Changes will be made to the way logging is carried out in Victoria's central highland forests in a bid to better protect the state's endangered animal emblem, the Leadbeater's possum, resulting in a modest reduction in the amount of trees that can be cut down.
The new protection strategy for Leadbeater's, put forward by the Napthine Government on Monday, will cost $11 million over five years and see a five per cent reduction in the amount of timber available to industry in the species habitat.
But the changes fall well short of the demands of conservationists and many scientists who have called for a significant phasing-out of native timber logging and a new national park created in the stunning highland forests.
The Leadbeater's plan is the result of recommendations by a task group brought together by the government and headed by the zoos and industry.
Leadbeater's lost 45 per cent of its habitat in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfire. Research for the government has found the species needs around 87,000 hectares of more forest habitat to give it a strong chance of survival.
The taskgroup's report made 13 recommendations, all accepted by the government. Environment Minister Ryan Smith said the task group talks had been difficult but productive. But he could not not say what the changes would translate to in extra hectares protected – only that it would mean a five per cent reduction in the timber taken.
"I can say I am really pleased with the recommendations because they support the recovery of the Leadbeater’s possum as well as maintain a sustainable timber industry," Mr Smith said.
Amid the changes is a move to a less intense form of logging – called retention harvesting – in 50 per cent of the logging coupes in the Leadbeater's range. There will also be a two-year moratorium on logging in coupes where Leadbeater's have a strong probability of living and a doubling in the buffer zone around harvest exclusion zones.
The plan was immediately rejected by conservationists who said it fell short of the action need to ensure the species does not go extinct. The Wilderness Society's Amelia Young said the Victorian Government was knowingly sending Leadbeater's the way of the Tasmanian Tiger.
Australian National University ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer said the absence of a new national park was major hole in the strategy. He said the science showed a need for a complete end to clear-felling of Leadbeater's country and a 50 to 70 per cent reduction in timber taken from the forest.
Amid its work, the advisory panel determined what condition Leadbeater's were in, finding a 50 per cent chance they were in a poor state, and less likely to be in fair (31 per cent) or good (19 per cent) condition.
The Leadbeater's plan would improve the likelihood the species being in good condition to 26 per cent, while poor will drop to 40 per cent. The cost to industry is estimated to be $1.7 million a year.
If the government had adopted a new national park proposal, good condition chances would be 38 per cent, and poor 27 per cent. The timber industry would lose 96 per cent of their supply, costing it $20 million a year.
Zoos Victoria chief executive Jenny Gray said she hoped the plan would prevent Leadbeater's from going extinct, but bushfire remained a significant risk to its survival. She said the task group's terms of reference had not allowed it to look at a new national park.
Chief executive of VicForests, Robert Green, said the move to retention harvesting in the possum's habitat was the biggest change to harvesting practices ever implemented by the state-owned timber company.
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