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Tom Arup. Environment editor, The Age.


The state’s pre-eminent scientific organisation, the Royal Society of Victoria, has thrown its support behind the push for a new national park on Melbourne’s doorstep to protect Leadbeater’s possums and other threatened mountain ash forest species.

Scientific concern for the possums’ survival has soared since the 2009 Black Saturday fires destroyed 45 per cent of their best habitat. Conservationists also blame logging in the possums’ central highlands forest home for driving them further towards extinction, which the industry disputes.

The Royal Society says urgent action is needed to save the endangered possum – which is the faunal emblem of Victoria – and it strongly supports the establishment of a new national park to preserve its habitat. It also says ”forest practices” that are reducing remnant old-growth forest in the highlands should end.

Proponents of the new park – which is being dubbed the Great Forest National Park – say it should take in existing parks and reserves and add great swaths of forest area from Warburton to Mount Baw Baw.

The state government has now received a report from a group it convened last year – headed by the timber industry and Zoos Victoria – which has recommended measures to save Leadbeater’s and other forest species. But it is yet to make it public.

Scientific modelling for the Leadbeater’s task group, which was released last year, found the species needed tens of thousands of hectares more forest habitat to ensure survival.

In its statement, the Royal Society urged the government to fast-track the release of the group’s report and rapidly move on recommendations to put more habitat aside for the possum. Society president Dr Bill Birch said: ”This is an issue that goes to the heart of the Royal Society’s role in advocating for a scientific approach to the preservation of biodiversity in Victoria.”

There is an eagerness among some in the Coalition to put the issue to bed early in an election year as it is believed internal polling has found its environment performance is a big negative for the government.

A spokeswoman for Environment Minister Ryan Smith said the task group’s recommendations were being carefully considered.

Labor says it is working on a policy. Opposition environment spokeswoman Lisa Neville said: ”Labor will later this year detail a proactive environmental plan that will place emphasis on protecting … the Leadbeater’s possum and it’s habitat, unlike Denis Napthine, who has done nothing.” The Greens support the national park proposal and helped launch the project last year.

Supporters concede the size of the proposed park would mean an end to native timber harvesting in the highlands. But they say more jobs would be created by encouraging nature-based tourism in the region and the nearby Yarra Valley.

Rather than responding directly when asked whether industry could support a new park or what impact it would have on forestry jobs, Victorian Association of Forest Industries chief executive Lisa Marty, co-chairwoman of the Leadbeater’s task group, said the group was pleased with its work as it had come up with recommendations that supported the recovery of the possum while recognising the ”socio-economic importance of our forests”.

Sarah Rees from the group My Environment – who will speak about the national park proposal on a panel at the Sustainable Living Festival on Sunday – said a wealth of tourism investments could be built around the park, such as walking trails, hiking huts, mountain biking, fly walks and zip lines.

Wayne Heywood – who runs day trips to the Yarra Valley and central highland forests with his company Leadbeater Eco Tours – said he was very supportive of a new national park.

He said people were often surprised when they were told that the size of big old-growth trees in the central highlands were on a par with the famed redwoods of California.