Has logging really stopped in Victoria? What the death of an endangered glider tells us

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Victoria’s native forestry industry ended on January 1 this year. The news was greeted with cheers by conservationists.

But has logging really come to an end? Last week, an endangered southern greater glider was found dead next to an area cleared to create fuel breaks along the Yarra Ranges National Park. The news caused outrage.

In itself, the death of one glider would be sad. But its death speaks to a larger problem. Three types of logging continue in Victoria’s forests: for fuel breaks, for rescue logging after storms and for logging on private land. The first two are linked to the government’s Forestry Transition Program, which states:

“Harvest and transport workers will be offered alternative work in forest and land management, allowing them to continue working in the forests they know so well and help reduce the risk of bushfires.”

This type of logging is likely to continue for years to come – and with less oversight than under the old regime, when logging was carried out by the state government agency VicForests.

Fuel breaks

The Victorian Government has plans to shorten or expand almost 1,500 kilometers of fuel breaks in Victoria’s native forests and other types of vegetation. Some of these fuel breaks are constructed in the tall mountain ash forests of Victoria’s central highlands, northeast of Melbourne. The felled trees are transported to timber factories.

It is claimed that the fuel breaks are intended for use by fire personnel to backburn and reduce fuel if there is a serious bushfire in a region.

This may work in some drier grassland and forest environments. But there is no point in tall, wet mountain ash forests, which only burn under the most severe fire conditions. These conditions are the worst possible time to start other fires.

So if this logging is pointless because the fuel breaks down, what is it for? Government maps of the fuel cuts label them as “Forestry Transition Projects.”

When trees are cut down, harvesting and trucking companies are paid to haul away the logs. The contracts have a term of five years.

Logging fuel breaks is arbitrary. Some of the trees already felled are, based on their diameter, between 200 and 350 years old. These old trees are keystone structures and it is easy to identify them as trees that should never be cut down.

Nationally endangered southern greater gliders depend on tree hollows, which develop only in older trees – trees 4 feet in diameter or larger. We recently showed that the loss of these trees is a major reason why this iconic species has suffered catastrophic declines.

Logging of storage areas

Salvage logging involves removing tree trunks after storms or fires have damaged trees. This takes place in the Wombat State Forest, Mount Cole State Forest and even national parks such as the Dandenong Ranges National Park. The wood from logged forests usually goes to sawmills and firewood yards.

Many people may think that salvage registration is useful. In the wake of unprecedented storms that topple thousands of trees, doesn’t it make sense to haul away the logs and put them to use?

At the forest scale, salvage logging is the most destructive form of logging, worse than high-intensity logging. Logging shortly after a natural disturbance makes recovery more difficult, for example by seriously damaging the soil for decades.

Fire-damaged or fallen trees become an important habitat for many plants and animals. It can take up to 200 years for forests to recover after salvage felling. Importantly, salvage logging activities can also make forests more flammable.

After widespread storms hit the Wombat Forest in 2021, the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation (DJAARA) appointed VicForests to “make the land safe”, partly by salvaging wind-thrown timber, but also capturing large numbers of living trees felled.

Since VicForests ceased operations in January, DJAARA has stated that continued logging in the Wombat Forest by the Victorian Government is no longer part of its operations.

Log in on private property

Gliders and other forest creatures don’t know the difference between national park and private property.

Using Sentinel 2 satellite imagery, we monitored a major logging operation on private land adjacent to the southern boundary of the Yarra Ranges National Park. Logging began in March 2023 and continues today. 38 hectares of rowan forest, a critically endangered ecosystem, have been felled.

Laws governing logging on private lands may be weaker than logging on public state forests. In state forests, VicForests was required to follow detailed rules, but these do not apply to logging on private land.

Satellite imagery suggests that this logging is being carried out very close (less than 50 metres) to sites known to harbor the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, a small possum whose population in the wild may be as low as 2,500 individuals. These locations are formally recorded and documented by the Victorian Government.

When VicForests was in operation, forest rangers and logging companies were legally required to create a 200 meter buffer around locations known to be used by these possums. There is no such requirement for logging in on private property.

The logging hasn’t really stopped

Whether it’s fuel cuts, salvage logging or private land clearing, native forest clearing has not stopped in Victoria. This will continue for many years to come, and the timber harvested from these activities will be sold commercially.

Much of this logging is not fully regulated, as the Office of the Conservation Regulator is in the same department as the one that carries out logging for fuel breaks and salvage operations. It is difficult for a government department to regulate itself. This supervisor also has no power over logging on private land.

If it sounds like two steps forward is one step back, it is.