The magnificent old growth forests of East Gippsland are a national treasure. Yet state-endorsed logging continues in this region, undermining the rich tapestry of plants and animals that support human health.
In August of this year, citizen scientists documented the presence of a large population of protected Greater Gliders in these forests, including inside an active logging coupe. Greater Gliders are listed on the federal threatened species list as vulnerable to extinction and on the Victorian threatened species advisory list as rare.
While these sightings should have immediately triggered the establishment of a Special Protection Zone within which logging was prohibited, the government was slow to respond, risking the survival of this species.
Reportedly, this was not an isolated occurrence, with citizen science surveys recently documenting in close proximity to, or within, active or planned logging coupes the presence of other vulnerable or endangered species such as Yellow-bellied Gliders, Electric Blue Lobsters and Large Brown Tree Frogs.
VicForests has been directed to cease logging in several high conservation value forests in East Gippsland after citizen scientists found the Large Brown Tree frog in the area. It was the first time this frog had been heard or seen in over 15 years and yet VicForests are still logging only a short distance away.
Why is it that neither the State Government nor VicForests felt the need to conduct thorough ecological surveys of their own to look for these species before planning to log these areas? Why is it that delays were seen in some cases between the sightings and the halting of logging? Is it not an inherent conflict of interest that sees VicForests, who gain financially from logging these forests, charged with the responsibility of surveying for threatened species?
Doctors are deeply concerned about this ongoing forest destruction and loss of species. Australia’s rich biodiversity is being depleted at an alarming rate. In Victoria, some original vegetation types have been reduced by more than 99 per cent since European colonisation. In the past 200 years at least 114 species of Australian animal and plant species have become extinct. Currently, more than 1500 species of animals and 3000 ecosystem types are facing the threat of extinction.
Human health and wellbeing are absolutely dependent upon a biodiverse planet and healthy, intact ecosystems, including forests. We rely on our forests for clean air and water and as valuable carbon sinks which protect the climate. Not many people realise that worldwide forests provide us with unique compounds, from which we have developed over half of the medicines in use today, and yet an area the size of Greece is being cut down globally every year. Even when forests are not completely felled, but are fragmented by logging, their long-term health and vitality can be put at risk. Also, Australia’s threatened species may hold the key to protecting human health by combatting antibiotic resistance. For example, the milk of Tasmanian Devils has recently been found to contain unique compounds that kill multi-drug resistant bacteria. Sadly, the survival of these creatures is in jeopardy as their habitat is degraded for logging and mining.
Preserving biodiversity may also reduce the incidence of infectious diseases. The 2011 outbreaks of Hendra virus in Queensland, a virus transmitted from flying foxes to horses to humans, have been partly attributed to loss of habitat that drives them closer to human settlement and stresses the flying foxes, making them more likely to excrete the virus.
Research is beginning to explore contributory links between the rapid loss of global biodiversity and increasingly common immunological conditions in urban populations where green space and contact with nature is declining swiftly.
For many Victorians, time spent in these forests makes a vital contribution to personal mental health and cultural identity. Our forests also provide opportunities for recreation, exercise and employment with healthy, long-term jobs in eco-tourism.
There is no sensible reason for continuing to log old growth forests beyond short-term economic and political gain. It is not just the gliders and frogs we are risking with this reckless attitude of government. We risk losing forever an irreplaceable national treasure for all generations and also compromising their health and wellbeing.
Our government has a duty to protect the threatened species that live in these forests, and address the appalling rate of species extinction in this state, it needs to recognise the critical role these forests play in supporting human health and well-being and step up to protect them.
We wrote to the Victorian Premier outlining these concerns way back in August but have yet to receive a reply. Sadly, whilst he dithers we lose more and more of our biodiversity and in turn our wellbeing is compromised. In the interests of the health of our natural environment and all Victorians we call on Daniel Andrews to step up and stop this appalling destruction.
Dr Dimity Williams is a GP and Biodiversity Convenor for Doctors for the Environment Australia.
Dr Katherine Barraclough is a nephrologist and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
First published in Online Opinion on 23 December 2016