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Victorian citizen scientists: a crucial species now under threat

After nightfall in early October, citizen scientists — volunteers from a community who collect scientific data — set out into a dozen areas of Victorian forest marked for logging.

Through the night, they saw 60 pairs of twinkling eyes reflected in the light from their torches.

The shimmers came from endemic greater gliders — a mammal that recently moved from the threatened list to the endangered.

Their finding should now lead to a temporary injunction on timber harvesting in the areas they were located in, Sue McKinnon, president of campaign group Kinglake Friends of the Forest and one of the surveyors, told The Guardian

At October’s end, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a citizen group trying to safeguard forest in Victoria’s Central Highlands after a two-and-a-half-year legal battle.

Victorian citizen scientists: a crucial species now under threat

Natalie Hogan at the Environmental Justice Australia office in Melbourne. Picture by Ryan Bellingham.

Warburton Environment announced on Facebook they had achieved stronger protections for the native shrub known as tree geebung against logging activities by state-owned VicForests.

Laws that come into effect in Victoria from next year, however, may hinder civilian achievements like these. The Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) 2022 Bill increases and adds offences for unauthorised persons entering timber harvesting areas.

It passed in August under the Andrews Labor government, who cited its inception with concerns for worker security and “dangerous protest activities”.

Natalie Hogan, an ecosystems lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia, said these laws had arrived at a time when citizen science is crucial for Victorian forests. 

“What we’ve seen after the bushfires, and what we’re seeing in the forests with climate change and native timber harvesting, and all the threats that endangered and threatened species are facing, I think citizen science is more important than ever.”

The only way we can protect endangered or threatened species is by knowing where their habitat is and where they are, and that’s essentially what citizen scientists do. 

Banning notices have been introduced, which can bar a person for up to 28 days if it is suspected they have committed, or are committing, an offence. 

Of particular concern to Hogan are amendments to search and seizure powers, which will allow officers to search a person or their property if there is reasonable belief they have committed, are committing, or will commit, an offence.

Between now and next year, there are few avenues for legal action as someone must be charged under the laws in order for a challenge to occur.

In the meantime ,Hogan says her firm will be keeping a close eye on two mothers, whose “arms” are knitting needles, who recently launched a legal contest against similar laws in NSW. 

Helen and Dominique, members of the environmental preservation group Knitting Nannas, have brought a constitutional challenge to the NSW Supreme Court against the state’s new anti-protest laws.

Bushfires have caused extensive destruction to native wildlife and their rapidly decreasing habitat.

Represented by the Environmental Defenders Office, the plaintiffs will argue their democratic freedom to protest has been quashed while their state has experienced bushfires and flooding en mass. 

“We will ask the court to find that aspects of these new laws are unconstitutional. Australians like us shouldn’t have to risk imprisonment or bankruptcy to participate in our democracy, and the Government should not be taking away our democratic freedoms,” Dominique said, in a press release from the Environmental Defenders Office

Alana Mountain, campaign co-ordinator for forests at Friends of the Earth, had similar misgivings about the incoming Victorian laws. 

She said,

We shouldn’t be thrown in jail for finding a possum in a bit of forest that is some of their last remnant habitat.

Mountain also co-ordinates events and fundraising for the Victorian Forest Alliance, and serves as a committee volunteer for Wildlife of the Central Highlands — a community group that has protected more than 1400 hectares of forest and is undertaking legal action against VicForests to safeguard threatened species.

She has contributed to the forest protection movement for more than a decade, and has been involved in citizen science for five-and-a-half years. In that time, she said one of the greatest accomplishments so far has been the collaboration of over 31 separate community groups into one “very well oiled machine”, which has proved to be proficient. 

The movement’s most effective action comes from legal challenges after surveys by citizen scientists identify threatened species or mismanagement in logging coupes, which often lead to injunctions on timber harvesting, she said.

She said the majority of output from native logging operations in Victoria — wood chips, which are pulped and turned into paper and pallets with a short lifespan — can be sourced from recycled materials instead.

And, perhaps ironically, she said the people within these groups are eager, even excited, to test the validity of the laws in court next year.

No one is afraid. We’re going to keep doing what we need to do because we know that it’s critical for our futures.

“We would’ve lost so much — this planet would be so messed up — if it wasn’t for everyday folk doing something good,” she said.

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