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ANU promotes a flawed science on environmental issues

Two forestry scientists have harshly criticised “false science” and its links to environmental activism as completely distorting the truth about the native forestry industry and the endangered status of the Leadbeater’s Possum. Forestry consultant and author Mark Poynter and Mike Ryan, a silviculture specialist with VicForests, set out their case in a peer-reviewed article in Australian Forestry. Source: Philip Hopkins for Timberbiz

Mr Ryan states that the article is his personal view and does not represent the opinion of his employer.

The article is titled “Leadbeater’s possum and Victoria’s Central Highlands’ forests: flawed science and environmental activism as drivers of forest management change”. The possum is listed as ‘critically endangered’ but this status is being reviewed by the Federal Government.

Environmentalists are pushing for a Great National Park to protect the possum, but this threatens the existence of much of the Victorian native forestry industry and the hundreds employed in it.use

The authors say recent research on the possum and conservation issues in the Central Highlands is contentious. Much of it comes from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. It is characterised by “omission of critically important context, reliance on flawed or wrong assumptions and errant citation practices”.

“There is evidence of a disturbing synergy between some peer-reviewed science and environmental activism”, resulting in advocating for the new big national park.

The “contentious” research covers issues from possum population estimates, the extent of conservation reserves, forest carbon stocks, the concept of ecosystem collapse and the value of environmental services provided by native forests.

The authors maintain that the original survey methods by the Fenner school that suggested the possum was facing extinction were inadequate, and had been overtaken by the more comprehensive surveys led by the Arthur Rylah Institute since 2014.

Before February 2014, just 283 possum colonies had been detected in the preceding 16 years. Since late 2014, there were 631 known possum colonies as of 30 December 2017, each representing between three and 11 individuals. Thus 483 new colonies were found in three years.

However, detections were in surveys of only 6-10% of potential or occupied possum habitat, in mainly forest wood production zones. The two-thirds of possum habitat in various reserves were far less surveyed.

“The recent substantial rise in Leadbeater’s possum colony detections in just a minor part of the species estimated area of suitable habitat suggests that earlier (pre-2014) population estimates for the species were understating the reality,” the authors say.

The ANU researchers had not acknowledged the new high possum population estimates, with some alleging there had been double or triple-counting, while still asserting the possum’s population had crashed by two-thirds since 1998.

“It is unusual for scientists to fail to acknowledge that their original methodology has been overtaken by the evolution of a more effective process based on …  modern technology,” the authors say.

While some research is problematic, the authors strongly criticise the active role of some researchers in promoting alarmism in the media and stoking anti-forestry fears. Many articles have uncritically reported this research in media outlets such as the ABC, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Canberra Times, the Mercury in Tasmania and The Guardian.

The authors say the Fenner School partnered with the Wilderness Society in the early 2000s to push to end timber harvesting as part of a long-term goal to create a national park from Melbourne to Brisbane.

Higher education and research institutions typically receive funding from various sources. “However, the ANU Fenner School’s formal alliance with a major environmental group arguably took the typical university partnership a step further,” the authors say.

The 2008 Green Carbon report, written by a Fennere academic and part-funded by the Wilderness Society, was launched by WS at the United Nations climate change conference in Bali in November 2007.

Despite being unpublished – and with peer review status unknown – the WS used the report’s findings as the basis of submissions to the Garnaut climate change review, which incorporated some of the findings in its conclusions.

When ANU subsequently published the Green Carbon report, it did not include the technical data and calculations that supported its findings.

The authors say the ‘Green Carbon’ episode strongly suggested forest conservation research was being used to support the campaign of the environmental group partner.

“Since then, this perception has strengthened as conservation-focussed research papers about the Central Highlands forests produced by scientists based at the ANU Fenner School have routinely been released in a blaze of publicity characterised by simplistic, alarmist headlines that often misrepresent the reality,” the authors say.

“This publicity often appears to have been timed to coincide with specific events, presumably to maximise the public and political impact of the research.”

*An expanded version of the Poynter-Ryan article will appear in the March edition of Australian Forests & Timber.

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