The Central Highlands of Victoria are home to the world’s tallest flowering plants, the Mountain Ash, and one of Australia’s most endangered mammals, the Leadbeater’s Possum. Both are threatened by ongoing clearfell logging and bushfires.

To ensure their survival, we need to create a new national park, not only to protect possums and forests, but carbon stocks, water supplies, and lower the risk of bushfires. Here’s the evidence:

Extinction and Collapse

The Central Highlands region of Victoria is located around towns such as Healesville, Kinglake, Toolangi, Warburton, Marysville and Woods Point. The region includes the vast majority of remaining (and declining) Leadbeater’s Possums, Mountain Ash, the most carbon dense forests in the world; and supplies most of the drinking water for the city of Melbourne.

But the Mountain Ash forests are threatened by recurrent and widespread industrial clearfell logging and major bushfires (including the Black Saturday fires of 2009).

The result is that we now have 1,886 hectares of old growth forest, spread across 147 different patches. This is estimated to be 1.5-3%of the historical area of old growth forest.

The population of large old hollow-bearing trees has collapsed. These are a critical habitat for the animals that use them, including Leadbeater’s Possum. There is a high risk that the possums will become exinct in the next 20-40 years.

And as forests regrow from logging, they are at increased risk of re-burning at high severity.

Leadbeater’s Possum and Mountain Ash forests have persisted for tens of millions of years, surviving major wildfire events. But in just the last few decades the possum is at risk of extinction, and the forests are at risk of ecological collapse.

The Threat of Clear Felling

The one factor that has demonstrably changed this ecosystem in the past century and created these risks has been intensive and widespread industrial clear felling. Clear felling has a number of significant detrimental effects in Mountain Ash forests.

Clear felling kills animals outright. Logged areas are unsuitable for animals that depend on hollow-bearing trees for over 150 years. Logging accelerates the loss of tree hollows; and we know that these hollows can’t be replaced by nest boxes. Logging stops old growth forest from regenerating, and it increases the fire proneness of the forests.

A bigger reserve

To preserve Leadbeater’s Possum, and in fact the entire Mountain Ash forest ecosystem, we need a bigger national park in the Central Highlands. There are already reserves and national parks in the area, but these need to be expanded and connected to deal with the threats facing Leadbeater’s Possum and Mountain Ash forests.

The new national park is important as it removes the key process – industrial clear felling – that is threatening both the Leadbeater’s Possum and the Mountain Ash forests.

Why do we need to expand our reserves in the area?

First, the current reserve system is too small to support a viable population of Leadbeater’s Possums, particularly if there are more fires in the next 50-100 years.

Second, a large ecological reserve provides a greater chance for natural fire regimes and growth of large old trees to be restored.

Third, as Mountain Ash forests store vast amounts of carbon, a new national park will be critical to maintaining carbon stocks. The park would therefore be critical to any policy to reduce carbon emissions.

Our studies clearly indicate that clear felling significantly depletes carbon storage in Mountain Ash forests whereas allowing stands to grow through to mature or old growth significantly increases carbon storage (even in the event of a major wildfire).

Fourth, water yields from Mountain Ash catchments are maximised when forests are dominated by old growth stands.

Location, Location

The new park needs to connect key areas of habitat for Leadbeater’s Possum, and also connect existing reserves. Connectivity like this promotes the dispersal of the possums through the forests, including those recovering after wildfire.

The national park must encompass areas of existing old growth forest and also areas where environmental modelling indicates old growth will develop in the future.

The park must also be big enough to be larger than major disturbance events such as wildfires. This will ensure there is sufficient habitat to support viable populations of Leadbeater’s Possums.

At the same time as creating the park, pulp and timber yield from the the Mountain Ash forests must be reduced. Mountain Ash forests have already been over-cut, and to maintain a sustained yield from the forests at the same time as setting aside the Great Forest National Park will even further increase over-cutting. This is because it will concentrate industrial clearfelling on a reduced area of available forest.

Economic Benefits

A new Great Forest National Park would be a major economic boost for Victoria. It would be particularly helpful for regional economies like those around Marysville still rebuilding after the 2009 wildfires.

Victorian governments have never seriously advertised the fact that, within 1.5 hours from the MCG, you can find the world’s tallest flowering plants and some of the most stunningly beautiful environments on the Australian continent.

The park will need some seed funding to establish and maintain walking tracks, huts, caravan parks for grey nomads as well as other visitor infrastructure. The benefits of such investment – when done strategically – have been documented by many authors over the past few decades. Moreover, investments in tourism would be in stark contrast to the significant loss-making native forest paper pulp and timber industries in eastern Australia.

Large ecological reserves are at the core of any credible approach to forest biodiversity conservation plans. This is particularly true in the case of Victorian mountain ash forests.

The incoming federal government’s policy on forests is broadly to:  “stop any further lock-ups” of forests. But the scientific and other evidence supporting the need for a new national park in the wet ash forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria is both overwhelming and compelling. Moreover, there are strong social and economic arguments to establish a new Great Forests National Park.

David Lindenmayer has received funding from the Australian Research Council.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Work in progress

The data sets underpinning the park plan are still under review and will be made available as soon as the work is completed for stage one. At this point community sessions will be planned to allow for input and ideas to expand the opportunities for new business ventures and activities.

Many areas in this park are closed water catchments so there will not be an option to open protected areas up but we feel that there are too many ‘closed’ areas in State forests that prevent 4-wheel driving, biking and exploration due to logging and a lack of funding for weekend Park Rangers. We will be placing a special focus on better management of existing areas and ‘opening the gates’ to allow for more recreational experiences.

Relatable Resources

Great Forest National Park - Summary Report
December 2015
The Great Forest National Park will be to Melbourne what the Blue Mountains and its national parks are to Sydney. The Park will embrace the city of Melbourne, being a natural amphitheatre of hazy blue mountains to the east of the city. The protection of the Central Highlands’ diverse natural and cultural values will provide long deserved and overdue recognition for the forests right on Melbourne’s doorstep.
Running Pure: The importance of forest protected areas to drinking water
A research report for the World Bank / WWF Alliance for Forest Conservation and Sustainable Use. This report represents an early attempt to develop wider arguments for protection, focusing on one narrow but important issue − the potential role of protected areas in helping to maintain water supply to major cities.
Great Forest National Park: economic contribution of park establishment, park management, and visitor expenditure
February 2017
Nous Group (Nous) was engaged by The Wilderness Society to undertake a narrowly scoped analysis,
projecting the additional economic activity generated by the Great Forest National Park (GFNP) through
park establishment, park management and potential additional visitor expenditure.
Carbon stocks and impacts of disturbance in native eucalypt forest ecosystems in the Central Highlands catchments supplying water to Melbourne
May 2012
Written by Heather Keith, David Lindenmayer, Brendan Mackey, David Blair, Lauren Carter and Lachlan McBurney from The Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University


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