The Multinational Monitor


A   U   S   T   R   A   L   I   A

Felling the Forests

by Geoff Law

0n the morning of March 7, 1986, 40 conservationists faced 60 loggers across a little-known stream in the wet forests of Southwest Tasmania. The loggers had been bussed in from nearby small towns and from big city sawmills over two hours away to keep the conservationists from stalling construction of a logging road into an isolated part of Tasmania's wilderness. When a sawmill owner gave the order, 60 angry men wearing hard-hats attacked. The media dubbed the confrontation "The Battle of Farmhouse Creek." That night, millions of Australians saw it on their TV screens. The following morning, the nation's newspapers carried front-page photographs of national conservation leader and Tasmanian Member of Parliament, Dr. Bob Brown, being carried off by half a dozen brawny looking individuals at the protest site. He was quoted as saying, "The Battle of Farmhouse Creek will ring down through the generations as a watershed in the campaign to save the forests, not only in Tasmania, but throughout Australia."

Despite the protestors' quick defeat, Brown said, the battle of Farmhouse Creek graphically illustrates the conflict in Australia concerning the future of the continent's forests. On one side are those who depend on the forest industries for their living - in Tasmania, a significant proportion of the population - and on the other are Tasmanians and other Australians who believe that the country's most precious resource is its natural beauty, and that all efforts should be made to preserve its famous wilderness areas. Both the state and the country are polarized. In Tasmania, a small, fiercely parochial island state, this polarization over conservation issues causes major political friction at the state and federal level.

In the deep wet valleys of Tasmania's south grow the tallest forests in the southern hemisphere. Eucalypti over 300 feet high tower over rainforest species found nowhere else in the world. The forests form part of Tasmania's western wilderness area, part of which was added to the U. N. World Heritage List in 1982. This move ultimately protected places like the Franklin River. But forests missed out. Instead, the state government has handed the forests over to big pulp and woodchip companies. These companies, together with the state Forestry Commission, plan to log most of the commercial forests within the wilderness area. Conservationists argue that these forests should be protected within a World Heritage National Park.

Therein lies the conflict. The continent has already lost two thirds of its original 15 percent forest-cover. Of the surviving forests, most have suffered excessive logging, road building or too frequent burning. Only in wilderness areas do trees grow to full maturity, with their complete contingent of native wildlife. Such forests are now so scarce that they could disappear altogether in the next decade.

In southeastern Australia, the last sizable stands of unlogged eucalyptus forest are at stake. They are threatened by export woodchipping, and by a sawmilling industry that has historically cut the forests down faster than they can grow back. In the southwest corner of the giant arid state of Western Australia, the tall forests of karri eucalyptus have been subdivided for woodchipping and sawmilling operations. Only remnants of this unique forest remain.

Tasmania provides the most graphic and extreme illustration of Australian forest management. The forest is felled in blocks up to 200 hectares in area. Every tree is cut down, irrespective of whether it is needed in the production of the final product. Those species not wanted are bulldozed into piles or left scattered throughout the logged area, which is eventually burnt. Eucalyptus seeds are then scattered from an aircraft to regenerate the area for future production.

This method of logging is called clearfelling. Over the last two decades it has become the most widely used means of logging and regenerating forests in Australia. It is popular with forestry services partly because, in the wetter forests, it facilitates the replanting of trees. It also makes for easy administration. It is much easier to oversee an area of forest that is cleared and then planted once every 90 years, than to keep records of how much timber is left after trees have been selectively logged, and when the area should be logged again. Clearfelling also satisfies some foresters' penchants for "maximum utilization of the forest." Logging companies also like clearfelling because they can extract large amounts of timber in a short period of time.

But foresters and timber industry officials here have had a hard time selling their clearfell-and-burn formula to the public. When entire swathes of forest are suddenly cleared, the debris and blackened stumps left make the area look like a battleground. For most people, the resulting regeneration is no substitute for a natural forest.

Loggers argue that they are only doing nature's work. They argue that "degenerate, over-mature, dying trees" are replaced with "vigorous young regeneration." But once clearfelled and regenerated, the forest will be felled again after only a fraction of its natural lifetime. In Tasmania, foresters have admitted that after a few such rotations, many species will die out altogether, leaving only the more commercially exploitable eucalypti.

Clearfelling also has serious implications for native wildlife. Many of Australia's distinctive birds and animals nest or breed only in the holes and hollows of older trees. Others eat the insects that colonize rotten logs or decrepit trees. And trees that have been clearfelled will never again provide habitats for these birds and animals because the forest will be felled again before such habitats develops.

Birds and animals permanently displaced in this way include the tiny pygmy possum, the magnificent black cockatoo, the sulphur-crested white cockatoo, the owl and many other birds of prey. Australia's native gliders, possums that glide from tree to tree using a membrane stretched between their fore-legs and hind-legs, are almost totally dependent on nesting hollows in old trees. They seldom survive in clearfelled country.

Clearfelling has led to the growth of Australia's export-woodchip in dustry. Foresters and loggers argue that is necessary to find a market for all the "waste timber" generated by clearfelling. And so more and more of Australia's forest habitat is being shipped to Japan as woodchips - the raw material for Japan's giant paper industry.

In the early 1970s export-woodchip mills were established in New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania. More recent export woodchip schemes have recently been proposed or established in Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and northern New South Wales. Again, tiny Tasmania suffers the most. It exports more woodchips than all the other states combined.

Supposedly brought in to use up "waste," woodchipping developed a momentum of its own. In Tasmania, the practice of clearfelling expanded out of the wet forests, where there was at least some scientific basis for its use, and into other forests, with disastrous results. In alpine areas where the forests were clearfelled, regenerating seedlings were soon killed by frost, leaving a tussocky wasteland. In drier areas, poor soils could not cope with the increased soil erosion, soil compaction and nutrient loss that clearfelling brought. Regeneration was patchy.

By the mid 1980s, woodchipping was the biggest national conservation issue. But it was not until March 1986 and "The Battle of Farmhouse Creek" that the issue grabbed front-page headlines throughout the country. In the weeks that followed this action, conservationists were arrested for alleged "trespass." And although the bulldozers eventually carved a new road over a kilometer into the wilderness, in the following year the national conservation movement made great gains in the field of forest preservation.

Logging companies and unions responded with a campaign to discredit the conservationists. They sponsored television advertisements promoting woodchipping and attempted to portray conservationists as a misguided and uncompromising minority. Despite the $5 million at the disposal of the loggers' public relations organizers, the campaign had little impact nationally.

Conservationists backed the sitting Labor government and Prime Minister Robert Hawke. The opposition parties endorsed the woodchipping of Tasmania's forests, and declared conservation issues irrelevant to the outcome of the election. The "Vote for the Forests" campaign that conservationists ran in critical marginal seats was acknowledged by many Labor Party figures to be a significant factor in the return of the Hawke government. The Prime Minister acknowledged the contribution of Australia's two major conservation groups to his subsequent election win.

Back in Tasmania, conservationists are campaigning directly for office. Only 12.5 percent of the vote is required to win a seat in the multimember electorates and the conservation movement already has two representatives in the House of Assembly. The party that holds a majority in the House of Assembly governs. Currently, the anti-conservationist "Liberal Party" of Robin Gray holds a majority - but only by one seat. The conservation movement hopes to gain enough seats in this House to win the balance of power, and thereby the ability to veto projects that would damage Tasmania's wilderness areas and forests. Conservation authorities are applying more stringent requirements to the woodchipping industry. More and more, the timber industry is being required to justify its actions. And conservationists are winning new victories.

In Victoria, a state planning body has recommended major extensions to national parks in the remote eastern forests of that state. In New South Wales, the Environment Minister has begun looking into establishing new forest national parks in the state's southeast. In Western Australia, the government recently axed a new export-woodchipping proposal that would have allowed clear-cutting of the state's privately-owned forests. And the federal government has promised to nominate Queensland's tropical rainforests for World Heritage protection and has acted to protect wilderness forests in Tasmania until a government inquiry into the logging industry is conducted.

Even the Tasmanian government has made a commitment to protecting more of the state's unique tall forests. But despite these claims, it is hard to escape the feeling that Tasmania will see a few more battles like the one at Farmhouse Creek.

Geoff Law is the Tasmanian Campaign Officerfor the A ustralian Conservation Foundation, and has also worked with the Tasmanian Wilderness Society in the successful campaign to protect the Franklin River.

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