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April 06, 2022

Protecting the South East Forest – A Personal Account

Spring 2021

New South Wales' Covid 19 lockdowns have eased allowing some roof-top tent camping by the boulder strewn Towamba River on the edge of the Coolangubra forest at Rocky Hall.

Evening supper by the fire and the weather gently closes in. Snug abed, the pitter-patter of light rain on canvas takes me back ...

Coolangubra 1990

….The day had been long with travel and preparations and then there was the pensive wait - long past most nocturnal patterns. It must have been one or two am and we were still low range, walking pace, grinding up and up the bumps and humps of the Mataganah fire trail, up and up into the Great Dividing Range's southern-most reaches … the tall eucalypt forests of the Coolangubra.

Our driver, parking lights only, deftly guides the Isuzu to the support camp drop off. This gruelling, dead of night, back of ute journey, in a rare four-wheel drive has saved days of arduous lugging of gear and supplies up the mountain. As we are dropped, the old, relieved crew climb aboard, bound back down to the relative comfort and security of the Reedy Creek protest camp.

… There's still snores and breath mist in the pre-dawn light about the sleeping bags. The drizzle is light now, the tarp adequate to keep bodies dry. Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, the cold dawn light begins to penetrate the misty drizzle. I cannot delay any longer and quietly wriggle out of my warm sleeping bag, don boots and move away from the sleeping camp through the undergrowth, to relieve my full bladder.

It’s not a long process, a few minutes at most and yet as I turn for the shelter once more there’s a fearsome bedlam unfolding. There are yells and screams and aggressive commanding blokey voices … unfamiliar and unwelcome voices.      

I stumble, obscured by scrub, to a semi aware pause. Instantly glimpsed, the sight is wretched. Four or five tree-sit crew are now being dragged from sleeping bags, physically scuffed and cuffed together. There are at least a dozen men in blue – not at all polite, they exude a certain 'victorious' air.                   

Beyond, way down the track, big Toyota four-wheel drive paddy wagons, previously out of sight and unheard, are now being brought forward, soon to accommodate the arrestees. 

The scenario is grim. The NSW police have mounted a successful bust of the Coolangubra Wog Way tree-sit support camp. Most of whom are now being rudely prepared for the long and rough trip down to the Eden Lock-Up for processing and protracted, expensive court cases.

For those helplessly observing from on high, the outlook is dire.                                        

The tree-sit trees stand tall. Strung together and to other forest giants with steel fencing wire and occupied now for so many long months. This, to the distasteful danger to the human occupants – if attempts are made to dismantle or remove the cables or interfere with the trees ... protesters will be injured or even killed. It’s a Gandhi-esque and dangerous game of brinkmanship. Precariously, these three tree-sits have managed to successfully impede the logging industries Wog Way roadworks for many months.                                                                                                                                        

This is the 'forest wars' front line. All the failed discussions, petitions, debates and declarations, and their betrayal, have led to a few individuals putting their lives on the line as a last-ditch action to prevent the magnificent Coolangubra Forest from falling prey to the bulldozer and chain saw before being turned into woodchips.                                                                                                           

Three tree-sitters aloft, with provisions of food and water for a few days only, look down on the support camp bust and know it can all get much worse.

Un-observed in the undergrowth, I am for now overlooked. There’s nothing to be done for the netted support crew … except perhaps making their drive down the mountain a little less glum.

I creep a retreat and circle round through the bush to below the police vehicles, and then some, out of sound and sight down the track, and begin to re-obstacle hundreds of meters of vehicle access. Usually rocks and logs on the track slow police progress and give warning of an impending bust ... time enough for support crew to hide vital equipment and themselves.

This morning the police have been cunning. They have silently walked the last kilometre or so, leaving a few officers to quietly follow up, clearing the obstacles so the vehicles could follow. Thus, the successful surprise sprung on the support camp.                                                 

I do what I can to drag and drop rocks and logs back on the track. This is something of a giveaway to the cops - that they have not got everyone. But a little good-natured retribution gives me strength. For the hell of it, I pile a few extra rocks on at vital spots, then merge back into the undergrowth.                                                                              

Back at the main site, all is quiet. The support crew camp is a deserted disarray.  The raid has made a right proper mess and it looks like the police have taken items useful for evidence and things that are difficult for us to replace...all gone with the arrestees in the police four-wheel drives. The remainder is scattered and dumped, tarps akimbo and some food rations a mess on the ground.                                       

Cautiously I approach the tree-sits, some hundreds of meters away, fearing to find the results of any police intrusion. Instead, I find a refreshingly light countenance. Sitters are calling down - to me, and one other support crew member who had managed to duck and dive and disappear into the undergrowth, avoiding arrest.

Yelled up and back, experiences, observations and conjectures are exchanged. Yes, the bust has been a dramatic set back, but not an end game failure.

This is not the first time rough busts have taken place. Months of logger / State / Police frustration at impeded road works, works that would have facilitated the wholesale logging of Coolangubra, have led to many variations of the theme 'Get rid of the radical greenies'. Belligerent loggers, threats, intimidation, Police Tactical Response Crews, arrests, court and fines – all used and aimed at securing the unrestrained commercial pillaging of Australia's remaining old growth forests - free of environmental responsibility or public scrutiny.

Coolangubra 1990

To impede progress on Wog Way roading that would facilitate logging, protesters camp high in trees directly in front of the roads intended path over a narrow mountain saddle. This morning, police have successfully arrested most of the tree-sit ground support crew.

After assurances above and below that all is not lost following the mornings police assault, Garry and I plan how best to support the tree-sitters over the coming days with just two support crew. Usually, the crew are relieved about once a week, though we suspect that, on learning of the arrests, base camp will try to organise something sooner.

In the meantime, we will continue in aide of the sitters, whilst sleeping separate to the old support camp to thwart any new surprise police actions. The main food stash is well hidden, so food preparation and supply to sitters is unhindered. Coolangubra streams supply pure water. Daily servicing of poo buckets and any other sitter needs goes on as usual.

A few days later police visit again – unannounced and in broad daylight. I am about the sit-trees when suddenly two boys in blue spring. I bolt and one fit copper gives chase ... far too close for comfort. Eventually he lags out of sight … enough for me to secrete myself deep and invisible in the undergrowth.

It turns out to be a pretty busy week for Garry and I. Eventually, with the arrival after several days of the nocturnal relief crew, there is welcome gossip and then the luxury of a ute ride down the mountain.

By the time I again found myself bumping up the Mataganah fire trail, this time with partner Marg and gear for a weeklong tree-sit stint in the brown barrel and maiden gum, regular native forest conservation actions and the ongoing tree-sits, had been occurring for well over a year.

There are three tree-sits. The 400-year-old brown barrel, maybe 80 feet to the re-purposed wooden door platform. Then there is a awesome forest matriarch maiden gum, perhaps ten or twelve meters about the base, with a more sophisticated platform at the lower edge of the tree canopy, at about 120 feet high. A slightly smaller blue gum resides a little further on.

Longer than any man can fathom, these trees, their relatives and their social, vegetative milieu have graced the Coolangubra heights, soaked up her plentiful rains, sunshine and scorching fires. They have accommodated her furred and feathered creatures, bare footed indigenous souls and now, this heathen foreign logging assault.  

Marg and I are familiar with bush camp life, but rope work in the tree canopy is quite another thing. Basic instruction in ascending and descending with ropes and carabiner help technical ineptness. Little can prepare one for climbing and living 100 feet above the ground.

Without panic, though with one eye for possible police surprise, we don harness, connect to ropes that disappear far above in the tree canopy and, never having climbed more than a few meters, begin to ascend. Marg's courage lands her on the platform high in the mammoth maiden gum. My dread of heights suppressed, I alight on the minimalist brown barrel door - little to see or do, but wait and be.

To be true, there is lots to do. Each day entails various housekeeping tasks for platform and self. Feeding and ablutions take time, with even sleeping performed tethered to a safety rope. An unthinking move or gust of wind could potentially spell curtains for the individual and create a proper muddle for the support group and organisers. An accident may even threaten the ongoing action.                              

Each tree-sitter finds their own way of being. Reading and writing, recorder practice, and meditating work for me. Sitting in a tree is simply a pleasant activity in and of itself. The light and sounds, sky and clouds, sun and storms - they come and change and go.

Some sitters are fresh first timers, agog at the experience and responsibility. Others have done stints as support crew and sat in the trees many times and for extended periods. For experienced sitters, police interventions are endured as necessary irritants that come with the role and are seen merely as aspects of a much broader socio-political malaise and our societies alienation from nature and our planets life giving energies. 

Living in / with a tree for days and sometimes months, breathing the forest perfume, hearing and meeting its critter inhabitants, feeling the breeze and rains … and knowing that far below, small overalled men cringing behind gargantuan bulldozers and carrying chainsaws, are hell bent on destroying all...this gives the tree sitter a certain insight into the human condition, and an extra love and respect for nature.  

We were visited only once by the constabulary during our sit. An uneventful, almost cursory check…'Hello, hello, hello, having a nice tree-sit then'? type affair. Likely just a show-around the traps for some new chums, I should think.                

Timid at heart, I was grateful for an uneventful tour of duty. Accidents did occur. One good natured friend fell from his 30 feet tall traffic blocking tripod, sustaining massive head injuries, then weeks in Canberra hospital's intensive care unit. Occasionally torrid tales would filter through of huge D9 dozers provocatively prodding the felling deterrent steel wires linking trees together.

A Big Picture

Others have laid out the history better than I am able. As far as I can recall, the South East Forests came to the fore with some locals taking State Forests to court in the mid 1980's. It had become painfully evident how ecologically disastrous just one decade of wanton wood chipping in the South East Forests had been.  

Named after a local nominee from Wyndham Wendy Juracious, the Jaracius court case compelled State Forests to conduct Environment Impact Statements (EISs) for areas proposed for logging. When these EISs were belatedly done and very badly, locals and various peak conservation groups began to coalesce into a formidable movement to get old growth forests in the Southeast protected from logging and particularly wood chipping.

On my arrival in the Bega Valley in the early 1980s, huge swaths of forests had been virtually clear-felled, with 80-90% chipped and shipped from Eden, mainly to Japan, for paper making. Royalties to the State were small, jobs limited and corporate profits high.

My local Murrah Forests were a patchwork of fairly ecologically intact (previously selectively logged forest), recently heavily logged/woodchipped areas, and spindly post woodchip regrowth.  Initially regrowth was thinned out, the better for forest regeneration, the thinnings being used for mine props.  This was later abandoned, resulting in extensive dense and volatile regrowth.

Living surrounded by the wood chipping phenomenon, there seemed just nothing to be done except hope that at some point, the easy low hanging fruit, the easy profits, and the companies, would all be gone.

What I did not appreciate and still find hard to comprehend, was the vast scale of the wood chipping project centred on the Eden mill - the ability of that chip mill to send out trucking tentacles far to the north towards Ulladulla, inland through the escarpment forests to the Monaro and west to the depths of the Victoria's East Gippsland forests.                                                                                

Thus not only to consume a major portion of Australia's remaining old growth forests and all the habitat and species dwelling therein, but also to feed upon whatever regrowth followed...for decades and decades. A conversion of species, habitat and landscape unequalled bar the shattering expansion of clearing for agriculture, sheep and cattle of the second half of the 19th century and early 20th Century.

An alliance of conservation groups including the Wilderness Society, ACF, and the Conservation Council of NSW formed into the South East Forest Alliance or SEFA as it was known. SEFA worked on the bigger political picture, liaised between local groups and organised training courses in 'nonviolent action' and police and court liaison etc.

Local forest conservation groups such as Tantawangalo, Yowaka and Coolangubra groups, compiled research, rallied support and created numerous inspired on ground forest and town protests. The Bega Environment Network supported and liaised between these groups and the wider community. Forest actions attracted good numbers of locals and at peak times such as Easter, literally thousands of city young and university students, to specific protests.

As interest, activity and publicity grew, forest names such as Tantawangalo, Yarami, Egan Peaks, Coolangubra were propelled to the newspaper and TV headlines as the last chance to save a little of Australia's ancient native forest heritage.

Other Protest Action

Visitors and potential protesters camped at places like Reedy Ck near Rocky Hall or a property at Tantawangalo. The local Council, supportive of ongoing forest industries and wood chipping, were keen to close these camps down. A rented Bega house supported visiting campaign workers and protesters.

Over several years, there were just so many forest protest action events and debacles. Faces, too many to mention, became familiar, only to morph into lifelong friends.

Personal involvement varied. On one occasion Marg and I were arrested for locking onto a State Forest gate, effectively interrupting logging access. A more enjoyable personal role was to create a honeycomb phone tree for quick land line communication with hundreds of local volunteers. Consequently, many names are still sort of familiar, although some I have never put a face to.

I also enjoyed initiating various street theatre productions including 'Walls to Heritage Recognition', a 'Forestry Commission' paper making demonstration, the Viking funeral of a chip-ship effigy and a theatrical 'Bells for the Forest' ritual involving the Canberra Carillon, an acting troop and a full choir.

On one high school bus tour of woodchipped regrowth, students distractedly discovered a small dope plantation, only to be poignantly reminded by guide Richard that the use of hemp for paper would negate the need for most destructive native forest logging.

For every on-ground action, volunteer hours and effort were enormous. Long convoys of hundreds of cars would wind though the remote forests. Even town protests entailed extensive preparation for stalls, media stunts, banners and chalking, street theatre and police and court liaison.

Many demonstrations took place at the chip-mill. One saw a crosswalk laid out across the road with many dozens of protesters perpetually crossing back and forth. Eventually arrests spoilt the fun and the backed-up log trucks resumed their deliveries once more.

These huge log trucks carried full sized whole trunk logs, many from old growth forests of which too many were certainly 'saw log' grade. The oft trotted out and well-crafted lie that only waste branches and butts would be chipped … simply propaganda and the underpinning of the big 'Waste Only' myth on which the wood chipping industry was able to get going and keep going.                

Actions to effectively prevent or interrupt particular logging operations were carefully timed and often wildly inventive, courageous and sometimes quite dangerous for protesters. I have mentioned the steel wires linking tree-sits and the use of tripods to block roads.

'Lock-on' devices were created in industrious back yards and farm sheds. Protesters would be locked into welded steel tubes located at strategic access points and at crucial times in order to slow the mad machines of loggers and State.                     

Invariably these cunning devices would eventually be removed, usually without serious harm to those involved, by special Search and Rescue Police squads – some travelling for several hours to attend. Thus roading or logging would be interrupted for many hours.

Not all was polite and pro-logging bully tactics were not uncommon. Minor roughing up of 'greenies' happened - a bump here, a bruise there. Reckless wild paddy wagon rides over rough and windy back roads, the better to 'put the wind up them'. Elder respect was sometimes lacking. When three community women elders, all in their 70s, were arrested, they received the same sort of ungracious treatment at the hands of a state bent on displaying total dominance and intolerance to troublesome decent.

As massed demonstrations denied the authorities ability to detain all, selectivity on both sides developed. Police targeted effective elements and 'ring leaders'. Protesters consulted - who had received NVA training, and who was willing to be arrested. The availability of media to transmit the significance of particular events and arrests to the greater public was vital.

We all knew that in the long term such protest actions could do little in the face of the 'Force of the State' - except gain time and focus media, public and political attention on the issue - hopefully to ensure that forests at least got onto the political agenda.

Many actions were simply symbolic such as the well-attended 'Hands Across the Border' action at the Delagate River bridge to show and nurture solidarity with Victorian conservationists who were well aware of the peril facing the East Gippsland forests by the rapacious chip-mill.

Town protests were numerous, easily attended and media covered, and crucial to show general public support and to assist in dragging the government toward conservation concessions.

Amongst Canberra actions was the encirclement of the new parliament house by thousands of hand holding conservationists. Not to be outdone, the well-resourced pro timber/wood chipping lobby effectively surrounded parliament with very big, very loud logging trucks.

Fundraisers and concerts offered welcome moments of society and beauty. Claes Pearce and Stephen Berry's fine forest ode on guitar and viola 'Coolangubra' was typical of so much celebration of our forest heritage. Artists for the Forests / Wild Art painted and exhibited including a block buster show at Bondi Pavilion.

Celebrities such as Botanist David Bellamy visited their support. Sting and a representative of Indigenous Amazonian Forest Peoples stood upon a massive ancient Coolangubra tree stump … there were words and silence.

Inevitably local involvement in exacting forest actions waned as people simply needed to dedicate time to neglected 'normal' life - properties, jobs and kids. Forest gaps were often willingly filled by unkempt though politically savvy young city folk, derided by the logging hard core as 'Ferals'.  Little did the general Australian public realise that for a while, the protection for conservation of these precious south east forests was carried on the noble shoulders of these 'riff-raff'.  

Supporting the growth in awareness were numerous authoritative reports; the importance of biodiversity; pine plantation availability; possibilities for hard wood plantations; alternative logging practices and saw-milling methods; value adding proposals; and alternative employment scenarios.                              

The multifaceted effort to protect the South East Forests dominated Australian environment issues for a decade and evoked an 80% public support for forest protection and an end to wood chipping.

The RFA Washup

Bit by bit concessions to conservation were made via National Parks extensions or new declarations... First 80,00ha by the Unsworth government and then some years later 120,000 ha under Barry Carr, making a total addition of some 200 thousand hectares to protected old growth … But still wood chipping continued.

Then in the mid-nineties, PM Keating announced the Regional Forest Agreement process, that aimed at defusing the on-going forest wars and theoretically protecting jobs and 15% of Australia's original forests.

After years of total effort, conservationists were tired and uncomfortably divided – should we trust a process that would possibly ensure protection of many old growth forests, but that may also leave wood chipping unaddressed? Could any 'science based' but government run, politically decided process, ever be trusted?                                                                                                                      

It was an awful period to witness, as ardent brave conservationists against the RFA process, voiced feeling betrayed by ardent brave conservationists willing to work with the process.                                                                                                          

And so much excellent in good faith work was done … mapping, soil and water resource assessments, habitat, flora and fauna and timber resource assessments and much more.                                                                                                                 

In the end some extra forest conservation gains were made at a time when so many other exhausted attempts seemed pointless. And in the end also, the process was betrayed, as many had predicted and most had feared, by governments held captive to and corrupted by, corporate business interests

Over time, many RFA 'rules' aimed at some minimal ecological protection in logging areas, such as stream side buffers, slope exemptions or retained trees requirements, have been watered down or dispensed with in favour of increased tonnes per hectare in order to fulfil unrealistic contracted quotas.                                                                                                                                               

Government money secured supposedly for industry transition away from native forest logging, has instead facilitated increased mechanisation with resultant job losses. Forest workers, once proud of their outdoors 'crew', now find themselves alone in a machine cabin.

With chip price variations unfavourable to the Eden mill, royalties to the State have shrunk and various 'clever' options have been put forward by an industry perpetually focused on profits and deliberately ecology ignorant. A recurrent favourite has been for chipped, pelletised wood from native forests to be burned, either here or abroad, to create electricity and even garner 'green credits' or government subsidies.

In retrospect we can see that some government Ministers and elements of some intensely pro-logging unions, were likely corrupted materially or at the very least totally ignorant and disregarding of their responsibilities beyond self and special interest groups. Unfettered corporate access to government remains a major distortion to our democracy.

Government bodies and politicians have repeatedly chosen to disregard the vital ecological functions of these dwindling forests - in soil, water and species protection, in effecting local rainfall and weather, and in their ability to sequester CO2 and help mitigate climate change.                                           

The excruciating sight of heavily woodchipped land subjected to three years climate change exacerbated drought and then the most horrendous resultant fires in 2020, has been simply too much for many who feel connected and who care.                                

The certain knowledge of what this will mean for species extinctions must surely eventually lead to calls for criminal sanctions for those wilfully implementing government and corporate policies that further exacerbate habitat loss and climate change.     

This year despite the NSW EPA proposing strict logging controls on post fire forests, NSW Forest Corp have proceeded with logging 'within their own guidelines'. The Eden Chip Mill owners have been granted permission to build a pellet plant, the pellets to be sold and burned to produce electricity.

Our forests are a vital piece of the climate change puzzle. Even at this late time forests remnants can be protected and nurtured. To burn them is an utter travesty and totally counter-productive.     

Concurrently, the NSW Natural Resources Commission, produced a vital report in June 2021. Hidden from the public until leaked in late November 2021 and thus far ignored, it calls for the halting of logging for three years in some areas and the severe restriction of logging in other extensive areas, to allow recovery from the massive 2020 bushfires.

So, one can be forgiven for feeling despondent regarding our forest futures. And yet one truth stands as tall and indomitable as a forest sentinel.

In the spring of 2021 as I sit in our Rocky Hall camp, so grateful for soft green sprouting rains, and gaze across to the mist rising through the now protected Coolangubra forests, I am moved by the living wonders that do remain and at the courageous good faith of all those who have and continue to work to protect our precious forests in the instinctive knowing that we are all ultimately interconnected with this beautiful, ecologically alive planet.    

By Colin Sagar            

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