Environmentalists are outraged that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has called for a review of the protection status of Victoria’s faunal emblem, the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum, so new logging zones in Victoria’s central highlands can be opened.
Joyce wrote to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on March 26, criticising the decision to reduce the logging quota offered to Gippsland’s Heyfield mill operators Australian Sustainable Hardwood (ASH) from 155,000 cubic metres a year to 80,000 cubic metres in 2017–18 and 60,000 cubic metres in the next two years.
ASH said it needs 120,000 cubic metres a year to break even and has asked the Victorian government to release its entire 2017–18 allocation by January 2018 to keep the 250 workers at the mill employed for another 12 months.
Joyce said the decision to reduce the logging quota “will cost jobs and ruin the forestry industry” so he has “asked the minister for the environment and energy, the Honourable Josh Frydenberg MP, to review the threatened species status of the Leadbeater’s possum” because “forestry is not the principle threat to the population”.
The possum was declared critically endangered in 2015 after 45% of the possum’s habitat was destroyed in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. The threatened species scientific committee said the “most effective way to prevent further decline and rebuild the population of Leadbeater’s possum is to cease timber harvesting within mountain ash forests of the central highlands”.
About 1.2% of previously harvestable mountain ash forests have been designated possum buffer zones since 2014, making them unavailable for logging. Joyce said Victoria should allow logging in at least 10,000 hectares of this forest. He said the federal government was “prepared to immediately approve” such a move.
In a confidential report to ASH’s parent company, the Hermal Group, in 2014, VicForests said the major reason for the reduction in sawlog volume was the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires and dismissed industry claims that protection of Leadbeater’s possum had caused the “supply crisis”. ASH spokesperson James Lantry said Joyce did not speak to the company before writing to Andrews.
A spokesperson for Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum, Steve Meacher, said the organisation would oppose any logging in protected mountain ash forests and was taking advice on mounting a possible legal challenge if the transfer went ahead.
About 30% of remaining Leadbeater’s possum habitat is in areas that are currently logged, and Meacher said opening up more areas for logging would have a devastating effect on the possum.
Wilderness Society Victorian Campaigns Manager Amelia Young said: “VicForests’ Resource Outlook from 2013 clearly shows sawlog supply would significantly decrease from 2017–18. VicForests knew of the looming reduction in wood supply. Successive Victorian governments knew, and the big timber mills, such as the Heyfield sawmill, knew.
“Joyce’s suggestion to log an endangered animal to extinction would not give the mill’s owners the wood they are demanding, and means Victorians would have to wave good-bye to their animal emblem.
“Rather than offering false hope, governments must provide support to workers facing employment change and invest in sustainable jobs for the long-term.”