April 9, 2010
A five second film of an endangered potaroo could change the way environmental laws are applied to logging operations.
JOSEPHINE CAFAGNA, PRESENTER: The discovery of a Long-footed Potaroo in forest in East Gippsland has thrown Victoria's environmental laws into question and the future of logging operations into doubt.
Endangered species are given special protection whenever and wherever they're found, but angered by what they say is the Government's head-in-the-sand approach, environmental groups are using cameras to prove endangered animals like the Potaroo are living in forests that are due to be logged. Matthew Stanley reports.
MATTHEW STANLEY, REPORTER: These images are taken by a motion-sensing infrared camera. They capture the nocturnal comings and goings of Victoria's forests and are the latest weapon in the ongoing campaign by conservation groups to stop old growth logging.
ANDREW LINCOLN: We're parked here. We'll walk to this point here and then walk to the first camera there, then come over the ridgeline down to the gully there and then follow this old track down here to these two.
MATTHEW STANLEY: 24-year-old Andrew Lincoln's already an experienced hand in the art of the wildlife survey, techniques used to detect rare and endangered animals. Armed with a map and a GPS he spotlights for gliders and owls and searches creeks for native crayfish. But in East Gippsland, the main prize is the Long-footed Potaroo, an endangered species that triggers immediate protection of up to 150 hectares of forest, wherever one is found. The cameras are the perfect tool for finding the notoriously shy animals.
ANDREW LINCOLN: Most animals are nocturnal that we're looking for, so when an animal, we put out some bait and the animal comes to sniff it and sets off a motion sensor and then the infrared cameras so they can take night shots, and, yeah, hopefully we catch 'em on film.
MATTHEW STANLEY: The search focuses on areas due to be logged, in this case deep in thick bushland.
This camera's been in place for a month, silently recording any movement.
This is what they found: two long-footed potaroos, attracted by the smell of honey, oats and pistachio essence, hop in front of the camera. Their presence will throw plans to log this area in the Yalmi Forest into doubt and already has the government agency in charge of logging questioning the video's authenticity.
DAVID POLLARD, CEO, VICFORESTS: The only thing I could add to this dramatic nocturnal footage is that it has to be tested by independent third parties. I mean, if it's evidence, it has to be audited. And elements of the community that want to provide evidence, welcome as that is, need to consent to have their offerings interrogated by independent parties. Otherwise it's not evidence; it's mere assertion.
MATTHEW STANLEY: The latest film plays like a sequel to pictures at the centre of a court case that is testing the way Victoria's environmental protection laws are interpreted and enforced.
Last year a camera captured a Potaroo in the middle of one of the most hotly-contested forests in Victoria. Produced just days before logging was due to start in two stands of old growth forests at Brown Mountain, the five second film was also questioned by Vic Forests.
JILL REDWOOD, ENVIRONMENT EAST GIPPSLAND: The clock was certainly ticking, yes. So when we found the potaroo, we thought, "Right, this is it. They can't ignore this one." And sent the footage through and the report and they ignored it.
MATTHEW STANLEY: Environment East Gippsland then went to the Supreme Court and won a temporary injunction to stop the logging. After a four week hearing, the court's now deliberating on whether the area should be permanently protected.
JILL REDWOOD: The Government decided that it was fair game for logging. They hadn't done any surveys here of course because they didn't want to find the threatened species, which would then prevent them from logging if they'd abide by the law.
MATTHEW STANLEY: Ray Jamieson's both saw miller and logging contractor and was poised to begin logging Brown Mountain when the film of what became known in court as "Potaroo number one" forced a stop.
RAY JAMIESON, SAWMILLER: If the decision goes their way it will then just open up the floodgates, I'd say, and that'd just leave it open for all the other coops that we've got on the what's to do.
MATTHEW STANLEY: Mr Jamieson's had his fair of run-ins with environmental activists during forest blockades going back 20 years, but is scratching his head at the new tactics.
Are you surprised that one photo of one animal could do what it's done?
RAY JAMIESON: Yeah, I didn't realise it'd have such an impact, I s'pose. But - well, you know, see where it goes, I spose. See where it goes.
MATTHEW STANLEY: What started as an argument over evidence has snowballed into a test of how the law designed to protect endangered species, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, is applied to logging operations. Vicforests says it follows the rules set down by the Department of Sustainability and Environment.
MIKE RYAN, FOREST SCIENTIST, VICFORESTS: Look, any of the threatened species are assessed on the basis of already pre-existing identification of where they are in the landscape and on the maps that are provided to us from Department of Sustainability and Environment.
MATTHEW STANLEY: Does Vicforests do any wildlife surveys, any assessments of pre-logging assessments of wildlife and so on?
MIKE RYAN: We don't currently do pre-logging surveys. Again, that falls under the responsibility of the Department of Sustainability and Environment.
MATTHEW STANLEY: The DSE stopped doing pre-logging wildlife surveys in the '90s. Their assessments are now based on what's referred to as desktop analysis, a review of forest types, preferred habitat and existing records.
DAVID POLLARD: They have a very big investment in resourcing field operations for the identification and protection of species. It's an enormous job. It's a very demanding job. I think they do it very professionally. I have enormous confidence in them.
MATTHEW STANLEY: The Department of Sustainability and Environment declined to be interviewed, but it says it's up to Vicforests to decide if pre-logging surveys are needed to comply with the law.
DAVID POLLARD: Only they would know the extent to which field operations would be necessary to establish that.
MATTHEW STANLEY: The DSE sought assurances from Vicforests that its staff would not be subpoenaed as expert witnesses in the Brown Mountain court case. But a DSE discussion paper tendered in evidence states, "The absence of pre-harvest survey process exposes DSE and Vicforests to the prospect of inadvertent damage or destruction of significant species sites, ... negative publicity and accusations of breaches of our own guidelines and possible legal challenges to timber harvesting."
In other words, according to Jill Redwood, you won't find what you don't look for.
JILL REDWOOD: The DSE have been pointing the finger at Vicforests. Vicforests have been pointing the finger back. We're doing work they should be doing.
MATTHEW STANLEY: The argument over just whose job it is has strained relations between DSE and Vicforests. David Pollard says he's hoping the court will decide.
DAVID POLLARD: We are all beginning to realise that the norms that have governed the identification and protection of wildlife could sustain greater clarity.
JILL REDWOOD: I think what's come up in evidence shows they have to do pre-logging surveys. And if nothing else, if that's the only thing that comes out of it, I think that'll be a huge win.
MATTHEW STANLEY: In the meantime activists like Andrew Lincoln continue to search the forests of East Gippsland for endangered animals that might otherwise go undetected and unprotected.
ANDREW LINCOLN: At least to know, let alone protect, what we're destroying.