In Conversation with Professor David Lindenmayer: Part 3

Professor David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University is one of our country's foremost ecologists. An outspoken conservationist, David uses his decades of experience and years of scientific studies to support his argument for a Great Forest National Park, in our state of Victoria, a move supported by Wild Melbourne, and a host of other NGO's.  

With the recent release of the video advertising his proposal for the GFNP, now seems like the right time to revisit a conversation I had with him late last year. 

In this third and final part of the interview, David describes the nature and plight of our State Emblem, the Leadbeater's Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri).

The Leadbeater's Possum ( Gymnobelideus leadbeateri ): Curtesy of zoo.org.au 

The Leadbeater's Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri): Curtesy of zoo.org.au 

The leadbeaters possum is a small marsupial weighing about 140 grams. Small enough to fit in your hand, they stand out with their long club like tail. However, it is not for this tail that their name is derived - rather, they are named for the taxidermist from the Victorian museum who described them: John Leadbeater.

What’s interesting, David says, is that they “move like Grease-Lightening… they’re much quicker than squirrels… and they live in colonies… ruled by a single dominant female.”

While small marsupials tend to be colonial (often for protection from predators and to keep warm), the Leadbeaters are unique in having a matriarchal society.

David notes that “The colony needs a number of nest trees to survive, not just one big old tree.” 

While the number of individuals in a colony can vary with season, David says he has noted a decline in the overall size of colonies, from 8 to 12 individuals down to an average of two. He says that logging old growth trees is an issue, as a tree often needs to be over 150 years old before it will form the hollows that these possums require for nests. Furthermore, as young forests are more fire prone, these animals are subjected to an increasing frequency of fires.

He notes that there is a cycle whereby fires tend to occur in areas previously logged, but that we are also more likely to log areas effected by fire (a process called salvage logging), and so forests are being driven to a younger and younger age.

“It becomes quite a vicious cycle… we log the forest and the habitat quality is immediately reduced for up to 150 years…  when the forest burns animals die on site, but then we’re also likely to salvage log it.”

Because of this, David and his collaborators have written a strategy for the conservation of the species and its habitat.    

“One of the things that have to happen is that every single remaining big old tree has to be conserved. Another thing… is that areas that are more likely to be old growth need to be left alone in the landscape and allowed to grow.”

“Animals basically go through local extinction… in places like Lake Mountain where they've been lost… we have to conserve every possible place where the animal is left over.”

Of course, tree hollows are imperative to a lot of Australian fauna, and so David’s plan may help to conserve numerous native species, but given the dire situation of these possums, the emphasis is on them.

“One of the key issues really is that the Leadbeaters possum is emblematic of a series of problems… it is a symptom of poor management of a system... If we can’t manage Leadbeaters possum… we simply aren’t able to manage these forests… when we talk about recovering the Leadbeaters possum we’re really talking about recovering the whole forest.”

Because of this, David has proposed the concept of a new nature reserve encompassing the entire range of the Possum.

“I think it is absolutely critical that we have a new giant forest national park - Absolutely critical. That is non-negotiable.”

He further declares a need to remove logging from the system, and to get the community involved.

“This is a major park for Victorians and Australians, and they need to fight for this, for the sensible use of its resources… People [also] need to start using their own purchasing power to make a difference… if they buy recycled paper, if they don’t buy pure-white Reflex paper that will mean there is no market for that paper, which is Leadbeaters possum habitat.”

David explains that people have the power to demand that the best be made of these parks – which are public land, and he concludes that supporting these ecosystems also means supporting the communities in and around them.

“The infrastructure needs to be put into towns like Marysville, like Warburton, like Healesville…where we can see the tangible benefits.”

In a final summary of his work and his passion, Professor Lindenmayer leaves me with these words:

“I have a strong belief in the science… I am a Victorian; I was born in Victoria… I am passionate about the state and I want to see the state manage its resources in the best way possible.”

- Professor David Lindenmayer. 

In Conversation with Professor David Lindenmayer: Part 2

Professor David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University is one of our country's foremost ecologists. An outspoken conservationist, David uses his decades of experience and years of scientific studies to support his argument for a Great Forest National Park, in our state of Victoria, a move supported by Wild Melbourne, and a host of other NGO's.  

With the recent release of the video advertising his proposal for the GFNP, now seems like the right time to revisit a conversation I had with him late last year. 

In this second part of the interview, David discusses the health of the mountain ash forests that he has worked on and their importance to our region.  

Prof. D. Lindenmayer: Courtesy of smh.com.au 

Prof. D. Lindenmayer: Courtesy of smh.com.au 

On the importance of these forests to our city and the surrounding region, David says that while we are probably dealing with about “300 direct jobs in saw milling and timber cartage” we know that the “value in water far exceeds the value in paper”, as is the case for carbon.

What does he mean by this?

Well, when the forest is young it uses a lot of water “because the trees grow very rapidly and they transpire massive amounts of water”. The more a forest is logged, the younger it becomes. The younger a forest, the more water it uses.

But how does that cost the average Victorian? Well, the less water we have, the more we will have to rely on our city’s expensive desalination plant.  

“You have to get the water from somewhere else because the forest isn’t providing it.” Says David, “The older a forest is, the more water it provides. And the more water it provides, the less desalination water you have to use... So the other values of the forest exceed the value of the paper.”

While David doesn't work on the hydrological aspects of the forest himself, he is currently working on a book with his father-in-law, who was a water based engineer, titled “The History of Melbourne’s Water Catchments”, soon to be released.

So just how important are these forests for the health of our local lands and the connected ecosystems across Victoria?

“I think most people are unaware that almost all of the water for Melbourne’s population comes from these forests. And that’s soon to be Australia’s biggest city, so you’re talking about a lot of water… and so these forests have a critical role in the integrity of Melbourne itself.”

Furthermore, these forests are among the most carbon-dense in the world, says David.

“When you get very old mountain ash forests they’re storing colossal amounts of carbon… And a lot of that carbon is emitted when you start cutting the forest down… It is important to hold onto that carbon… as a part of tackling dangerous climate change.”  

Indeed, under a carbon market, the forest becomes a huge economic resource. But their value doesn't end there.

“The other side of this is that in these systems where you have enormous tourism potential, then you have yet another important role for regional jobs and development and alike… the thing about tourism is that if you manage it the right way, then people can come and see these forests over and over again, whereas if you liquidate the resource through logging, you don’t get anything back for another 60 or so years. The thing about tourism is that it keeps on giving.”  

David believes that investment in infrastructure within these areas could greatly improve their ability to recover post-bushfire, and also bring a huge long-term boost to the state’s economy.

“At the moment” he says, “The [logging] industry is so heavily subsidised that it is actually costing us to cut the forest down.”

According to David, if the system continues to degrade it will not only lose carbon, but become more fire-prone and eventually “collapse” into a wattle-forest.  

“And that means it’s going to store a lot less carbon, have a lot less biodiversity, and provide a lot less water.”

Suffice to say, its tourism value will be lost a long with these other resources.

“Many people are unaware that these are the tallest flowering plants in the world… the most carbon-dense forests in the world… and just about the only place the Leadbeaters Possum lives.”

“Really it’s one of the best kept secrets, but it shouldn’t be a secret… it should be something people from all over the world want to come and see… When you come to Victoria you go to watch the footy, when you come to Victoria you go on the Great Ocean Road, when you come to Victoria you come and see the world’s tallest flowering plants because they’re very special.”  

For David, it is an outrage that the tourism potential of these forests has yet to be tapped.

“I think it’s an absolute crime and a scandal that it hasn’t been recognised, and that at the moment we are massively degrading those values by what we’re doing. It’s not only environmental vandalism but it’s economic bastardry as well... there’s no sense in trying to justify the rationale for this, it just doesn’t work. ”

He outlines the arguments for logging the forests as follows:

“I suppose people would say that it makes a huge amount of money for the state, and it did used to employ many jobs…. Now that isn’t the case. We are dealing with around 300 people employed that are directly cutting timber, mostly low-value timber products like pellets… only 2.7% of the wood that’s cut is actually high-quality furniture timber… this is a paper driven industry, and the reality is you don’t need large amounts of native forests to make paper. You can make paper from plantations.”

David says that the plantation sector is doing very well, while the native logging sector is dragging the industry down. He cites the fact that over the last five years Vic Forests have made a profit of one-million-dollars, while receiving subsidies of 25-million-dollars from the state government through bush-fire recovery grants.

“The only way that this organisation is viable is through a series of bushfire grants.”

He believes that the vested interest of Australian Paper in receiving cheap pulp from these forests is driving this “nonsensical” logging.

“This is economic insanity, and it is environmental insanity… the only reason you can imagine… is the massive vested interest… of Australian Paper.”

He also emphasises the fact that Australian Paper is owned by Nippon – a Japanese company.

Salvage logging near Marysville: courtesy of myenvironment.net.au

Salvage logging near Marysville: courtesy of myenvironment.net.au

But aside from this, David is also concerned about the rural towns in these areas. In places like Marysville, where he has previously lived, he says that people no longer want their communities to be known as “timber towns”, and are worried about the implications of this industry on their small businesses. 

And of course, he is deeply concerned about the fate of the iconic and critically endangered, Leadbeater's Possum.

More on that in Part 3 of the interview.