The Leadbeater's Possum Case - A cold case in the ethics of extinction
It's minus 2 degrees outside. You’re asleep curled up next to your partner in a warm bed. Your children are curled up, nestled into the warmth of your body. Softly you awaken to hear a muffled drone, like machinery, the house vibrates and the other members of the family rouse in panic. Suddenly a vertigo-like feeling grips you as your home starts to fall. You hit the ground with a deafening thud as the machinery tears into the walls. You are crushed by the weight of your home against you and your family. Those of you whose back is not broken, try to get out from beneath the enormous pressure. The machinery keeps cutting and smashing and a home to generations of your family, is lifted, stripped, split and put into a growing pile of logs for the paper mill.
You scramble to safety in the freezing conditions. Now you are cold and homeless, if you manage to locate an unused hole in a tree you may survive overnight temperatures - it is too cold to survive outside.
When the men are done, they will burn what remains of the bodies of your young, your food and the once complex forest that surrounded your home. Paths navigated by many generations of your ancestors no longer exist. Frightened and alone you will become prey, starve, be attacked by territorial neighbours and die.
The men move on to your neighbors homes to repeat the horror. Why? To make Nippon Reflex paper so humans can record their world on yours. Your kind is going extinct as we trade your kind for a ream of white fibre.
The average length of life for a piece of paper is a month. The average life span of a Leadbeater’s is 7 years and the average age of the forest they dwell in is beyond a human life time.
It takes three weeks to clear 38 hectares of forests, the same size as the Victorian Botanical gardens. It employs 6 men and, without grants, has not produced a dividend return to Victorian’s since 2005.
THE COLD FACTS
There are thought to be around fifteen hundred Leadbeater's Possums (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) left in the wild today. This tiny marsupial is Victoria's faunal emblem. The Leadbeater's was thought to have gone extinct but was rediscovered in 1961. It was originally named the 'fairy possum' for it's unrivaled agility leaping amidst the tops of the tallest flowering tree’s on earth - the giant mountain ash. At dusk, Leadbeater's possums emerge from their nests in hollows of the tree’s and spread out to forage in the canopy, often making spectacular leaps from tree to tree (they require continuous understory to travel). The tiny 130 gram possum is a primitive, relict, non-gliding petaurid and, as the only species in the Gymnobelideus genus, represents an ancestral species.
The Central Highlands forests, 60 kms from Melbourne, is the only place they exist on earth and it is also the largest source of native woodchips for Nippon owned Reflex copy paper, logged by state government agency VicForests.
The Leadbeater's Possum is:
- Listed as ‘endangered’ Commonwealth government.
- Listed as ‘threatened’ by the state government.
- Red-listed 'endangered' by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature
- 52nd EDGE species on the brink of extinction and rated as globally significant by the London Zoological Society.
The Leadbeater’s Possum makes it’s home in the tall forests of the Central Highlands whose epic heights have rivaled the Californian Redwoods. The giant montane ash forests grow on a narrow rainfall band in the mountains around Melbourne and contain the only sustainable populations of Leadbeater’s Possums left in the world. The average old age of a Mountain Ash tree is around 250-300 years with some trees older than 500 years and still growing. Overtime these trees flourish and decay creating hollows, left alone, to ultimately become shorter stumps that continue to provide nests for Leadbeater’s until final collapse.
Today only 1.2% of old growth montane forest remains in the Central Highlands unburnt and unlogged. This forest type is the traditional habitat of the Leadbeater's Possum although they can survive in sub-optimal conditions like nest boxes for a period. Originally this possum was thought to have colonised forests as far as the Bass River. Today the removal of their habitat has left tiny colonies in the Yellingbo swamp, a remnant alpine colony on Mt Baw Baw and more sustainable colonies in the montane forests of the Central Highlands - the forests vulnerable to woodchipping.
Extinction of a montane ecosystem:
Out of 31,000 hectares of Alpine Ash forest, their exists only 97 hectares of old growth left unlogged and unburned (DSE, Lindenmayer 2011).
Out of 161,000 hectares of Mountain Ash forest, their exists only 1571 hectares of old growth left unlogged and unburned (DSE, Lindenmayer 2011).
Whilst a meagre 1.2% exists, Australian National University scientists claim there should be around 80% old growth ash forest remaining if logging had been managed sustainably.
The Leadbeater's possum faces a predicted bottle neck in suitable habitat until 2065 when, if the majority of logging was discontinued, new hollows would develop in successional, aging forests. It can take 120 years for a hollow to start to develop in a tall ash tree, earlier if the tree’s have been damaged mechanically or by disturbance like fires, wind and other tree damage. The habitat shortage was a dictum decided by ‘salvage logging’ that ran until 1970’s, after the fires of 1939. Since then, extensive clearfell logging and a ‘conversion of over mature forests’ program by the Forestry Commission has erased vast regions of mature hollow bearing mountain ash forests across the Central Highlands. The extinction trajectory of every hollow dependent ash forest animal has been sown by this act of conversion.
There are 40 vertebrates dependant on hollows for homes in the ash schlerophyll forests. The Landscape Traps paper by an international science team discusses disturbance influences in forests causing a tipping of ecosystems into self-destruction, the likes of which creates deadly fire regimes and carbon emissions, water loss and functional extinction. The scientists stress however, that landscape traps can be detected before they are irrevocably established.
What is the State Government Doing?
The Victorian government are opening up new forests to log, including parks, reserves and catchments. According to the Australian National University resource science, logging plans by the Baillieu government will log out all remaining ecologically mature ash forests within 12 years. Premier Baillieu has also committed to logging National parks by way of ‘thinning’ to ensure 20 year logging contracts can be met. The Timber Industry Action Plan , written by the Minister for Agriculture and Water Peter Walsh and Secretary for Forestry (logger) Gary Blackwood, commits Victoria to pay out these 20 year logging contracts if a policy change or resource shortage occurs. The forests have already run out if we measure them against ecologically safe thresholds - extinction trajectories suggests this. However, Gary Blackwood has a business in logging and his relatives have haulage contracts to move native forest logs so sustainability is not being measured against environmental threats. With 61% of Leadbeater’s habitat on VicForests managed land, governed by direct political interests, the Leadbeater’s Possum is destined for industry driven extinction.
Fires have not been configured in this risk assessment but given 42% of the Leadbeater’s habitat burned in 3 hours on February 7, 2009, another fire in it’s range will bring fourth that extinction date.
VicForests Wood/Waste ratio
According to VicForests ‘sustainability’ report, they do not produce A grade timber and less than 1/3 of their production is sawlog (grades E to B). Of this, more than half becomes residue and waste during squaring and processing of the logs. So around 85% becomes residue/waste that goes to chip and pulp, 11% is used for low grade products like pallets and palings, 4% is of sufficient quality for use in buildings, of which less than half is of appearance grade. This means that their high value product only makes up 2% of their income. Their overall program is that of commodity woodchips that rely on a narrow rate of return.
CARBON - The Montane Ash forests are the most carbon dense forests in the world in their mature state storing and average of 1500 tonnes of carbon in above ground biomass per hectare. After a fire, around 10% of the carbon can be lost, after a logging event, around 60% is removed and burned. Because the forests are kept on a logging rotation cycle of 40-80 years, the tall ash forests, who reach their old age at 250 years plus, never house their optimum carbon stores - becoming contributors rather than banks.
WATER - The Central Highlands house Melbourne's free water supply in big natural catchments, filtered and purified by ecologically mature, wet forests - partly protected from logging. Mature forests produce clean water and are less prone to burn whereas young regrowth forests, converted by logging, are more flammable and drink huge quantities of water to reach their epic 100 metre heights. Around 50% of the water is lost on a site that has been logged or burned, water that would other wise flow into drinking water catchments. The forests are kept at a young regrowth state after logging (optimum for pulp) so they never return maximum water release at aged 120 years and older, but rather stay thirsty at 50-60 years (peak tree growth period). Logging is concentrated in the high water yielding areas of the catchments because this is where the prized ash forest grow. It's not how much of the catchment you log, it is what species you log and where they sit in the rainfall zones that result in maximum water loss. VicForests target this area.
BIODIVERSITY - Rich and complex biodiversity is erased after logging and the replacement tree's are much like a plantation with the site absent of most of the biodiversity that existsed prior to clearfell logging and log coupe burning. This is precisely why ash forest wildlife is going extinct (slowly and rapidly) according to a DSE survey of Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) sites. The state have not sustainably managed the 'resource' to coexist with other needs like that of wildlife. Logging, weeds and fires has reduced habitat for arboreal and aquatic species dependant on healthy forests, streams, fens, swamps and bogs.
The Comprehensive and Adequate Reserve (CAR) system, by which the Federal Government finds assurance to permit the logging of the ash forests is deficient in its actual calculations. The CAR Reserves (underpinning sustainability claims of the RFA) are grossly under represented. That is, where the RFA Agreements claim a certain forest type and age class (old growth) is represented, the actual reserve is found to be two-thirds less. A clear breach as the state should have added more old forest to make up for the loss after three major fires. The problem is...there isn’t anymore.
Areas of critical Leadbeater’s habitat (termed Zone 1A), includes virtually all of the older-aged forest in the Central Highlands. This ‘old growth’ is technically protected in the proposed CAR Reserve System in either the Yarra Ranges National Park or in the Special Protection Zone in State forest. The last ‘old growth’ study was commissioned in 1996 - Study of Old Growth Forests in Victoria’s Central Highlands (Forest Service Technical Report 96-3). This report states that there is a total of 5,070 hectares of Wet Forest (ash forest dominated) reserved, a current resource summary from ANU, DSE and Melbourne University states that in the Central Highlands there only exists 1, 668 hectares of old growth Wet Forest (unlogged/unburnt ash forest) which is less than 1% of the total old growth ash forest remaining, 67% less than that claimed is protected by the CAR reserve.
The RFA media claimed that ‘old growth’ forest is relatively scarce as a result of past agricultural selection and wildfire’ but this was misleading. The old growth forests of the Central Highlands were subject to prolonged conversion. Today the effect of that conversion of ‘over-mature to regrowth’ forest has meant species richness has been simplified and species dependant on old forests are going extinct - like Victoria’s Leadbeater’s ‘fairy’ Possum. No old tree’s, no hollows, no homes, no possums.
Why Toolangi for a court case?
Toolangi contains the western most populations of the Leadbeater's possum and is subject to the first concentrated wave of extinction. This event was initially predicted in 1996 (Lindenmayer and Possingham) and has been re-assesd in several recent studies including a DSE/Arthur Rylah Institute study (2012) that found no Leadbeater's Possum’s persisted in any of the RFA monitoring sites in Toolangi. Toolangi has almost no old forest today due to logging, the last small patches grow in tiny reserves and sporadically across several logging coupes - three of which are the subject of the Court Case; Gun Barrel, South Col and Freddo.
Toolangi was entirely ring barked by fire on Black Saturday and today contains an isolated colony of Leadbeater's. No Leadbeater's have been recorded in burnt areas (ANU 2012). 42% of the global population of Leadbeater's habitat was burnt on Black Saturday over several hours.
MyEnvironment obtained a rare photo of a Leadbeater’s from a camera in a patch of forest near one of the logging coupes - Freddo.
A tiny family of critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum have been captured on camera on the edge of a VicForests logging operation in the contested Toolangi logging zone.
The court case is underway to protect three critical habitat area’s in Toolangi, from being logged. One of the site camera's has produced 10,600 photo’s showing several Leadbeater’s (fairy) possums making a nest in a collapsing tree on the edge of the partially logged ‘Gun Barrel’ coupe.
Whilst we do know a great deal about the possum itself, its role in the ecosystem in which it lives has not been the subject of deep exploration. In new science and monitoring work from the United States, Winston P. smith reveals that as indigenous forests across North America are transformed, the implications of these changes are far reaching and include the loss of habitat, biological diversity, and ecological services, as well as diminished air and water quality. Smith states that the ‘sentinel’ of the forest , the Northern Flying Squirel and it’s acute sensitivity to disturbance at multiple spatial scales, renders it an effective sentinel of forest ecosystem processes. The Leadbeater’s may well be ours as it too achieves its highest density in old growth.
The Baillieu government is logging these last reserves for Japanese owned Reflex copy paper despite the habitat meeting the Commonwealth criteria for Leadbeater's habitat. The population viability of this animal is bleak based on the decay rate of it’s home under climate change. The fire’s and the logging damage. Currently, an archaic planning framework permits the clearfelling of the animals habitat, a tripswitch mechanism does not exist to pause ecologically damaging processes and this is the single most unethical point in our findings. Where our court case found that laws create the definition of the species habitat, laws have not been designed to offer a moratorium tripswitch. The federal Recovery team found this out when they requested one . The Recovery therefore fails.
MyEnvironment Inc. believe that the laws; the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act - Action Statement, and the Environmental Protection Biodiversity and Conservation Act - Recovery Plan, set down descriptions and prescriptions for identifying habitat and protecting them - called Zones. Justice Osborn, in the Supreme Court, disagreed that the Action statement stipulated protections from logging for these 'Zones' and judged the protection of the Zones were found exclusively in a forestry planning framework called the 'Forest Management Plan' (FMP). This forestry framework is born from the 1998 Regional Forest Agreement process and is an outdated, un-tested and a poor reflection of the Action statements definition of habitat. The FMP is 14 years old and has never been subject to review despite it's efficacy predicated on regular reviews - the RFA itself only exempts the powers of the EPBC Act if reviews are regularly undertaken. What our case has made clear is that due to an exemption being made by the Commonwealth in the RFA, logging is permitted to kill and ultimately make extinct, the endangered Leadbeater's Possum.
Did His Honour get it wrong?
One of the bases for our appeal is that the FFG Act Action statement and EPBC Act Federal Recovery Plan, by law, should protect the endangered Possum from hollow tree loss (listed threatening process) as this is what the Recovery plans were designed to do - this is why we have these laws underpinning these actions. The science has shown, inarguably, that the species is set for extinction in a matter of decades, less with another major fire. Justice Osborn, in his summary, agreed that the evidence is compelling for an urgent review of the species management. This suggestion makes clear that he understands the threats, why make the suggestion otherwise.
'MyEnvironment has demonstrated a strong case for the overall review of the adequacy of the reserve system intended to protect LBP habitat within the Central Highlands Forest Management Area. The  bushfires have materially changed the circumstances in which the existing system was planned and implemented and there is, on the evidence, an urgent need to review it’ Justice Robert Osborn. 2012
Our case shows that these court case coupes - would be ideal to add to a reserve. During the trial , VicForests mounted the case that 198 ‘materially similar’ coupes could not be cut if we were accurate in our understanding of the law. Those 198 coupes, according to VicForests assessments, would also be forest prospects for reserve additions. However, as VicForests handed the files to the Judge, their contractors were cutting these materially similar coupes and we suspect many of which had been cut as the figure of 198 materially similar coupes down sized to 168 materially similar coupes during the trial. This forest is irreplaceable and will take at least 150 years to produce a hollow, let alone a complex and rich understory.
With 1500 Leadbeater's Possums disappearing at an alarming rate due to fires and man made activity. Some scientists claim the Leadbeater's is one of the most 'well managed extinctions' in Australia, with Australia leading the world in the highest amount of species managed into extinction . There is little that we do not know about what this animal needs to survive, yet we continue to perpetuate it's extinction in full knowledge.
The Lake Mountain colony of Leadbeater’s slipped from approx. 350 animals to just 3 after Black Saturday. Many of these animals were living in nest boxes provided by a community goodwill program as the habitat was collapsing. Today the last two possums are living in the Melbourne Zoo and this Alpine population is functionally extinct. A small closely related population lives in an area below Lake Mountain, some of which was protected by our group in 2006 from logging. In one hour, an entire population can be pronounced as functionally extinct from a fire. Where is the risk management for our species? There are strong paralells between the safety nets for children under care of the state and wildlife in state forests. The ethics a nationa can be clearly measured by the way in which they treat their vulnerable.
Extinction Debt, Financial Debt - Who want’s this?
Victoria's native forest logging has not returned a dividend to the Victorian people for 5 years. The states logging agency VicForests receive our forests freely and yet have run a debt every year since their inception in 2004 (removing government prop up grants). They have never been formally audited by the Victorian Auditor General. Some commercial analysts claim that they are insolvent but as they are exempt from normal business laws under the Trade Practices Act they cannot be challenged. VicForests are essentially tied to debt by way of the Wood Pulp Act that contracts cheap logs to Australian Paper with a small royalty fixed from 1996 to 2030. The Original agreement commenced in 1936 and continues to today through successive ownerships of Paperlinx, Amcor and now Nippon. Bound to the states fixed price long term contracts with Nippon Paper means VicForests operating environment appears ‘condemned’.
According to VicForests annual report, the court case is costing the state millions of dollars and yet evidence in our case (Schirmer 2012) revealed that they could have simply removed the three coupes without any cost to their bottom line, instead they chose to fight. They could have protected a near extinct animal in Toolangi but chose to fight the community instead. This is questionable decision making under the Model Litigant rules of behaviour for a government business enterprise. VicForests, according to Treasury’s URS report, could risk their long term access to the supply if they lose their ‘social licence’. Over the course of this year more than 50 arrests have ensued, many of whom live next to the contentious logging. Coupled with poor stakeholder engagement strategies, using police and dogs on community and naively assuming that they can ignore the problem, both Australian Paper and VicForests have lost significant credibility. Their long term relationship maybe seeing out it’s final days.
Our non-government organisation is trying to do what the Commonwealth should be doing - protecting the habitat of an endangered species listed under Commonwealth law. The state laws that should have protected this animal have been written by Forestry Commission and have thus far failed to enact protection for a near extinct animal from logging. This is the yardstick by which the state must be judged on their conformance with the RFA Act 2002, EPBC Act 1999 and FFG Act 1988. If something is going extinct due to a threatening process recognised under state and federal laws, and this is permitted under an exemption clause by the Federal government, it is fair to say that conformance to the Federal government expectations for the EPBC exemption to exist, has not been met. Extinction means ‘ecological sustainability’ cannot be claimed and a question mark also exists as to how the Commonwealth government is now meeting it’s UN obligations under the Convention on Biological diversity.
This is why MyEnvironment Inc. has risked it's own extinction to save this extraordinary little animal for it's demise heralds a much more frightening picture around the ethics of law, international obligations and the yardsticks used to measure resource extraction against ecosystem health. When the forests in which this tiny animal persists are logged and burned, the hydrological impacts, rainfall reduction, effect on pollination, water pollution, increased bushfires and the collapse of Melbournes most critical 'ecosystem' are non-refundable, repairable and nor will the politicians that orchestrated it, be held to account. We act now or we accept the error and foot a bill none of us are prepared for.