COMING OUT OF THE WOODWORK> by Rak Razam

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wall of doom
Twelve years after forest blockading began, conservation activists and loggers are still at odds amongst East-Gippsland's old growth forests, says Rak Razam. But the odds are changing.

"Last summer about 1:30 in the morning I was about 50 metres up [a sit in Ferntree forest] on a very big tree. A logger climbed up on top of the machine cabled to the sit and jumped on the cable. It flipped me over like a pinball machine, threw me into the tree and left bruises and stab wounds all up this leg - it was one massive bruise. And there I was hanging upside down with everything I had in the sit gone, and I'm screaming 'f--- offff... help, camera, camera!" Everyone else is 150 metres up the hill and I'm alone without a torch in the pitch dark, half way up a tree - and I'd just attached the safety, I mean, just, seconds..."

'Hobgoblin' - all the activists have 'bunny' names to protect their true identities - is a thirty something punk rocker with a shaved head and dreadlocks, a bull chain in his nose and fierce, piercing almond eyes. Despite nursing a swollen leg from yet another protest injury yesterday, he looks like the stunt double for Keith from the Prodigy, lost in the bush for a few years and gone feral. He's been putting his life on the line for over a decade now to stop the logging of old growth forest in East Gippsland. "I've been beaten, tortured, pulled out of sits..." he says with a proud smile, but, "like, what choice do you have, really? If you see the lies, how do you walk back out and smile and make out everything's okay?"

He's one of hundreds of activists who have fuelled the Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO) over the years, an independent, grassroots environment organisation dedicated to protecting the remaining old growth forests of the region. Entirely self-run, GECO receive no official government funding, although a lot of the 'DIY conservationists' that have been through have been students or the unemployed. They predate the national work-for-the-dole scheme by a good four years, however, and some locals even say that they have the most valuable job of all - protecting old growth forest and the ecosystems they nurture.

GECO have been networking with other environment groups and traditional owners and helping to raise public awareness campaigns since the summer of 1993/4. They conduct surveys on endangered species and monitor logging operations for correct forest management, often liasing with loggers and the police. And, when immediate action is needed to protect the old growth, they engage in non-violent direct action, locking themselves onto giant metal earthmovers and occupying tree-sits high in the forest canopies.

treesit

The GECO environment centre is nestled between the Errinundra and Snowy River National Parks and overlooks the majestic Mt Ellery. GECO HQ itself has seen better days, but activists have built a tree-house, a greenhouse and a compost toilet and a greywater system to it's facilities. A few broken down cars litter the slopes around the driveway and blend into the undergrowth around the house. Behind the carport and the 'green not khaki' GECO truck that takes the activists on their midnight missions to save the forest is a bombed out pink and white Mr. Whippy Van.

Half a dozen crew are sitting round chilling out after a full-on time blockading yesterday and a very late night. They're spread out across two hard rubbish couches and several plastic chairs, cooking damper on an open grill. With their faded tops and pants, baseball caps, browned skin and beards, tattoos, sandals and thongs, or just bare feet caked by the dirt and earth, these are the children of the cities gone bush and gone to the green edge.

This dreadlocked collection of forest activists has a tired, burned out air about them today. Hobgoblin hurt his leg in the dark before the loggers even arrived, and is getting about on a pair of crutches. Drummer and Rain got locked onto the machinery and eventually cut off by forestry officers and arrested. Just another day at the office for these extreme conservationists.

Drummer is a tall and stringy lad in his early twenties with the beanpole physique of a student in a punk rock band. "I've been doing actions around here for about a year and a half," he says, taking a drag from a shared ciggie and brushing long black hair out of his eyes. "Every time you come here to East Gippsland you look around and you realise - it can't go. It's too precious to go. Something's got to be done about it, even if it comes down to an action. Someone has to make sure it's stopped. Enough's enough."

Is his eighteen months of duty, Drummer has been locked on twice, endured a few forest sit-ins high up in old growth trees, and been on forest blockades too many times to remember.

'Sits' are prolonged occupations by activists on DIY platforms up in the treetops, constructed from planks, beds or frames with supports and rigged with ropes to the trees about to be cut and sometimes entrances and other strategic points. Logging cannot continue without endangering the tree-sit activist's life, nor can authorities dismantle the sit without potentially harming the sitter. A cherry-picker crane has to be called to safely remove the activist.

"There is only one line between the trees and the loggers and the government, and it's us," says Rain, a young GECO activist as she rolls a cigarette. "They'll stop at nothing except when it's election time, do you know what I mean? [Yesterday at Centre Road] was my first lock-on. I thought I was a pretty environmentally aware person and all, but... I didn't realise the reality of what the fight was about..."

forest_fems

She smiles, remembering the feeling of being chained to the maw of a giant earthmover. "Yeah, it was good, man. Oh mate, straight away I'm like -- get me back on, get me back on! Because when they cut you off and you walk away you hear the bang crash bzzzzz and the machines are back on. And the trees that you were looking out for are falling, y'know. The pain of it..."

The hidden gullies of East Gippsland are thick with lush, verdant rainforests that support glider possums, the long-footed potaroo, forest owls and even the endangered tiger quoll. Right next to a coupe being logged is the home of Victoria's largest tree - an Errinundra Shining Gum nicknamed the 'Touchwood Tree'. In all there are over 300 rare and threatened plant and animal species nestled amongst hundreds of year old trees, waterfalls and water catchment areas, and the oldest undisturbed forest community in Victoria.

Old growth forests also act as prodigious 'carbon sinks', storing carbon in the trees and other vegetation and in the top six inches of soil mulch on the forest floor. According to the Australian Wilderness Society, younger growing vegetation takes in carbon released by decaying trees, but when old growth trees are felled up to 20% of the standing carbon value is released into the atmosphere, adding to the problem of global warming.

As well as being natural ecosystems, our forests are also a renewable resource if they are managed sustainably. There is wide community support for sustainable forest management, backed up by the Environmental Policy for Victoria's State Forests, which "reinforces the need to consider our forests from an environmental, social and economic perspective." Yet despite promising an effective Environmental Management System (EMS) for State forests, conservation activists continue one of Australia's longest community campaigns to highlight ongoing breaches and threats that would otherwise go unreported.

culture clash

It is estimated that there is less than 5% old growth forest left in East Gippsland unaltered by human hands. The state government proposed East Gippsland for World Heritage listing in 1987, but despite protection zones for national parks, exhaustive logging continues of old growth trees. Biodiversity is threatened and interdependent ecosystems are being destroyed as native forests are progressively clearfelled because they fall outside the narrow political definition of 'old growth'. Partial bushfires or other minor interference in a robust elderly forest can make them statistically illegitimate and eligible for felling and export.

"This place is alive, yeah," says Hobgoblin, looking out at the Goongerah horizon from base. "Yet they log the old growth and the result is 90% glossy magazines, toilet paper and refresher napkins, depending on the grade of timber that they're actually taking. And it's subsidised by the government. It's not a viable industry," he says, disgusted.

Timber harvested from Victoria's native forests and plantations is used for house construction, hardwood flooring, high quality furniture, fencing materials, composite wood products, and fibre for paper, says the recently released Victorian State of the Forests report. It goes on to say that revenue generated from hardwood sawlogs and residual logs from State forest in Victoria totalled almost $30 million in 2002/03. Yet the national Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) sets no limit to the amount of export woodchips which can be taken from East Gippsland, much of which is pulped for paper markets. An estimated 120,000 tonnes of sawn timber and up to ten times that amount of woodchip material is produced annually by clearfelling forests in this region.

The forestry sector is still one if the biggest employers in East Gippsland. It is estimated that Victoria's native forest industries had an annual turnover of approximately $540 million and directly employed over 4,000 people in 2001. Yet the Department of Forestry also admits that RFA's are designed to help the forestry industry as it "[faces] a staged, but sometimes substantial reduction in resource supply as a result of reducing harvesting to sustainable levels."

"This was a timber town, so with the cutbacks there's quite a few people affected," says Lee, who runs the Orbost camping shop. But as [jobs] get lost in forestry other things are coming up. The population's actually increased in the last few years as this becomes more of a tourism town - it's balancing out."

There are also other options being put forward both by the government and environmentalists to nurture the logging community towards more sustainable forestry practices. Plantation work for sustainable timber is the next growth industry and an increased focus on eco-tourism would help spread awareness of forest issues as well as an increased tourist dollar.

"Everyone loves timber," says Jenny, the lady running the opp-shop next to Marshall's Commonwealth Hotel. "But...I want old growth forests to be there for my grand-children, too. I think it needs to be more carefully managed than it has in the past."

While some people feel the inevitable shift coming, others are bunkering down to profit out of what they know before it's gone. Rod Wells is an all-Aussie, fifty-ish bloke with a tanned face and a buzzcut slash of grey hair. Rumour is he's the richest man in all of East Gippsland. His company - Rodwells - received a payout from VicForests to stop logging a few years back, and he moved across the border to log in southern NSW for a while before returning to East Gippsland as his competitors closed down and a niche opened up.

"You must appreciate... we've lost time, and money, for our blokes. And it's not just us. We've got three trucks on each operation. So there's another six drivers. We've all got kids, families... Everybody is here to make a bob in a respectable, legal manner with all permits and licenses in place. We earn our right to be here," he says with a type of wounded pride.

"And that's all there is to it. All this other bullshit that goes with it, like I put to some of the protestors yesterday, they should take it up with the pollies in Spring Street. That's what you've gotta do. They've drawn a line in the sand. As far as we're concerned the lines there, and until there's a political change, that's the right procedure. "

stop bracks logging

Yet while trees provide vital roles as carbon sinks, ecosystem hosts and water catchment filters, they do not vote. Someone has to speak for them, and GECO activists and other environmental groups are leading the way. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released it's annual forest audit last month, as well as a long awaited Special Audit conducted into logging breaches reported by the public - including activists from GECO.

The EPA report found that the Department of Sustainability and the Environment (DSE) and the government-owned company VicForests, were responsible for repeated instances of illegal logging breaches that strayed into special protection zones, including the Errinundra National Park. EPA chairman Mick Bourke said the East Gippsland breaches were "signs of a systemic problem" in the department, including the belief that staff could simply change coupe boundaries without prior approval. Breaches were found in 44 out of 45 logging coupes.

Because of a precedent set by the long-running Dingo Creek court case involving GECO activists, a breach of the Code of Forest Practice is now a breach of the law, with penalties of up to $240,000. The EPA, however, decided that VicForests should merely improve the boundary delineation when logging coupes and increase staff training.

Yet with new State government laws coming into force in June that protect more old growth and mixed forests - at least on paper - logging has been conducted at a "furious rate" in the last few months, environmentalists say. Many coupes have been brought forward two years on the logging schedule, which will see them felled before the rezoning that could protect them becomes active. "The coupe on the Bonang River and contains a rare rainforest type as well as 600 year old trees. It is likely that the coupe would not be able to be logged under new prescriptions for rainforest protection in the draft Code of Forest Practices, which will come into force mid-year," says Fiona York, a local environmental spokesperson.

Current logging of old growth in a coupe off Rising Sun Road is also stirring up the whole Goongerah community. "What we're blockading at the moment is the top of the local water catchment," explains Fern, a mid-twenties single mum and long-term forest activist. "A lot of the locals in the area are on our emergency tree phone list if we get busted. And that's never happened before."

There have been eleven forest blockades in East Gippsland in the last two months, all in old growth forest, with 29 people arrested so far. Protests against the continued logging of old growth forest in East Gippsland have also occurred in Melbourne, Vicforest offices in Orbost and at the Eden woodchip export mill in NSW.

Still, Fern believes that overall, things are starting to change. "Despite attitudes handing down from one generation to the next with some loggers, we're generally more welcome now in Orbost. You can notice the difference with shopkeepers, particularly. When I was first coming down here seven years ago I was warned not to walk down the street by myself."

Truth be told, when the lock-ons happen some of the loggers don't seem to mind all that much. They've been known to smile and share a joke, and a few other things besides with the 'enemy.' It's all reminiscent of some American Hillbilly comedy, the Hattfields and the McCoys, all banging it up in the bush, both with their jobs to do.

"Our perspective isn't that different to loggers," Hobgoblin explains. "The boys that work out here they love the bush, yeah? They don't want to be in an office. They don't want to be tied down to something like that. They actually love what they do. I've seen them."

photos courtesy of GECO

More information:
www.geco.org.au
www.wildernesss.org.au
www.dse.vic.gov.au

Read 'Voices of the Forest', an ongoing blog by GECO forest activists here.

deforestation