THEY'VE survived against the odds for up to 20,000 years, but Victoria's dwindling mountain pygmy possum population may be about to meet its greatest threat: James Packer.
The nation's third-richest man is preparing to take control of Victoria's Mount Hotham and Falls Creek ski fields â€” home to the tiny possums, which weigh just 45 grams when fully grown and can fit in the palm of a hand.
But a $500 million plan to redevelop the Hotham Alpine Village could threaten the endangered possums' habitat, according to environmental groups who want Mr Packer to reconsider the scale of the project if his bid to take over the resorts is successful.
With fewer than 2000 mountain pygmy possums remaining in the wild, safeguarding them is a priority, says the Victorian National Parks Association's Jenny Barnett.
About 1500 possums live in the Mount Hotham-Bogong high plains area, 450 at Mount Kosciuszko in NSW, and just 20 to 30 at Mount Buller.
Developers insist the possums' habitat is not in danger, but Ms Barnett is not convinced. "The more development there is, the less room the possums have to move in," Ms Barnett told The Sunday Age.
"The less they do up there the better. We want whoever is running Mount Hotham to be a good caretaker of the possums and do the maximum they can to look after them."
The possums â€” thought to be extinct until their rediscovery in the mid 1960s â€” pose a potential headache for Mr Packer if he does manage to add Mount Hotham and Falls Creek to his other ski fields at Perisher and Smiggin in NSW.
He has taken advantage of the collapse of the finance and tourism company MFS, once run by his millionaire polo-playing friend Michael King, to try to snare the Victorian ski fields at a bargain price.
Mr Packer's Hong Kong-based company agreed to underwrite a $90 million rights offer for the MFS offshoot Living & Leisure Australia Group and buy its $63 million debt.
Mr Packer could end up with a 30% stake in the company, which also owns the Melbourne Aquarium, Underwater World on the Sunshine Coast and aquariums in Thailand, Korea and China.
MFS (now known as Octaviar) and its property development partner, the Ray Group, unveiled plans in 2005 for the extensive redevelopment of Mount Hotham. The plan was to build a world-class, year-round ski resort rivalling the best in North America and Europe.
The project, which included the luxury Bale apartment complex, cafes, restaurants, day spas, a cinema, conference facilities and a 500-space car park, was delayed after widespread opposition to the plan and is now not expected to be completed for at least 10 years.
Critics have described the redevelopment as "environmental madness" which will make Mount Hotham look more like the Docklands, while supporters say it will put the village on the world skiing map.
The project was examined by an independent planning panel after the developers applied for an amendment to the planning scheme to realign the Great Alpine Road. Skiers currently have to cross the road to get to the ski field from Hotham Village. As part of the review, Ecology Australia investigated the project's impact on the alpine tree frog (Litoria verreauxi alpina) and the mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus).
It found the project was unlikely to significantly affect the frogs' habitat, which was about 600 metres from the development site, or the possums' habitat, which was 60 metres away down slope.
The State Government subsequently approved the redevelopment, which will include new gasworks to run under the possums' "tunnel of love" along a section of the Great Alpine Road to minimise any disturbance. (A wildlife pathway known as the "tunnel of love" was built under the road in 1986 to allow the male possums to travel up the slope to the females' area to breed.)
The Mount Hotham Resort Management Board then secured environmental approval from the Federal Government. Work on the road is due to begin late next year, with completion of the project to take another decade.
Last edited by a moderator: