The average punter knows very little about logging in Victoria. Perhaps even fewer realise it could drive the state’s animal emblem out of existence. By Michelle Slater.

The battle to save the Leadbeater’s possum from logging

Clear-felled forest at Rusty coupe, Toolangi.
Clear-felled forest at Rusty coupe, Toolangi.

A handful of forest activists gather every Friday evening at Melbourne’s GPO on Bourke Street Mall. One wears a possum suit. Another wears a Driza-Bone and Akubra and he hands out flyers to rushing commuters. 

John Williamson’s Rip Rip Woodchip plays continually over a small PA. “He has given his permission for us to play his song,” says Trent Patten, taking off his possum head.

The group is calling on the Victorian government to halt logging and create a Great Forest National Park (GFNP) in the central highlands to protect the threatened Leadbeater’s possum – Victoria’s faunal emblem.

It is believed only 1500 Leadbeater’s exist since the 2009 Black Saturday fires wiped out half the possum’s habitat and whittled down its numbers.

The shy critter lives in tree hollows and needs a continuous network of forest canopy to survive.

Green groups claim 1 per cent of old-growth forest remains in the central highlands since logging began in 1939 and they want it protected from further forestry.

Australian National University Leadbeater’s expert Professor David Lindenmayer proposed the GFNP, which would add nearly 200,000 hectares to the region’s existing national parks.

As Victoria heads towards a state election this month, logging has fallen off the public radar, yet forests are being cleared on Melbourne’s doorstep, about 50 kilometres north-east, near Toolangi.

As key issues such as tollways and public transport have grabbed election headlines, Patten and about eight others make the weekly pilgrimage from Toolangi, where he estimates they have handed out more than 30,000 flyers to city folk.

 “I’ve been doing this for about 18 months,” he says. “The feedback is extremely positive. Or people are ignorant. It’s really sad that they don’t know that their faunal emblem is on the brink of collapse and being logged into extinction.”

Patten says they originally began protesting outside the state-owned logging company VicForests’ office on Bourke Street. 

“We started projecting images onto their building of what they’ve been doing out in the forests,” he tells me. “Stirring up the logging industry wasn’t our intention. It was raising public awareness.”

The Saturday Paper approached about 10 random people who took flyers and found that, overall, the public was unaware that logging was happening in Victoria.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” says David Zaija, from Melbourne’s west.

Chantelle Heldt, of St Albans, says, “No, I don’t know much about it.”

Both major parties remain non-committal on the issue and environmental groups are waiting for both Labor and the Liberals to release their forest policies before the election. 

Earlier this year, opposition leader Daniel Andrews visited the forests and spoke with Lindenmayer, but Labor is staying shtum before the election.

Shadow environment minister Lisa Neville says, “Labor has been working with stakeholders about the natural heritage of this area.”

Former Greens leader Bob Brown recently threw his rock-star appeal into the debate by backing Greens Melbourne candidate Ellen Sandell in her call for a GFNP. The party hot favourite needs about 40 per cent to take the seat. According to Sandell, “The battle for the forests will be won or lost in the city.”

The Greens had been doorknocking and leafleting the inner suburbs over the issue and receiving a positive response.

“The polls look like it will be very close,” Sandell says. “If the Greens win a seat, we will make it a condition of the government we support a national park.

“We tell the Melbourne voters that if they vote Green, that’s the best chance to get a national park.”

At state parliament, The Wilderness Society is about to hand over 6500 signatures to both the premier, Denis Napthine, and Daniel Andrews.

Campaigner Amelia Young is not hopeful of a response from either party. Last July, The Wilderness Society delivered 1000 signed postcards.

“We didn’t expect a response, it was a long time out from the state election, but the campaign has been building,” Young says. 

“We’ve been having lots of useful discussions with MPs over the past few months. Nobody contests there are significant values in these forests.”

This year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the forest industry “we have too much locked-up forest” and the Coalition promised no new national parks.

Nationally, eyes have been focused on Tasmania’s forest wars, where an uneasy truce between the logging industry and green groups is being torn up by the state government.

However, in July, federal environment minister Greg Hunt appointed a threatened species commissioner. Gregory Andrews has just backed a federal plan to poison feral cats, which are driving up extinction rates.  

In Victoria, the Napthine government established its Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group (LPAG), which was co-convened with Zoos Victoria and the Victorian Association of Forest Industries. 

VicForests’ spokesman David Walsh says forests are surveyed for Leadbeater’s habitat before sending in the dozers. He stresses that 12-hectare buffer zones are left around sightings.

“Wherever this habitat is located, it is protected regardless of whether the possum is present on the site or not.

“A sighting is not required for an area to be excluded. If an area meets the criteria as potential habitat then this is enough to ensure it is protected.”

Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum’s Steve Meacher believes the advisory group doesn’t go far enough and is set up to protect the industry. “It’s a woefully poor set of recommendations,” Meacher says. “In the long term it won’t have any effect. The terms of reference made it mandatory that recommendations were consistent with ongoing logging in the area.”

Up in Toolangi, Meacher pushes through 70-year-old regrowth to get to the recently cleared Rusty coupe. The dramatic shape of Mount St Leonard towers over the district and the smell of eucalyptus hangs heavy in the air. “In the last 40 years,” says Meacher, “almost all of Toolangi has been logged or clear-felled.”

He says some forestry can be seen from Melbourne’s inner north. “On the other side of Leo’s coupe is South End coupe, which you can see from Kew. It was logged in 2010.”

He points out the series of forestry operations along Myers Creek and Sylvia Creek roads. “Skinny Jim coupe links to Big Bull Fiddle coupe. Coles Creek coupe runs along the Yea River. It was logged within a few weeks of the Black Saturday fires.” 

Meacher concedes there are improvements through buffer zones around possum sightings, where previously there were none. “But it’s nothing like enough.” 

Neville agrees. “We do not believe the advisory committee report recommendations support the adequate protection of the Leadbeater’s possum. In fact, Lindenmayer indicated that it could do more damage.”  

Meacher has just met with Threatened Species Commissioner Andrews, whose position he described as “toothless”. 

“He listened very carefully, but LPAG is a state process and he can’t comment. He understood what we were saying.” 

Greens senator Janet Rice announced that by December the little possum could be upgraded from “threatened” to “critically endangered” as the Threatened Species Scientific Committee reassesses its status. 

Down in Toolangi, weekend motorcyclists pull up for a spell after enjoying riding the winding mountain roads. Cafe owner Jan Williams is gearing up for the town’s yearly C.  J. Dennis poetry festival at the Singing Gardens, which was home to the Sentimental Bloke bush poet in the 1920s.

She expects 300 visitors to roll through and says a national park would be great for tourism. “Now that tourists are locked out of the forest because of the logging there would be more opportunities for them to go in and enjoy the forest and what’s in it,” she says. But she knows not all locals are onside and there is town support for logging.

Healesville Chamber of Commerce president Graham Taylor runs the Friends of Forestry website and believes environmentalists have driven a wedge through the community. 

“Good traditional families are being treated like dogs in this region,” he says. “The only basis for creating a national park is a political scam to get the timber industry shut down. The Greens think it’s easier to declare a national park than to fight the timber industry. In this area the Greens will be lucky to get 8 per cent of the vote. The Greens are just looking for votes in the inner-city seats of Melbourne to get into parliament.”

Taylor also rejects that a GFNP would attract more tourists to the area. “It would be the worst possible scenario for tourism.

“You can’t have horseriding, motorbike riding or shooting in a national park. You can’t have commercial facilities.” 

Meanwhile, at the GPO, Trent Patten puts his possum head back on for the city slickers. “We will keep raising awareness of what’s being taken away,” he says.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 8, 2014 as "Coupe d’état".

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Michelle Slater is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.

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