By Emily Jordan
Victoria’s faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s possum, is a small arboreal marsupial, found in the forests of the Victorian Central Highlands, southeast Australia. The endemic species is among one of several species currently threatened or endangered in the area as a result of habitat loss. Not only are the species that inhabit these forests threatened, but the Mountain ash itself – the tallest flowering plant in the world – is critically endangered.
Despite extensive research for over 30 years into the ecology and habitat requirements of the species, populations have continued to decline, with the conservation status of the species being up-listed to ‘critically endangered’ under Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. If effective management of the habitat and species is not implemented soon, extinction is likely to occur within the next 20-30 years.
Tensions into the management of the Central Highlands of Victoria have arisen between conservation of endangered species, such as the Leadbeater’s possum, and economic interests of local industry and community groups.
Threats to the Leadbeater’s possum and its habitat?
Extensive field studies have demonstrated that the Leadbeater possum requires a thick mid-storey of Acacia spp. to forage and old growth hollow bearing trees to nest in. These hollows take more than 100 years to form and with a combination of extensive logging and wildfire, more than 80% of the forest now consists of ecologically young trees, absent of hollows. Research has demonstrated that by 2015 suitable available habitat for the species has declined to less than 1.3%.
Loss of critical habitat has result from two major processes: wildfire and clearfell logging. Clearfell logging not only results in large areas being completely cleared of trees, but also the old growth is replaced with young monoculture stands, altering the structure and composition of the forest. With harvest operations on a 50-80 year cycle, this is not allowing for the trees to reach ecological maturity at which hollows will develop. Habitat is then left severely fragmented, further restricting the species distribution.
Historically natural fires in the region have been infrequent and intense, allowing for surviving trees to reach hollow bearing age. Two major fire disturbances have had the greatest negative impact on the ecosystem. The 1939 Black Friday fires destroyed 80% of the forest, producing a common age cohort of trees. Then the 2009 Black Saturday fires destroyed close to 50% of suitable habitat for the Leadbeater’s possum. Both fires impacted suitable habitat in different respects. The 1939 bushfires destroyed areas of old-growth forest, which provided scattered remaining trees able to produce hollows within a decade. The 2009 bushfires however cleared the area that had regenerated after the 1939 bushfires resulting in a significant loss of hollow bearing trees.
A potential solution
Population viability analysis shows us that current reserve systems are inadequate for species with expansion requires for survival. A proposed option is the creation of a protected area, The Great Forest National Park (GFNP). The proposed park was conceived by a multi-stakeholder taskforce, offering an option to ensure economic security and environmental protection based on nature tourism.
The park would expand the existing fragmented reserves from 170, 000 hectares to a combined 537,000 hectares. Not only will the proposed park benefit biodiversity and the protection of endangered species, it will also secure critical catchments for Melbourne’s water supply. As these forests are one of the most carbon dense in the world, the GFNP would maintain terrestrial carbon stocks and reduce emissions by decreasing losses through degradation and deforestation. A larger reserve will also build resilience in the landscape in terms of wildfire. It will also provide economic benefits. Economic analysis has demonstrated that the park could generate AUD$7.5 million annually in direct and indirect income, supplying 760 full time jobs. This provides an economic incentive to protect biodiversity, and a potential solution to jobs lost from local logging industries.
A complex social-ecological issue
Despite the extensive benefits of the GFNP, the timber industry plays an integral role in local livelihoods and socio-economic values. The established timber industry in the region directly and indirectly supports more than 1200 workers, with the Heyfield mill employing 260 individuals, processing 150, 000 cubic meters of hardwood per annum. This figure however is set to drop to 80, 000 cubic meters from June 2017, with the following two years at 60, 000 cubic meters per annum. This is the result of VicForest deeming initial figures as ‘unsustainable’. That is to say there is simply no longer enough hardwood lumber to harvest from these forests.
The proposed park has provoked environmental, political, economic and socio-cultural controversy through conflicting values of the Central Highlands. Key stakeholders embedded in the issue include; the timber industry and workforce, conservation groups, scientists, politicians and local communities. The topic is contentious, as management outcomes in any regard will infringe upon vested interests of stakeholder groups. It is therefore essential that decisions be based on extensive research, collaboration between stakeholders, and investigation into future outcomes. This will mean determining how sustainable each option is in the long-term in consideration to ecological, social and economic parameters. Objective leadership from the Australian Government will be required to secure an endangered ecosystem and species, jobs and economy.
With sharp declines in timber resources, a reduction in employment, and reduced profitability of industry, new economic prospects should be welcomed. The Great Forest National Park provides such an opportunity, and if it saves a species and entire ecosystem, well how good's that!
Source: Banner image taken by J. Simkin