'Citizen scientists' force VicForests to halt logging

Protest at Sylvia Creek in 2011. Photo: Ben Courtice
Thursday, May 5, 2016

Volunteer conservationists forced a last minute stay of execution for a section of forest near Toolangi that they had shown was home to the critically endangered Leadbeater's possum, which VicForests contractors were due to clearfell within days.

Despite finding evidence of the possum in mid-April, posted as a video on facebook, “citizen scientists” monitoring logging operations were alarmed on May 4 to find the Imperium logging coupe where the possum was found was due to commence logging any day.

Greens upper house MP Samantha Dunn took the matter up in parliament on May 4, asking Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford to explain why logging had not been “swapped out” to another coupe, and “why has VicForests declared intention to log the Imperium coupe prior to the completion of a DELWP [Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning] survey, where citizen scientists have already identified the presence of Leadbeater's possum? Will the minister intervene to rein in VicForests?”

While Pulford did not answer the question in the time allotted, she praised “the great work that VicForests does in supporting the recovery of the Leadbeater's possum”.

Later that day, Dunn issued a press release stating that the logging of the Imperium coupe had now been stopped. "It seems VicForests are a law unto themselves,” she said. “They denied any ability to 'swap out' Imperium coupe. I'm over hearing time and time again that VicForests are protecting Leadbeater's Possums.”

The Central Highlands area has been the site of years of protests by conservationists against VicForests logging some of the few areas not burned in the 2009 Black Saturday fires. Conservationists have argued that the whole Central Highlands forests area should be protected as a “Great Forest National Park”.

The May 4 intervention by Palford came only the day after The Age revealed state Environment Minister, Lisa Neville, thought the new National Park could be declared within the current term of government.

Meanwhile, similar “citizen science” efforts in the kuark forests, a region in the state's east, have resulted in a halt to several VicForests operations there.

Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO) volunteers have documented illegal logging in rainforest areas, and have recorded endangered species in areas scheduled for logging.

GECO campaigner Ed Hill spoke to Green Left Weekly about the group's work. The kuark area is mixed forest to the south of the protected Errinundra Plateau, where cool and warm temperate rainforests mix in a unique ecosystem called “overlap rainforest”. There was a lot more rainforest in the area prior to colonisation, Hill said, with the remnants mostly existing as small patches interspersed with tall eucalypt forest that is the main target of logging operations.

Hill condemned VicForests' record in the area. “The market is turning away from native forests” he said. “The industry employs hardly any people in the region these days. Tourism is growing. VicForests are losing $5.5 million per year in East Gippsland alone,” he said, referring to information leaked last year that VicForests was making a loss in most years.

“VicForests have a shocking track record on their code of practice — rainforest has limited protections, they are consistently found in breach of those protections, such as failing to identify it in the field. We've documented breaches, sent to DELWP, who are supposed to enforce the code. They have had a cosy relation with VicForests, who self-regulate. Just this year, there have been five cases of rainforest logging, now the department is investigating these. We're calling on DELWP to prosecute VicForests in the Magistrate's Court,” Hill said.

The citizen science program involves volunteers independently checking the wildlife and vegetation in areas scheduled for logging. In 2015, GECO campaigners were fined for trespassing on a logging site, even though they uncovered illegal rainforest logging in the process.

Dunn told parliament on May 4 that “these citizen scientists are at risk of arrest for the actions they undertake and that is a travesty.”

Dunn told Green Left Weekly that “Despite assurances that VicForests does everything by the book, it doesn't seem to have any ability to identify threatened species even though citizen scientists do. It's not in VicForest's interests to find threatened species, because they'd have to rule out logging.” She suggested to parliament that instead of prosecuting citizen scientists, VicForests ought to employ them, “because they have certainly had a better success rate than that organisation”.

Hill said the GECO citizen science program works with the laws and rules for threatened species and ecological communities in the code of practice VicForests has to follow, under the state's Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act.

“We look for protected values like powerful masked owls, greater gliders, long-footed potoroos. We look in areas scheduled for logging, put in reports to government and pressure them to do their job and do logging lawfully.

“We'd like to see greater regulation, not just by volunteers! We'd like to see an independent body set up to survey for threatened species, ensure protections are implemented.

“The department takes a really soft approach. They seem to go out of their way to facilitate logging. A lot of our reports over the years, they've failed to act on, or not until after the logging occurred.”

Hill said that since Neville has become environment minister, Environment East Gippsland “has had some good results with them doing their job, but we still need better.”

The aim for conservation in the area should be a protected corridor from the coast to the mountains, Hill said. “This is the only part of mainland Australia with continuous native vegetation from alpine to coastal areas, with low population and a lot of forest. It's the wild corner of south-east Australia.

“The Alpine National Park was linked to the Snowy, protected by campaigns in the 1980s, then Errinundra Plateau linked under the Bracks government in 2006, Goolengook has been added on, Kuark is the next area of forest that needs to be protected, linking remaining high conservation forests south of Errinundra to the coastal Croajingolong National Park.”

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