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Saturday, August 20, 2011 By Ben Courtice

About 100 supporters rallied in persistent rain at Sylvia Creek, in the Toolangi State Forest north-east of Melbourne, to protest logging operations by Vic Forests. The supporters joined locals and forest campaigners who have been blockading the 19-hectare “Gunbarrel” coupe for five weeks.

Vic Forests are clear-felling the Gunbarrel coupe, which is one of the few areas that was not burned in 2009’s catastrophic Black Saturday fire. Areas completely surrounding Sylvia Creek were burned, turning this zone into a “biodiversity refuge” as local campaigner Bernie Mace told those at the rally.

The Wilderness Society says the trees from Sylvia Creek are to be woodchipped and sold to the company Australian Paper to make products like Reflex paper. The Wilderness Society is promoting a community boycott of Reflex paper until Australian Paper stops using native forests.

More than 10 activists have been arrested during the five weeks of the blockade. They have substantially slowed the progress of the logging operation.

On the day of the protest, one activist occupied a tree-sit platform about 30 metres high on the edge of the cleared area, attached by rope to the nearby bulldozer and excavator.

Forestry workers and police were not present, and protesters were able to walk into the logging coupe and survey the damage. On other days, blockaders have been arrested simply for entering the “public safety zone” around the operation.

On August 18, an activist in a tree-sit had his tree-sit equipment and supplies removed by Police Rescue and was left in the tree with only essential climbing equipment. He was arrested when he came down some hours later.

Local resident and environment campaigner Steve Meacher told Green Left Weekly that on August 19, police search and rescue did not arrive and an activist in a tree-sit remained until the forestry workers left around midday, having done no work.

“This would have been the worst week for the logging crew,” Meacher said.

An iconic, endangered species

A survey by the Department of Sustainability and the Environment (DSE) found that the Gunbarrel coupe has nests of the endangered Leadbeater’s possum, but the logging has still not been halted.

Leadbeater’s possum, Victoria’s state fauna emblem, was presumed extinct until 1961 when it was rediscovered in Victoria’s central highlands.

The possum is estimated to have an existing population of about 1000. The Black Saturday fires destroyed more than 45% of their known habitat, mature mountain ash rainforest, which was already under severe pressure from logging operations. Experts fear that the species will be extinct within decades.

Meacher said that the campaigners have now sent DSE their assessment of whether the forests are Leadbeater’s habitat for review and hope it will lead to action to stop the logging.

The presence of Leadbeater’s possums ought to be a clear trigger for stopping the clearfell logging operation. Even if hollow-bearing habitat trees are left for the possum, it requires a stable and mature forest environment around its nest trees to survive.

Meacher said most of the coupe is forest that has grown from around 1905. Mace pointed out that the forest would certainly become prime Leadbeater’s possum habitat if it were allowed to mature further.

The Melbourne Age reported on August 17 that sources in the DSE and government have confirmed the state Coalition government wants to overhaul the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act due to “concerns that environment groups are becoming increasingly skillful at capturing footage of endangered species to thwart logging operations”.

The aim appears to be to survey endangered species within protected areas, and use their numbers there to justify logging outside of the protected areas.