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Rare Owls set off new forest furore

by Claire Miller
Environmental Reporter

The Department of Natural Resources and Environment has a choice about what to do with the forest around the central Victorian hamlet of Trentham.

It can fell it for sawlogs and woodchips, or leave the forest standing to protect a pair of endangered powerful owls that have made Trentham their home.

Under the proposed Commonwealth-state forest agreement, outlined in a consultation paper two weeks ago, the Wombat State Forest around Trentham remains in the schedule for felling. The first round of cutting is likely within 12 months.

Trentham residents claim the consultation paper shows bias towards timber production at the expense of conservation and other forest values such as tourism. Governments say the agreements balance all forest values.

``We think the forest is more valuable for tourism,'' said Mr Mark Cowie, a spokesman for Actively Conserving Trentham. The community formed the group to examine how the forest agreement covering western Victoria might affect for their township of 700 people, whose Old Railway Walk through the area marked for logging is featured in state tourism brochures.

``Only one person in Trentham is employed in the timber industry, but we have 16 bed and breakfasts in Trentham,'' Mr Cowie said. ``We have a number of other trades and businesses who benefit from tourism.

``If tourism was to die in the town, the town would start to struggle again.

'' The fate of the Trentham powerful owls - one of the best documented pairs in the state - has deepened the community's disquiet. Powerful owls are listed as endangered under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act. Loss of habitat is the main threat to them.

The Natural Resources Department plans to protect the birds sets down a minimum territory of 1000 hectares per pair containing plenty of older trees with hollows for the owls and their main prey, such as possums. The Midlands forest management plan, which includes the Wombat forest, aims to protect 14 pairs of powerful owls.

But the forestry consultation paper reduces prospective owl territories to 500 hectares, while departmental correspondence with Actively Conserving Trentham indicates that just three breeding pairs of owls are being protected now in the Midlands.

Mr Cowie said the forest around Trentham provided the owls with about 750 hectares of good foraging and breeding habitat. About 140 hectares would be left after logging.

Trentham has some of the best big timber left in the Midlands. The department is under pressure over the likely loss of dozens of sawmill and logging jobs after its Forest Service proposed cutting the volume felled by 23 per cent because there was less timber than it thought. With new conservation reserves included, the total reduction is 31 per cent.

The Forest Service's executive director, Mr Gerard O'Neill, said the forest around Trentham was not regarded as prime powerful owl habitat. There were better areas to set aside to achieve the Midlands conservation target, he said.

He denied the commercial value of the timber was a deciding factor, but added that in the ``balancing act'' of the impending forest agreement, ``people are not going to get everything they want. The timber industry is not happy about their lot, either''.

The Age Publication
31 January 2000


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