Greater Than the Glider
Two weeks ago, ABC unveiled a shocking experiment being conducted by VicForests that would kill greater gliders. VicForests’ experiment is testing how different logging regimes may impact greater glider populations in East Gippsland, Victoria. However, this experiment is unnecessary, unscientific, unethical, and highlights a greater issue in Australian environmental laws.
Greater gliders are the second-largest gliding mammal in the world. Once common but now listed as vulnerable, they prefer old growth forests with large hollow trees for habitat.
VicForests is the logging company owned by the Victorian Government, which harvests forests for profit while exempted from federal environmental laws. These exemptions are called Regional Forestry Agreements (RFAs). They allow the logging industry to harvest forests while avoiding the consequences of laws like the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999.
Established in the 90s, RFAs were set out to protect both commercial forestry operations and environmental values. Throughout Australia, ten RFAs were signed with each covering a 20-year period. Despite their good intentions, RFAs were meant to be reviewed every five years and all ten RFAs have failed to meet this requirement. Moreover, three Victorian RFAs were scheduled to expire this year but were granted two-year extensions with little evidence of upholding environmental values.
So damaging is VicForests that it failed to get its internationally accredited Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. The FSC certification is a huge boost for forestry organisations as pressure from both consumers and clients are pushing the industry towards sustainability. For example, Bunnings drove VicForests to apply for green certification.
So what’s going on with VicForests’ greater glider experiment?
Research on greater gliders already exists; they are particularly vulnerable to habitat change.
So then why does VicForests feel compelled to conduct another experiment, especially if it will kill greater gliders in the process? Tony McBride, the biodiversity conservation manager for VicForests, argues that the current body of research is not balanced because it focuses on preservation.
If we were to grant him this, then at least we can be sure their experiment will be scientifically rigorous…
Unfortunately, however, their experiment is not rigorous. The aim of their experiment is to understand how different logging intensities affect greater glider populations. Best practice would be to survey how many gliders there are before and after logging.
The VicForests experiment has two areas to be logged (called coupes). One coupe is logged using standard methods and the other is logged to a lesser extent. In the second coupe, the northern section is untouched while the southern section is logged. Quick note: these standard methods are essentially clear-cutting.
The reason why this experiment is unscientific is because the surveys conducted in the second coupe only occurred in the northern section, where logging is not occurring. They’re only looking at gliders that are not impacted by the logging in the southern section. The scientific approach would have been to also survey the southern section.
Whatever possible conclusions they draw from this fatal experiment will be overshadowed by their insufficient and inappropriate surveys. In other words, greater gliders would have died for nothing.
Aside from the unethical waste of life, a basic principle that guides a wide range of public policy relating to health, safety and the environment is the precautionary principle. Most commonly cited from the Rio Declaration from 1992, the principle essentially says ‘better safe than sorry.’
This principle is also expressed in the Code of Practice for timber production, where the precautionary principal must be applied to the conservation of biodiversity values. Earlier this year, VicForests was banned from logging certain coupes in the Central Highlands because it was in breach of its code of practice.
If state-owned logging companies fail to comply with their own rules, and are exempt from federal laws, then by which policies do they abide?
Greater than the Glider.
The situation presented here does not end with the greater glider. This issue is indicative of a systematic error of the Australian government to protect its endemic and unique environment. The clear-cutting of old growth native forest should cause public outcry in and of itself. The demise of the greater glider just adds insult to injury.
Such is the state of affairs that the Senate has called for an inquiry into the Australian faunal extinction crisis; hundreds of faunal species are consistently experiencing population declines. This inquiry will analyse the efficacy of Commonwealth environmental laws and a range of other matters.
I can only but hope this is a step in the right direction. But in the meantime, I’ll keep buying FSC certified products.
Click here to have your say on Australia’s faunal extinction crisis. The closing date for submissions is 10 Sep 2018.