When laws fail, only a park can protect Leadbeater’s possum

The Leadbeater’s possum is in serious trouble. It is listed as critically endangered under Commonwealth Environmental laws, meaning it is acknowledged to be “facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future”.

Under the current regulatory regime, it’s likely that this small possum will become extinct. That’s why Environmental Justice Australia strongly supports the creation of the Great Forest National Park.

The main threats to this tiny, shy possum come from loss of its habitat in the mountain ash forests of Central Victoria, caused by fires and native forest logging undertaken by the state government-owned corporation, VicForests.

The logging of Leadbeater’s possum habitat is regulated in two ways: by the Forest Management Plan, prepared under forestry laws; and the Action Statement prepared under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act.

These documents create ‘zones’ of Leadbeater’s possum habitat, which govern whether logging can occur within possum habitat, and under what conditions.

Under these documents, approximately 35% of Leadbeater’s Possum critical habitat is scheduled for timber harvesting and subsequent regeneration in coming years. The science tells us that allowing this much logging of the possum’s habitat will likely ensure its extinction in the wild.

The law is failing to protect this vulnerable possum. Nowhere was this more evident than in the case MyEnvironment v VicForests. MyEnvironment went to court in an attempt prevent logging of the possum’s habitat. The case tested out how the definitions of the zones in forestry laws were to be applied.

Environmental Justice Australia represented MyEnvironment in the appeal, arguing that the zones should be interpreted in a way that is consistent with the objective of protecting threatened species, as set out in the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act.

The Court disagreed, noting that forestry laws had competing objectives. Some of the areas that MyEnvironment tried to protect – areas in which Leadbeaters possums have actually been seen – have now been logged.

To make matters worse, the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries and the Minister for the Environment have not been willing to exercise any of their powers under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, to protect the possum.

The Act gives the Minister the power to issue orders to protect species and their critical habitat from serious threats. These orders are known as ‘critical habitat determinations’ and ‘interim conservation orders’.

Trouble is, only one such order has ever been issued under the FFG Act since it came into operation in 1988. We asked the Minister for the Environment to make an interim conservation order to protect leadbeater’s possum habitat last year. He refused. The failings of the Department and government to use the FFG Act to protect species ahs been outlined in our report ‘Where is the Guarantee?” http://envirojustice.org.au/major-reports/wheres-the-guarantee-implementation-and-enforcement-of-the-flora-and-fauna-guarantee

Despite recognising that the possum is critically endangered, the Federal Government has rendered itself impotent to protect the possum, by entering into Regional Forest Agreements with Victoria. Regional Forest Agreements effectively hand regulation of native forest logging over to the states, even when nationally significant species are affected. But as we saw in the case, state laws in Victoria do not protect species.

Our experience shows that logging and threatened species laws, coupled with a government unwilling to step in on behalf of a threatened species, are failing to protect the possum.

Only one solution is possible: A new national park that protects what is left of the possum’s habitat.

National Parks are the strongest legal form of habitat protection available under the law. Commercial logging is not permitted in a National Park.

To create a National Park, the Victorian parliament needs to amend the National Parks Act, which requires a bill to pass both houses of Parliament. This means that if passed, the ‘national park status’ and the associated protections, of the Great Forests National Park will be relatively secure and, hopefully, longstanding.  

Given the failure of the current regulatory regime to date, we think the creation of the Great Forest National Park is the only legal option that might save the Leadbeater’s possum from extinction.


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