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Tom Arup Environment editor, The Age. May 16, 2013.

Victoria’s state-owned timber company will reduce logging by 25 per cent in the bushfire-ravaged mountain ash forests of the central highlands – but will wait until mid-2017 to make the shift.

The ash forests are home to Victoria’s endangered faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s possum, whose numbers fell to well below 2000 after the Black Saturday fires ravaged its habitat and have not recovered.

VicForests has been under pressure from scientists and environmentalists over the impact of its logging, which has not markedly decreased since the fires, is having on remaining Leadbeater’s possum habitat.

Those groups, including the Wilderness Society and the ANU’s Professor David Lindenmayer, rejected the decision to reduce logging in 2017 as too little, too late to save the possums and mountain ash forests.

Releasing its 2013 resource outlook on Thursday, VicForests said the reduction in sawlog to be taken from ash forests will mean about 500 hectares less area will be logged each year than under current rates.

VicForests’ director of corporate affairs, Nathan Trushell, said the move would result in the loss of up to 200 jobs. The decision to wait until 2017 to reduce logging had been made to allow the broader industry time to adjust, Mr Trushell said.

“First and foremost this decision has been driven by about what the forest can support, what it can supply,” he said.

The resource outlook modelling predicts lower sawlog rates in ash forests will run until 2044-48, but could increase afterwards as regrowth forest matures.

Mr Trushell said VicForests would look at expanded opportunities in other mixed-species forests in the highlands, but that what could be on offer would not match that being reduced in mountain ash.

The Wilderness Society’s Amelia Young said the decision meant VicForests had admitted what conservationists had been saying for years, that the industry had overestimated how much it could log public forests.

“By the time 2017 rolls around it will have taken VicForests nearly 10 years to respond to the impacts of the 2009 fires. To wait another four years before reducing their logging does nothing to address the biodiversity crisis in our forests,” she said.

Professor Lindenmayer, who has studied the ash forests for decades, said the decision was not strong enough to save the Leadbeater’s possum and the species was being driven towards extinction.

“It is so little, so late, and it puts off a decision that should have been made five years ago. It doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. Twenty-five per cent to 2017? It is all pretty much all and done with by then,” he said.

State Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh said: “While this decision will disappoint some businesses and workers, it is vital that VicForests manages the harvest of our state forestry resources at sustainable levels to ensure a long-term future for the industry.”

Last week the Napthine government passed changes to state timber laws, allowing VicForests to sign supply contracts of up to 20 years and giving it greater control over when and where to log.

The government is also yet to release detailed monitoring and modelling it commissioned on the health of key central highlands species, including the Leadbeater’s possum, after the 2009 fires.