18 February, 2006

ARTICLE: A possum stares extinction in the face

Tracee Hutchison

The Age, February 18, 2006

There's a giant mountain ash tree in Victoria's Royston Range with a pink H spray-painted onto its massive trunk. It's taken more than 200 years for it to reach its 60-metre height and, inside, it is likely that a family of tiny possums is nestling in its hollows.

They are Leadbeater's possums, so small they would fit in the palm of your hand. The pink H on the tree means these little creatures were safe from the chainsaws that clear-felled around them this week - their house is a designated habitat tree.

After presuming the species extinct, scientists found the last surviving colonies of Leadbeater's possums living in Victoria's Central Highlands in the early 1960s. Just 2000 of them remain. They are a protected and endangered species and Victoria's state fauna emblem.

On Monday night these little possums would have looked out over what was left of their neighbourhood and wondered what had happened to the furniture. And their food source. The sap from the once-plentiful alpine ash and their much loved wattle are gone. So are the blackwoods.

In the distance, they might have seen one or two old-growth trees still standing - also marked with an H to save the other English-speaking possums in the forest. They'll be among a handful of forest-dwelling creatures to survive this week's logging in the stretch of state forest that runs between the Yarra Valley National Park and Mount Bullfight Conservation Reserve.

Studies of forest activity by eminent environmental scientists such as Dr David Lindenmayer from the Australian National University indicate most animals die when a forest is extensively disturbed in a clear-felling operation. There are no early warning signals. Adult animals have a strong affinity with their home range and are reluctant to move.

In the daylight, the H-trees protrude from the forest floor like an Absurdist's version of a Russell Drysdale painting. It is a macabre and disturbing sight. The H-trees are too far apart for the possums to skip between branches and there is a sense that the forest has screamed all night but only the survivors will remember the sound.

For them, there's a looming regeneration fire, which will burn through the logging debris on the forest floor. The heat intensity of an often chemically fuelled regeneration fire will make life inside one of these H-trees almost unbearable - that is assuming the fire also speaks English and is smart enough to burn around them. Surviving this fire will be a challenge for a creature with very little body weight.

The complex eco-systems of old-growth forests don't like regeneration fires very much either. They tend to suit eucalypts, which grow back - plantation-like - relatively quickly. This works well for future logging and suits the industry these forests service rather nicely. But Leadbeater's possums don't like young eucalypts very much. They don't form hollows so it's hard to make a house. They need old-growth trees to survive.

This week many of these possums will have thought about moving to a place with more H-trees. They will have scouted for wattle and alpine ash sap.

But, as we see in other aspects of the Australian experience, newcomers aren't always welcome in unfamiliar territories - especially if you're a minority and have particular living requirements. It's a precarious predicament. About 80 per cent of the old-growth trees that came out of Royston this week will be chipped. By now the logs will have reached the Midway woodchip mill in Geelong and might be on their way to Japan. Others will have arrived at the Paperlinx mill in Maryvale where they'll end up as sheet paper with a lifespan of about a week. It's not much to show for 200 years of breathing life into the planet.

Royston Range is one of the last old-growth forests within a comfortable drive from Melbourne, just two hours due east along the Maroondah Highway. Walking though this forest, you can't help but be reminded of how blessed we are to have these precious, centuries-old ecosystems exist at all, let alone on the doorstep of a capital city.

Australia has the worst record for plant and mammal extinctions in the world in the past 200 years. We clear land faster here than in any other developed nation. Our planet is heating up and the best our governments can do is gag the scientists who would hold us to account and prop up the industries that contribute to the problem.

Unless the Victorian Government puts an end to old-growth logging in the state forests of eastern Victoria, the legacy of Premier Steve Bracks may well include the extinction of a tiny possum. For woodchips. For the paper on which history will record the state-sanctioned passing of our fauna emblem. It is madness.

Tracee Hutchison is a Melbourne writer and broadcaster.

Original article

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