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Tom Arup – April 9, 2013

The Napthine government has quietly dumped controversial proposed changes to the state’s timber code allowing loggers to seek exemptions from laws protecting endangered species.

The move paves the way for larger changes to rules covering endangered species and logging, which are being foreshadowed under a yet-to-be-finished ”forest biodiversity project”.

It comes as monitoring of endangered species populations in the state’s key central highlands forests – including Victoria’s endangered fauna emblem the Leadbeater’s possum – is believed to have found worrying results for some critical species.

Conservationists argue the added pressure of logging in the bushfire-hit central highland forests is driving Leadbeater’s towards extinction.

In late 2011 the state government put forward a plan to allow the Secretary of the Department of Sustainability and Environment to grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis for logging projects from the requirements of the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, which protects the state’s endangered and threatened species.

After calling for submissions on the proposed change to the code last year, little had been said about whether it would go ahead. But a department spokesman has confirmed after receiving a large number of public submissions the proposal was pulled by the government in March.

”An alternative option is currently being developed to deliver biodiversity management reform. Once this work is complete it will be widely released,” the spokesman said.

He said under the ”forest biodiversity project” a new ”landscape approach” to the management of threatened species is being developed that would seek to conserve threatened species considering their range, identifying important areas for protection across the landscape, and providing greater connectivity in protected areas.

The spokesman said the plan’s aim was to support the needs of the timber industry alongside the ”conservation of threatened species”.

The government has not released the submissions sent to it on the now dumped timber code changes. One submission seen by Fairfax Media from a number of researchers at the University of Melbourne’s school of botany questioned the transparency of the changes.

The Wilderness Society’s Victorian campaigns manager Luke Chamberlain said the dumped changes to the code had been a ”pro-logging sham from the beginning”.

”Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh, backed by vested interests in the outdated native forest logging industry, has failed on this occasion to exempt logging from environmental laws,” Mr Chamberlain said.

Shaun Ratcliff, spokesman for the Victorian Association of Forest Industries, said the industry supported ”the government taking the time needed to ensure changes to the [timber] code result in the development of an effective landscape-based conservation framework that balances the environmental, social and economic values of our public native forests”.

The dumping of the proposed changes and the new ”forest biodiversity project” come amid increasing alarm about the health of endangered species in Victoria, especially Leadbeater’s whose population has been estimated at fewer than 2000 after it lost 40 per cent of its habitat in the 2009 fires.

The Napthine government has spent $1.86 million on monitoring and modelling of endangered species numbers in central highlands forests, which is favoured by the timber industry.