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Panel created to save Victoria’s faunal emblem favours the logging industry, says Wilderness Society.

Oliver Milman.


Leadbeater's possum.
The Leadbeater’s possum is Victoria’s faunal emblem. Photograph:

A government-formed panel tasked with saving the Leadbeater’s possum is hopelessly conflicted and has already discarded proposals to change logging practices that are driving the animal to extinction, conservationists have claimed.

Documents seen by Guardian Australia show the Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group has picked a swath of conservation options including the installation of nest boxes, releasing possums outside their known habitat and even constructing artificial trees using 3D printing technology.

But the group has angered environmentalists by failing to consider winding up VicForests, the state logging agency, or shifting timber production to plantations, away from sensitive old-growth areas. There has been no suspension of logging in these areas during the group’s work.

The advisory panel was created by the Victorian government in June, with the task of devising a plan to save the Leadbeater’s possum alongside a “sustainable timber industry”. The species, which is Victoria’s faunal emblem, is perilously close to extinction, with remaining animals living in pockets of old-growth forest in the central highlands region of the state.

However, the composition of the panel has come under fire, with each of its members affiliated with either the government or the logging industry.

Robert Green, the chief executive of VicForests, is on the panel, as is Lisa Marty, the chief executive of the timber industry body VAFI. Jenny Gray, the chief executive of Zoos Victoria, Bill Jackson, chief executive of Parks Victoria, and Bram Mason, chair of the Leadbeater’s possum recovery team, make up the rest of the group.

Steve Meacher, a member of the Leadbeater’s possum recovery team, which was set up when the possum was listed as endangered, told Guardian Australia that Mason shouldn’t be its representative because he is a government employee.

“I don’t have anything against Bram at all, but we should be chaired by someone with more independence,” he said. “We need someone who can express opinions to government without fear or favour, but at the moment Bram is coming to us telling us what the advisory group is thinking, rather than the other way around. He’s not really representing us.

“The whole thing is compromised by the fact so many participants work for the government and have an interest in logging continuing. The basic premise of the group is that a way must be found to ensure the continuation of logging in Leadbeater’s habitat, but the lesson we’ve learned time and again is that the two aren’t compatible.”

The Wilderness Society has written to the government voicing its objections to the process, saying the advisory group’s terms of reference are too narrow and favour the logging industry.

“You’ve got a situation where VicForests is charged with saving a species which it is sending to extinction by logging its habitat,” Amelia Young, the Victorian campaigns manager of the Wilderness Society, told Guardian Australia. “The science so clearly shows the Leadbeater’s possum is on an extinction trajectory that Victorians are really looking for some action to save it. This group must do better.”

Young said the group needed to embrace the recommendations of the Australian National University ecologist David Lindenmayer, who has proposed a move to plantation timber, a new protected area for the Leadbeater’s possum and buffer zones between logging and known possum habitat.

“For the group to not consider alternatives, such as plantations, is a nonsense,” she said. “It’s like refusing a blood transfusion because the blood is at another hospital. Unequivocally, the clear felling of Leadbeater’s possum habitat needs to end. Building a nest box is a short-term answer that doesn’t address the problem.”

Data relied upon by the advisory group has been contested by conservationists, with the extrapolated estimate of between 4,000 and 11,000 remaining Leadbeater’s possums differing markedly from Lindenmayer’s surveyed estimate of up to 2,000.

The logging industry says the primary threat to the possum is fire, with the 2009 Black Saturday fires scorching nearly half of the species’ habitat. It’s estimated that just 1% of old-growth forest remains in the central highlands region.

The Victorian environment minister, Ryan Smith, has been contacted for comment.