy and highly educated nation, Australia could be a global leader in threatened species conservation. Simple solutions exist to save our threatened species. Ending native forest logging in Australia and moving the timber industry into existing plantations that carry reputable certification labels would go a long way to prevent the extinction of our unique forest-dependent fauna.
Ed Hill will be speaking and conducting educational workshops at the next GECO Citizen Science Camp held in Goongerah this June. For more information visit www.geco.org.au/calander
For information about the proposed Great Forest National Park that would protect the habitat of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum visit http://www.greatforestnationalpark.com.au/
For information on ethical paper choices that are not made from native forests visit http://ethicalpaper.com.au/
To learn more about swift parrots and to take action to protect their habitat visit http://www.savebrunyisland.org/
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