Rare discovery in Aussie forest sparks call for protection of ancient trees marked for removal

Critically endangered possums have been filmed roaming the debris of recent works to create firebreaks, prompting calls for an urgent stop work.

Ancient trees in an Australian rainforest have been spray-painted with symbols declaring them "hazardous" to nearby workers. They stand adjacent to a large firebreak that’s being cleared through a portion of a national park where two nocturnal animals on the brink of extinction have been filmed.

Of particular concern is a towering 2.5-metre wide grey gum that likely predates white settlement that would ordinarily be protected under Victorian environment laws. It's been marked with a bright pink slash in a circle — signalling to contractors it could pose a risk and can be removed.

The works inside the Yarra Rangers National Park are spearheaded by Victoria’s department of environment (DEECA) as part of a program to maintain firebreaks, prevent severe bushfires and protect wildlife. But conservationists are concerned regulations designed to protect large trees are being ignored and the habitat of rare animals, that could take hundreds of years to renew, will be destroyed.

A large 2.5 metre wide grey gum inside the Yarra Ranges National Park. A mark has been spray-painted on it to show it is hazardous.
A protected tree that's wider than 2.5 metres has been marked as "hazardous" and could be felled inside a Victorian national park. Source: Warburton Environment/WOTCH Inc

Investigators monitoring the department's contractors have filmed both critically endangered Leadbeater's possums scurrying around the edges of a recently cleared section of bush, as well as an endangered northern greater glider on a tree scheduled to be felled. You can watch the videos below.

The leaders of environment groups Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA), Wildlife of the Central Highlands (WOTCH Inc), Friends of Leadbeater's Possum, and Warburton Environment have written to the state and federal governments, asking them to stop work at the site.

“Those trees could be getting cut down now for all we know, there’s definitely a need for the federal government to step up,” VNPA investigator Jordan Crook told Yahoo News. He's questioned why the habitat is being removed just weeks after the federal government published a new Leadbeater's possum national recovery plan that specifically mentions the importance of the Yarra Ranges National Park.

Related: Anger as 'great browning' spreads along 1,000km of Australian coast

While documents seen by Yahoo indicate the federal government originally signed off on the firebreak in 2008 and 2009, conservationists say new video of critically endangered wildlife at the site should be grounds for Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to suspend the project.

After Yahoo News asked Plibersek’s office if the minister planned to intervene, her department confirmed it was now making enquiries into the matter. It remains unclear if Victorian authorities will continue works while the federal department investigates.

“The department is making enquiries to determine whether national environment law is being complied with. As enquiries are ongoing the department will not provide comment at this time,” it said on Tuesday morning.

Reads 'What on Earth? Tree hollows used by endangered greater gliders only start to form after a tree reaches 100 years of age.'  A collage of foliage and a greater glider
Discover more of our environment coverage.

In 2018, then state environment minister Lily D'Ambrosio committed the government to protecting all trees on public land with a diameter of 2.5 metres or more, whether they’re in state forests or roadsides.

In response to questions about the potential removal of large trees inside Yarra Ranges National Park, DEECA provided a written statement from its Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Port Phillip Region, Shannon Devenish, saying “environmentally significant fauna” including the Leadbeater’s possum and Southern Greater Glider are “highly susceptible” to large scale bushfires — which the firebreaks are designed to prevent.

She said the crews are working within the footprint of existing fuel breaks and this involves clearing encroaching vegetation and “treating” trees it deems to be dangerous.

"Trees that are structurally compromised and are a threat to firefighter safety have been marked as hazardous during an initial assessment," she said. "Further assessments will be carried out to determine if alternative protection measures can be used to keep fire out of the trees during a bushfire event."

"These fuel breaks enable firefighters to carry out back-burning in the event of a major bushfire and are a critical part of (Forest Fire Management Victoria’s) strategy to protect Melbourne’s water supply, and other important environmental values from bushfires."

Heavy machinery parked inside Yarra Ranges National Park
Investigators say heavy machinery is destroying vegetation up to 40 metres away from the firebreak path. Source: Warburton Environment/WOTCH INC
Left -an aerial shot of the fire break maintenance. Right - a ground shot of an ancient tree marked for removal.
Close to 80 large and hollow bearing trees have been declared hazardous along the firebreak route. Source: Warburton Environment/WOTCH INC

WOTCH Inc investigators who surveyed the site of the fire break clearing say the presence of Leadbeaters possums indicates the state and federal governments "are not serious" about preventing their extinction.

Its vice president Blake Nisbet told Yahoo there are up to 78 large and hollow bearing trees marked with pink spray paint, indicating they’re going to be removed. He argues the assessment methods used by the DEECA are “highly problematic” and he's accused Victorian authorities of breaking its promise to protect larger trees.

“There’s a lot of other options. In many instances we’re seeing logging machinery heading 40 metres into the bush to remove one or two trees, and in the process they’re making a mess and disturbing the roots of other trees and creating more of a mess than there was to begin with.”

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.