Endangered species points to sustainability

The diminutive Leadbeater’s possum is one of Australia’s most controversial animals, because conserving it will require restructuring the native forest logging industry in the state of Victoria. The battle over the possum’s future highlights the necessity of making the transition from an old economy based on an outdated loss-making industry to a new economy based on a fuller valuation of key environmental assets. Industry restructure will not only be good for the possum, it will be good for the Victorian economy.

Leadbeater’s possum is one of the faunal emblems of Victoria. For 50 years the species was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1961, but it is now in danger of “re-extinction” due primarily to recurrent wildfires and widespread clearfell logging. The species is formally listed as Critically Endangered and is at risk of joining the 10% of Australian native mammals that have gone extinct since European settlement – by far the highest loss rate of any continent. (North America, which is of comparable size to Australia, has only lost a single mammal species.)

Most of the distribution of Leadbeater’s possum occurs in the wet forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria. These spectacular forests support some of the tallest trees on Earth and are located about 90 minutes drive from Melbourne, Victoria’s capital city. These forests are also in demand for paper and timber manufacturing. The underlying problem is that logging is not compatible with many of the other forest values.

For example, logging has significant negative impacts on Leadbeater’s possum as well as many other hollow-using animals like the greater glider, a eucalypt leaf-eating animal akin to a small gliding koala, and which has recently been listed as vulnerable to extinction in Victoria. Beyond its effects on biodiversity, logging also creates significant greenhouse gas emissions, makes forests more prone to high-severity wildfire, and massively reduces yields of drinking water for the people of Melbourne.

It would be easy to cast the story of Leadbeater’s possum as something like Dr Seuss’s tale of The Lorax, where degrading the environment and losing species is simply the price of economic growth. However, when you look at the bigger picture with economic and environmental accounting methods (developed by the United Nations and now applied in dozens of countries worldwide) it is clear that the opposite is the case: environmental protection is actually good for the economy and jobs.

The accounting work calculates the contribution to the Victorian economy of the native forest timber industry, agriculture, water and tourism from wet forests.

It has uncovered some sobering facts. For instance, while the native forest timber industry from the region contributed $9m to the Victorian economy, water and tourism contributed $233m and $260m, respectively. Similarly, the value of agriculture to the Victorian economy was 28 times the value of the native forest timber industry. Employment levels in tourism are 10 times that of the timber industry, with the latter haemorrhaging jobs rapidly over the past decade.

natural assets in the wet forests are far more valuable to the Victorian economy when they are not logged.

A further concern from the accounts was that the remaining stock of sawlogs is being rapidly exhausted, meaning that the sawmilling industry is very likely to collapse soon. The wet forests that were the focus of the accounting work are among the most carbon-dense forests in the world and only their shadow economic value was calculated, because the Australian government has failed to establish an appropriate methodology for a carbon market. However, even at a rock-bottom price set under the last auctions of Emissions Reduction Fund, the carbon value of the forest exceeds the value of the native forest timber industry.

What the economic and environmental accounting shows is that the natural assets in the wet forests are far more valuable to the Victorian economy when they are not logged. Unlogged forests produce more water, store more carbon and attract more tourists (creating more jobs in service industries). Even better, unlogged forests are less prone to major wildfires and support more biodiversity including iconic species like Leadbeater’s possum.

Continuing to clearfell the spectacular wet forests of Victoria for timber (largely for paper manufacturing) is behaviour left over from a bygone era. The old economy it represents has  no long-term future and few associated secure jobs. A new economy based on better and more sustainable management of natural assets like forests, water, carbon and biodiversity is an economically more lucrative options. Moreover, it will employ more people in better and longer lasting jobs.

Economic and environmental accounting has shown us the transition that has to be made. Failing to take action is akin standing on the shoreline and willing the tide to not come in. Arguments about the economy versus the environment are old hat and don’t reflect reality. In the wet forests of Victoria, what is good for iconic animals such as Leadbeater’s possum is also good for the economy and for jobs.

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