Why save the South East forests?

Why Save the South East Forests??

by Jane Salmon, SERCA, 0417 919 354, upstream2005@yahoo.com.au

Youtube clips of Mumbulla campaign available.
Photos by Richard Green available from Prue Acton. Exhibition in Sydney June 2011

When I first went down to Eden, it was to see whether the Harris Daishowa woodchip mill was as bad as hippies claimed. The cleanness of the beaches stood out in my mind as does the erosion and dryness arising from logging, bullocks and sheep on the Monaro.

When Wes Stacey started to date my mate Narelle, in about 1979, I heard about the South Coast. Soon the whole group house travelled south. There I met 'Guboo' or elder Ted Thomas, heard his mix of Jehovah's Witness and Aboriginal spirituality, and was briefly introduced to the beauty of Gulaga or Mt Dromedary. The drama and magnetic resonance of the teaching rocks at the summit had to be felt to be believed. The wallabies still carved paths through long grasses. It was as though an intensity of experience, good or bad, natural or manmade, was vibrating in that place.

However, I believed that Mountain to be endangered by the dairy farming at its foot, not by logging. There were old gold mines overgrown with camphor and sassafras, too.

I don't let my guilt as a seventh generation Anglo from a logging, banking, legal and pastoral background cloud my view of the complexity of aboriginal affairs.

I travelled down at my own expense and stayed at the Eden pub. Staff from the woodchip mill offered to take me around the region, planning to write a balanced piece and make my name as a freelance journalist, to crack the big time. I was aware that my politics had already scared the editor of the Canberra Times but that I was the darling of anti corruption groups and the new Legislative Assembly in Canberra.

The workplace safety officer had the same name as me -- Salmon. Although, I'd never met him before, I decided to trust this family man and to travel around the Harris Daishowa operation.

My namesake explained the risks of chainsaw accidents as we drove around. He showed me the logged areas, all red dirt and charred bulldozed stumps. Clearly areas like Tantawangalo had been razed, poisoned and burned to bomb sites. PR about selective logging was clearly just spin.

Crowns and butts snag the woodchipper, apparently. It wasn't waste wood that was being turned into little slices. It was precious timber that would otherwise be sawlogs.

He then returned to the mill, where bulldozers crawled like ants over the mountain of woodchips awaiting export by ship.

Next Mr Salmon drove down towards the border of Victoria to oversee helmet, goggle, steelcap and glove use. Most workers had a very relaxed approach to their own safety.

There we saw men logging old growth trees in complex native forest that was over 200 years old. We heard lyrebirds imitating the chainsaws and bulldozers as well as whip bird calls. The beauty of this misty, soft green cathedrals moved me to bliss. There was such stillness and that smell of rich, layered humus to complement the Elioth Gruner images.

These forest giants, home to thousands of species of creature and plant, would become cardboard boxes wrapped around washing machines exported back from Japan.

And that was the end of objectivity. Soon I was collecting material about biodiversity from National Parks staff so detailed that balance was completely lost.

The box of tapes and notes travelled with me for two decades while I tried to assemble the whole shocking story.

I realised that sometimes objectivity and balance were not possible. All one could do was declare one's bias.

The story cost me more than cash. Confirmity, conservatism and appearances were the hub of my army family. The fact that I had become a crusader was also telling on my career.

I temped my way through a double major in International Politics at the University of Sydney. State and federal government departments, hospitals, scientific research institutions and media outlets revealed themselves to me from the inside. Thus the mentality of Primary Industry and Regional Development was encountered and rejected.

The RFA process in South East NSW was even more fraught than in Northern NSW. Native forest regrowth was now being removed. Being impulsive and very focussed, my publicity work was narrow. I didn't consult.

In the north, during the Carr era, some natural icons were 'saved' for National Parks but damaged by the fact that logging encircled them. There were no wildlife corridoors. The process of loading satellite maps onto second hand computers seemed to overwhelm the negotiators and the outcomes.

The charcoal burning plant impinged on my consciousness, I guess. We were talking about burning away of the purest and most accessable areas of our country even as the white shoe brigade concreted over Noosa.

It was not until Noel Plumb approached me abut doing some voluntary media work in 2009 that the chance came to focus properly on the South East. I then started to exchange emails with some clear thinking women: Harriet Swift, Heather Kenway, Jill Redwood, Prue Acton, Lisa Stone, Lorraine Bower, Judith Adjani, Gemma Tillack, Susie Russell, Peg Putt, Marg Blakers, Virginia Young, Lee Rhiannon. TWS were keen but focussed elsewhere. Earlier conservationists like Milo Dunphy, Val Plumwood and Judith Wright somehow seemed to endorse the project as did Richard Jones, Pepe Clarke of NCC and Ian Lowe of ACF.

And then the lists of breaches came in. Not only were mountains sacred to aborigines being logged but secondary growth was also being taken. The Environmental Protection legislation seemed meaningless given that Sartor refused to enforce regulations.

State Forests ran at a loss, despite research grants and other subsidies. The woodchip mill had changed ownership but was still devouring native trees from Gippsland, Brown Mountain and SE NSW.

The global price of woodchips went down and plans to burn woodchips as a subsidied 'renewable' source of electricity went up.

And still chips came and went from that Mountain, shovelled onto ships bound for Japan.

The cathedrals are gone. Giant trees that were standing when Henry VIII was on the throne have been wasted as chips, their crowns and butts burned. And still sacred rocks and aboriginal sites were accidentally being logged.

Occasionally an error would be noted and a contractor tapped on the wrist with a wet gumleaf.

This was too much.

It was my job to pass the daily breach reports collected by volunteers and the Forests NSW response ("too trivial a breach to matter") to media.

And so I did. Day in and day out. The EDO were consulted. Independent surveys of threatened species were sought.

In the meantime, I also fought for autism therapies and the NDIS, dealt with the death of first my brother and then my mother as well as a complex treatment for cancer.

Slowing down the process made sense. Activists had worked for months to protect Mumbulla. Demonstrations in the capital cities and in the region had counted for little with media and for nought with Iemma, Keneally, Ministers Sartor and Whan.

There was no reply from the federal environment minister Peter Garrett. The Wilderness Society seemed to be beseiged by the River Red Gum and the Tasmanian Campaign and then by its own internal struggles.

I found this a strong contrast to the disability sector, were considerable progress was finally being made.

Logging was not seen as a major part of the climate change campaigns being run by agencies such as ACF.

And so we took to direct action and were arrested.

Last May I remember feeling glad to have a day away from the city, to watch ants and light move across gumleaves. I was still sick, sad and lopsided, having lost one breast to a series of 3 surgeries. The surgeons were saying that they anticipated secondaries within two years. The word 'Legacy' came into my mind. And if there is such a thing as a bucket list, then saving these forests still seemed to be right at the top.

I was too overwhelmed by grief and cancer treatment to care whether I was cold. Many police came and performed ritual processes before we were cut off the machinery. Their different novelty mobile phone tones rang through the bush. We all stopped to watch a flight of gang gangs or black cockatoos soar past, scattering gum pods and seeds. The fourteen hour day ended as politely and calmly as it had begun despite some intimidation of activists on the periphery. The hardest part for me had been going to the loo attached to the bulldozer while police watched. Apparently more seasoned protesters use catheters and bags.

I was also glad to meet the people I only knew from phone conversations and email exchanges.

Eventually it was found that a gazetted area should not have been logged. Eventually some protesters were found not guilty in court and charges were awarded against them.

The dozers left Mumbulla until after the state election, ten months hence.

They may yet come back.

And slick automated cutters are still mowing, slicing and peeling trees from their bark, on the foothills of Gulaga.

Carbon saved in living trees is still not part of broad scale carbon accounting.

Sartor has sauntered off to write his memoirs, dismissing South East Forest campaigners as mad.

National MP Catherine Cusack, who had said that breaches should be policed and prevented has not been given the Environment Portfoilio. Robyn Parker's work will be inside the Premier's Department. Game shooting is already permitted in national parks and some fear that logging will be next.

Japanese woodchip mills may soon be taken over by Chinese companies. Market based campaigns will have to adapt swiftly.

Campaigns to save Tasmanian forests and even the North East of NSW have eclipsed the South East.

There is great concern about the view of Primary Industry advocates and the impact of the Nationals, the Shooters Party and more on the O'Farrell government and whether any forest will be protected.

There has been an outright refusal by the local MP, newspaper editors and loggers themselves to discuss alternative work.

Prue Acton's photographic exhibition of the South East is coming to Sydney.

A family friend asked me whether campaigning and lobbying for South East Forest was worth the cost, the worry, trips to court and the precious hours of my foreshortened life at a desk.

I remember those tall gum cathedrals on the border. Their magnificence is a mere memory 30 years on. And my eyes fill with tears. I remember the way the sun drew out the colours on the granite teaching rocks and initiation sites at Gulaga.

And the answer still has to be "yes".

I may never get to spend time in the forest or among threatened species. It is not for me to be initiated among those teaching rocks. Yet they are magical and I want to know that they're still there, ancient and strong, even when people have gone.