It’s raining in the Styx Valley, but Lee barely seems to notice.
He wants to show me the forest. We’re walking downhill through the misty rain, sliding on wet mud and roots. Lee, who works for the Tasmania Wilderness Society, is fingering leaves, listening to the calls of birds high up in the canopy, pointing out things he thinks I ought to know about.
‘This is a wet eucalypt forest’, he explains, as I pick my way across a fallen tree. ’There’s less than twenty percent of this left in the whole of Tasmania, and only five percent of it is protected.’ He examines the leaf of a small sapling, weaving its way upwards from under a tangle of moss and leaf mould.
‘A baby myrtle,’ he says. ‘These can last a thousand years.’ He moves on. I follow, steadying myself on low-slung vines. The forest we’re walking through is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is a verdant mass of vast, thick-trunked, ancient eucalypts, smaller, younger trees, and a low-level jungle of oddly-beautiful bushes and shrubs. The canopy of this temperate rainforest is seventy metres above our heads, and from it come the calls of whipbirds, cockatoos, rosellas and parrots. Thick vines hang from the vast, old trees, and ferns grow high up on their branches. Fallen, rotting trunks smothered in multi-coloured fungi litter the ground. The sheer variety, the colour and the chaos of life is stunning.
We reach a part of the bush that shows signs of habitation. A small camp has been set up, with wooden benches and a canvas shelter. Inside it are leaflets, posters, pens, badges – the detritus of a political campaign, out here in the middle of the wilderness. Next to the camp is the biggest tree I have ever seen in my life. Craning my neck and looking up into the canopy I can just see, high above, a wooden platform strung with banners.
‘Here it is’, says Lee. ‘The Global Rescue Station. People camped up there for five months to draw attention to what’s happening to these forests. We really got the world’s attention.’
The ‘Global Rescue Station’ is a treehouse built by Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society sixty metres up a vast swamp gum tree. The swamp gum – Eucalyptus regnans, to give it its scientific name – is the tallest flowering plant in the world. It is also the second-largest hardwood tree in the world – topped, just, by California’s giant redwoods. Twenty people could stand side by side and still not cover as much ground as the base of its vast trunk. Swamp gums reach over 300 feet in height, and over 600 years in age. They are, in short, one of the most remarkable plants on Earth. And the wet eucalypt forests of Tasmania are their last refuge.
I stand under the huge tree and look around me. There is something deeply primeval about this forest; something overwhelming ancient in the air. It is Lord of the Rings with no need for special effects. This place has never seen, heard or experienced the modern world. But it will. And soon.
For this part of the Styx Valley has another name: Logging Coupe SX13C. It is owned by Gunns Timber, the biggest producer of hardwood woodchips in the world. One day soon, Gunns will bring its logging machinery into Coupe SX13C and begin work. It will saw down the swamp gums, load them onto logging trucks and take them to the sawmills, to produce woodchip destined for export to Japan.
When the loggers have done their bit, the helicopters will come. From above the forest they will drop incendiary chemicals, similar to napalm, on the myrtles, the eucalypts, the cockatoos, the whipbirds, the banners, the tree ferns and the Global Rescue Station. The remains of the forest will burn for days. When the fire stops, Coupe SX13C will be a charred mass of blackened stumps and white, ashen ground.
Finally, the loggers will return. They will lace the area with carrots, implanted with a nerve-attacking poison known as 1080. Everything that eats it – wombats, possums, wallabies, bandicoots – will die. Cleared of potentially destructive wildlife, the area will then be planted with lines of fast-growing, non-native trees, which will provide the loggers with a means of producing woodchips in a way which is much more economically efficient than the old-growth forests of the Styx valley ever were.
In Ancient Greek myth, the River Styx wound seven times around the Underworld – the land of the dead. If all goes according to schedule here, Tasmania’s Styx, too, could soon flow through a lifeless world.
From the top of the grain silo, I have the best view in the whole of Launceston. Specifically, I have the best view of the field below me, in which are parked 256 gleaming, beautifully-painted logging trucks, which have driven from all over to be in Tasmania’s second city today. It’s a special occasion; so much so that the logging companies have given their workers the day off to attend.
The man from the grain company, who responded surprisingly well to a complete stranger asking to climb up his silo, and even led me up the precarious network of ladders himself, lights a cigarette.
’I’d say there’d be about three million dollars’ worth of trucks there’ he says. ‘Amazing sight, isn’t it?’
I look south, across the river, to the city park where I have just come from. The sedate, English-style lawns are milling with burly, tattooed, orange-shirted loggers and their families. There are over three thousand of them and they are in no mood to negotiate. They carry banners that say ‘Tasmanian timber creates Tasmanian jobs’, ‘support our forest industry’ and ‘greens tell lies.’ Their children hold signs reading ‘my dad needs a job.’
The loggers are queuing up to get into the town hall. Any moment now the Australian prime minister, John Howard, will arrive to announce his new policy on the logging of Tasmania’s old growth forests. Australia is in the middle of a general election campaign, and the fate of the nation’s largest temperate wilderness is very much on the agenda.
Eventually Howard – who will later win the election with an increased majority – arrives. The conservative prime minister, who has spent eight years exposing Australia to the cold winds of the global market, has today morphed from Thatcherite to labour rights activist. He tells the workers in his audience that he will never ‘sacrifice’ their jobs for the sake of ‘green ideals’.
Around him, smiling, sit the appreciative bosses of some of Australia’s biggest timber interests. In recent years their profits have soared as the ancient forests in their care have continued to burn. At the same time, the number of people they employ has fallen dramatically, as they have cut the jobs of thousands of workers like those who now stand here cheering wildly as Howard announces that old-growth logging will continue in Tasmania for the sake of their future.
The bitter conflict over the logging of Tasmania is the fiercest, and most polarised, environmental battle I have ever seen. Both sides believe passionately that they are right. Both sides have an enormous amount to lose. And both sides loathe each other with a passion that they don’t bother to disguise.
The battle is over what are known as ‘old-growth forests’ – forests which have been undisturbed by logging or other human practices, and which as a result contain very old trees and a huge diversity of species. Tasmania, a still largely forested island off the south coast of Australia, contains vast tracts of this, and much of it is unprotected.
Eighty percent of Tasmania’s old-growth forests have already fallen victim to logging or development. Only 13% of all the island’s Wet Eucalypt Forests, like those in the Styx Valley, are left. Much of that is still unexplored, and may be logged and burned before anyone knows what’s in there. Ninety percent of the ancient trees cut down will end up as woodchips, and almost 60% of the land cleared in this way will never be forest again.
This logging, which has been a mainstay of the Tasmanian economy for over a century, is proceeding fast: Tasmania has one of the highest rates of land-clearing, in proportion to its size, in the industrialised world. But stop old-growth logging, says the forestry industry, and you will destroy Tasmania’s economy. Herein lies the true focus of this intractable battle.
Both sides use statistics to prove that right is on their side and both claim that the other side manipulates the truth. The closest to this truth, though, probably comes from the impartial government agency known as the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). According to their latest survey, from 2003, the number of people employed in forestry, logging, sawmilling, pulp, paper, woodchipping and other wood product employment in Tasmania was 6,852. To this, you then need to add the ‘associated jobs’ which logging brings – the drivers of logging trucks, those who repair them, and so on.
Environmentalists say this takes total logging employment to around 7,300 people. Loggers say it is more like 10,000. Either way, in a total Tasmanian working population of 225,000, logging provides a minimum of 3% of the state’s employment – and a maximum of 4.5%.
But this is just part of the statistical scrabble, for old-growth logging is only part of the industry; the rest of it is based around the logging of plantations. Loggers, at least in public, say that the end of old-growth logging would destroy the entire forest industry and lead to mass unemployment. Environmentalists say that old-growth logging could be stopped in its entirety, with the loss of perhaps only 400 jobs. Unfortunately for the loggers, the Greens have on occasion been backed up by industry leaders themselves, when they though no-one was listening. In early 2004, for instance, the managing director of Gunns Ltd, Tasmania’s biggest forestry company, was quoted in the Australian Financial Review: ‘up to 480 jobs could be lost if Gunns had to stop using old growth wood,’ he admitted, ‘but its share price would not be adversely affected.’
Geoff Law sighs when I tell him that all these statistics are giving me a headache.
‘We get this all the time,’ he says. ‘Beware getting bogged down in a statistical debate. The forest industry puts out a lot of deliberately misleading information. The facts are very clear.’
Geoff is founder and director of the Tasmania Wilderness Society, one of the leading lights in the campaign to protect the old-growth forests. I’m talking to him in his office in Tasmania’s capital city, Hobart. He’s a tall, thin, driven man, and he’s rattling off facts much faster than I can get them into my notebook.
‘Our position is clear’, he says. ‘We want to protect the remaining areas of high-conservation value, within which there should be no logging. That means all the remaining old-growth forests. The loggers will tell you this will make them unemployed, but it won’t. What they don’t tell you is that there are huge areas of plantation that already exist – 230,000 hectares of it. These are logged, turned into woodchips and then exported. At the same time, the forest industry has been cutting jobs in Tasmania as it seeks to become more competitive in the global market. Sawmills close every year and we export wood to Japan to be sawn there. Where’s the employment potential in that?’ He pauses to answer his phone and I gratefully keep scribbling. But he’s soon back.
‘These old trees are falling every day,’ he continues. ‘Last year, the loggers burned an area of old-growth forest and managed to kill a tree that had been the largest living thing in Australia. There’s a clear alternative to this. We can protect all the old-growth forests and focus our forestry industry on existing plantations. If we re-tool the industry so that it begins to process plantation wood here instead of exporting all the raw materials abroad, we can provide more jobs in a sustainable forest industry and leave the old-growth in peace.’ He sits back in his chair.
‘As you can see’, he says, ‘the stakes are very high.’
Barry Chipman scowls as he drives me across town in his 4×4.
’Law’s talking absolute rubbish, as usual’, he says. Chipman is a tall, rangy man with a grey moustache, as driven as Geoff Law and just as convinced that he’s right. Chipman has been a logger all his life and is now head of the Tasmania branch of Timber Communities Australia, an organisation which brings loggers and their families together to support the timber industry.
‘Sixty-eight percent of all old-growth forest on all Tasmania’s land is protected’, he tells me. ‘Over ten thousand people are employed in the timber industry in Tasmania. All this rubbish about only 400 being employed in old-growth â€¦ You were at that rally the other day, weren’t you? Well how many blokes did you see there? A lot more than 400, don’t you reckon?’ This, as I’m sure Chipman knows, is not quite the point. But I decide to mention it later. He’s not an easy man to interrupt.
We’re driving across Hobart to meet some loggers, who want to tell me why the Greens have got it wrong. I was looking forward to disliking Chipman, but I’ve been let down. He’s friendly, enthusiastic and passionate about what he does, and he won’t let up until I’ve got the message: logging in Tasmania is a sustainable industry.
‘I don’t care what the Greens say’, he insists, as we get moving again. ’They’ll never be satisfied. They just want the end of the timber industry. You think woodchips are evil? People need them. You’re consuming them right there!’ He taps my notebook.
But, I say, the Wilderness Society says old-growth forests can be protected and more jobs can be provided at the same time. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone could just talk to each other?
‘Ah, you know’, he says, looking pained. ‘This debate is very polarised, and it’s disappointing. But you know – one of our blokes will do his best out there in the bush, try and do a good job, stick to the logging code of practice, and then he’ll go home and see on TV some Green saying loggers are less than human. And you know, this happens so much, it’s got to the point where we’ve become so thin-skinned that when people ask us questions about what we do, we see it as an attack.’ He shakes his head.
’It’s a damn shame’, he says.
Chipman can be pretty convincing. So can the three old loggers he introduces me to in northern Hobart. Basil, Harry and Neville have been in the timber industry all their lives. Like Chipman, they seem to believe in what they do, they want me to believe it too. And I almost do. Almost, but not quite.
Because it doesn’t add up. They tell me that burning a eucalypt forest is not nearly as apocalyptic as it sounds; eucalypts need fire to re-seed themselves. Without it, the forests wouldn’t survive. They’re right about this – yet I also know that their industry is burning the forests at ten times the natural rate. They tell me that only one percent of logged old-growth forest is replaced by plantation, when the real figure is more like 40% (see box 2). They tell me, as Chipman did, that 68% of all Tasmania’s old-growth forest is protected; a figure that, it turns out later, is correct but also misleading. Much of this 68% is smaller trees in remnant populations which are no good for logging anyway. Ancient, tall forests are down to about 20% of their original size, and over half of what remains is under threat from clearfelling.
They tell me, too, that clear-cutting an ancient forest is really no big deal if it’s reseeded – the trees will just grow again. But they don’t tell me how a 500-year old tree can grow again somewhere where the forest is due to be re-logged within 40 to 80 years; a typical logging cycle in Tasmania.
I look into their eyes. Basil, Harry and Neville are convinced they’re doing the right thing – the thing that their fathers and grandfathers did before them. They know that they are being driven into a corner by public opinion and growing green pressure. They feel persecuted, and they want understanding. They want to stick to what they have always known, and have everyone leave them alone, to do their jobs. The trouble is that it’s not that easy any more.
The whole thing is very depressing. I’m beginning to think that nothing can be done. And then I meet Graham Green. Green, a young, bearded timber worker, lives in a wooden house which he built himself, on the slopes of Mount Wellington near Hobart. Green is a shingle-maker; like Barry Chipman, he relies on the old-growth forests for a living. Unlike Chipman, he is no friend of the forest industry.
‘I used to be a member of Chipman’s group myself’, he says, as we drink tea in his dining room, which has a stunning view over the forested valley. ‘But I left. They’re not a real community group. The industry funds them. The problem I have is that this forestry model they promote is so incredibly destructive, and the benefits go to so few people.’
Green thinks he has a better idea. A few years ago he set up his own organisation, Timber Workers For Forests. It has over 200 members, all of whom make a living from the forests. Their vision for the future is very different from the industrial scale clearcut-and-burn model of the timber industry – but it is still based on using the forest’s resources.
‘All of my members use quality old-growth timbers for their work’ he explains. It’s a unique wood. So why are we logging it and replacing it with non-native plantation trees? Tasmanian forestry is an absolute disaster. We’ve got this stunning quality of timber and we’re just burning it.’
‘The problem’, he says, ‘is the global market. We could have a sustainable timber industry here, but generations of small-minded politicians and industry leaders have locked us into big contracts with Japanese pulp companies. They have to compete with other suppliers to provide the cheapest woodchips. And the cheapest way to produce them is clearfelling.’
So, I ask, what’s the alternative?
‘Our vision’, he says, ‘is a smaller but smarter forest industry. We stop focusing on the cheap export of woodchips, and focus instead on how to get the best value out of our unique timbers in a way that is genuinely sustainable. All my members make a living from timber – we want to keep harvesting these forests, but not like this. We want to see a model in which we can selectively harvest trees from five to five hundred years old, within a forest that is strictly monitored, to ensure that we take nothing out that will not replace itself. We can then process that here, turn it into high-quality furniture, boats, housing materials …’ He finishes his tea.
‘We can actually harvest these forests, provide more employment and protect the old-growth at the same time,’ he says. ‘In fact, we already do. Our sector – the speciality timber sector – employs maybe 650 people in Tassie, compared to 400 or so in old-growth logging. We use much less land to employ that many people, and we use it better. The industry knows that it’s trashing our forests. I regularly receive anonymous phone calls from loggers who want to tell me how bad they feel about what they’re made to do to these old trees. They can’t give their names for fear of reprisals. What sort of industry is so ashamed of what it’s doing?’
The future of Tasmania’s last ancient forests, then, rests on a single, crucial question: can old-growth logging be ended, quickly, and can it be done without wrecking the economy? All the facts seem to suggest it can – but that money and political determination will be needed to make it happen. There is, it seems, no reason why the forestry industry cannot be re-focused on a combination of plantation logging, processing of wood within the state, and the kind of small-scale sustainable forestry that Graham Green wants to see. It would, in fact, make both economic and ecological sense.
Two obstacles stand in the way, though: a profit-hungry industry, which will always find it easier to destroy ancient forests for quick bucks; and many of the loggers themselves, who still, despite an ongoing decline in both their jobs and their ancient forests, see old-growth logging as both a lifeline to their future and a link with their past.
It seems to me that this battle will only be won when both sides stop looking at it as a battle, and look at it instead as a shared campaign for a shared future. At the moment, though, that possibility seems a long, long way away.