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Myths, politics, and Leadbeater’s Possum

By Mark Poynter - posted Monday, 29 October 2012


The endangered Leadbeater’s Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) is Victoria’s faunal emblem. Apart from two known exceptions, the small arboreal marsupial lives within wet eucalypt forests in Victoria’s Central Highlands, although early records suggest it was once more widely distributed.

These forests are dominated by mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans), alpine ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis), and shining gum (Eucalyptus nitens) and are also highly productive sources of arguably Australia’s most valuable and marketable hardwood timbers which are retailed around the country as ‘Vic Ash’.

This intersection between a high profile endangered species and a valuable timber industry has resulted in Leadbeater’s Possum becoming the central figure in the latest round of the environmental lobby’s 30-year campaign to shut-down Victoria’s native hardwood industry. It is also fuelling broader political campaigning over the environmental performance of the Baillieu State Government.

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It is no accident that these campaigns have ramped-up following the 2010 State election. Unlike the previous decade under Labor, Baillieu’s Coalition Government has expressed very strong support for the state’s rural primary industries. However, to the state’s ‘green-left’ demographic, any support for continued natural resource use, even at low levels of production, is viewed as being contemptuous of endangered and threatened species. Accordingly, it has become clear that getting a ‘green’ environmental tick requires Governments to be actively working to end resource use activities such as native forest timber production.  

Revealing insights from a recent biography by former Premier Steve Bracks suggests that this is essentially what Victoria’s previous Labor state governments were doing. In the decade under Bracks and then Brumby, small local native hardwood industries were closed or dramatically down-sized in Victoria’s Otways, Wombat, Portland, Bendigo, Mid-Murray, and East Gippsland regions; mostly to facilitate new national parks. This has essentially concentrated the remaining native hardwood industry into central and eastern Victorian forests and, in concert with a series of recent mega-bushfires, has appreciably reduced the annually harvested forest area to its lowest level in a century. 

With only around 9 per cent of Victoria’s State forests still theoretically available for long-term timber production, and the annually harvested area dropping to around 5,000 hectares (or 0.07 per cent) of the state’s public forest area), activist campaigns against the native forest harvesting could have been expected to decline. Instead they have intensified, particularly in the Central Highlands where large areas of forest were severely burnt in 2009 thereby placing an additional focus on unburnt areas within designated production forests where timber harvesting is continuing.

The environmental lobby groups specifically campaigning to ‘save’ Leadbeater’s Possum include the Wilderness Society, the Central Highlands Action Group, My Environment, and The Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum; with support from other groups such as Markets for Change, and The Last Stand who are campaigning more generally to end Australian native forest timber production. Meanwhile, the Australian Greens continue to provide political support for such an outcome, including their latest “Too precious to lose” campaign.  

Despite the efforts of these groups, the greatest publicity surrounding this issue has always been generated by media-savvy ANU ecologist and Leadbeater’s Possum specialist, Professor David Lindenmayer, whose high profile ensures that virtually his every public utterance finds its way into the ABC or the Fairfax press.

His recent resignation from a Victorian Government body overseeing the recovery of Leadbeater’s Possum following the 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires was sensationally reported in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper in mid-September under a screeching headline: “Making himself extinct: scientist quits over ‘absolute disgrace’ surrounding Leadbeater’s Possum”.

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With a long list of academic achievements, it is understandable that elements of the media have adopted Professor Lindenmayer as their ‘go-to’ man for commentary on forestry issues. Unfortunately, they ignore the reality that he is a conservation biologist rather than a forest scientist fully conversant with the planning and management of commercial timber production. Accordingly, the media’s thrall of his academic credibility has at times allowed misinformed or errant views about forest management to pass unchallenged into the conventional wisdom, whilst far more informed views are ignored. 

A year earlier in the Canberra Times, Professor Lindenmayer had justified his penchant for publicising his views through the media by saying that “There is general disrespect for science these days among politicians. The Government will pick up the phone to talk to lobbyists before they will if ever – talk to a scientist”. Ironically, this is exactly the problem faced by forest scientists seeking to give much needed perspective to errant views of forestry being peddled through the media by environmental lobby groups, at times indirectly supported by Professor Lindenmayer. 

While Lindenmayer has been actively promoting his research in recent years, his regular forays in the media have at times extended beyond his ecological expertise into areas of forest management where he has strong but often poorly substantiated opinions. Invariably these opinions substantially reflect the highly exaggerated and agenda-driven views of the environmental lobby.

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This article is a modified version of one that was first published by Quadrant Online on 2 October 2012.



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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 30 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and acts for it in a voluntary capcity as a media spokesperson. His book Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications was published in 2007.

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