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Franklin Dam-like court judgment to protect Victoria’s endangered species from loggers

The group’s advocacy paid off this week, when FLBP won a landmark court case against state government logging agency VicForests in the Federal Court. FLBP successfully argued that logging by VicForests in 66 areas of habitat essential to the Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider possum had contravened federal law.

Hailed by environmental groups, such as the Wilderness Society, as the “Franklin Dam of forest legal judgments”, the decision set an important legal precedent by applying federal threatened species protection law to the logging industry.

A Leadbeaters possum at the Healsville Sanctuary.

A Leadbeaters possum at the Healsville Sanctuary.Credit:Angela Wylie

This industry has operated under an exemption from federal environment law for more than 20 years, says Brendan Sydes, the head of community legal centre Environmental Justice Australia, which acted for FLBP.

“The decision should be a wake-up call for the Commonwealth and Victorian governments … rather than prioritising the recovery of threatened species, governments have been overseeing their continued decline,” Sydes says.

VicForests acknowledges the court decision, and says it would “carefully consider” the implications on its harvesting program.

Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum formed in 2004 to raise the profile of the tiny endangered marsupial that is Victoria’s faunal emblem. Meacher, a teacher who is now retired and lives in Toolangi, came on board as president about a year later.

Friends of Leadbeater's Possum committee members at the Federal Court hearing.

Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum committee members at the Federal Court hearing.

For 16 years the group has lobbied the state government to protect the possum and advocated for the protection of its habitat. None of the core group of a dozen volunteers are professional scientists but are “general citizens” such as council workers, educators and retired people, says Meacher.

But when the possum was reclassified from endangered to “critically endangered” in 2015 – the final stage before becoming extinct in the wild – the group decided more radical action was required.

Over a meal of “take-away pizza and cups of tea” in Healesville, the group spoke with Danya Jacobs, a senior lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia. Jacobs ran them through the potential grounds for a court challenge, and the group unanimously agreed to support it.

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It took a year to amass the materials to support FLBP’s claim, with much of the on-the-ground work done by members of the volunteer-run group Wildlife of the Central Highlands (WOTCH). Volunteers went into the forest at night (sometimes all night) to film possum species in logging coupes and submit the recordings to the state’s Environment Department.

WOTCH is also engaged in a court contest with VicForests. In April, the Victorian Supreme Court ordered logging be temporarily halted in 26 unburnt areas of Victorian native forest after WOTCH argued there was a risk of “serious and irreversible damage” to threatened species after last summer’s bushfires.

Meacher says FLBP’s court case has been “all consuming” for the four volunteers involved. “Running a court case of this size and significance is very stressful – luckily my way of dealing with stress is to keep busy.”

Most of the community group’s $300,000 costs have been covered via crowdfunding on social media.

It was all worth it, Meacher says. “It was better than we ever dared to hope for. The fact she found for us on every count and she made such strong criticism of their logging practices. It vindicates what we have been saying.”

Justice Mortimer ordered parties to return to court in mid-June to determine what further orders for relief should be made. She also ordered Vicforests to pay FLBP’s court costs.

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