Trees of Change
The fight to save a forest, an industry, and a community.
Driving on wild and lonely forestry tracks, it’s hard not to be overawed by man’s incredible desolation of his landscape. From Milabena to Meunna, Lapoinya to Preolenna, the whole vernacular changes drastically. Native rainforest soon becomes unswerving lines of eucalyptus monoplantations; undergrowth of bracken and tea tree and thousands of years of composted matter gives way to heaps of second grade timber, leaves and branches destined to be burned off sometime in the future. This often happens in the springtime once the ground dries up, and fills the sky with an ochre orange smoke.
Further up on the Meunna road, where the track comes to a kind of vague intersection of logging tracks, stands a memorial to the communities lost to logging. Soldier settlers first farmed the lands of Meunna and Preolenna in 1955 and it was here in the Meunna Youth Centre that Australia’s rural youth movement was born. A plaque is all that is left of the building, demolished in 1997 to make way for plantation. Set away from the road slightly is a memorial featuring the names of pioneering veterans, farmers and graziers. There is an element of defeat in this landscape, a community’s rich history confined to a small memorial on the edge of a great unknown.
In the late nineties, the Commonwealth Government introduced policy mechanisms to encourage investment in Australia’s plantation sector. This created an unfair market for prime agricultural land, favouring investment in plantations over more traditional agricultural industries. The state government claimed that the scheme gave the region’s dairy farmers, struggling from low milk prices, the opportunity to sell up and leave with dignity. Forestry investors pounced and, one by one, 27 farms at Preolenna and Meunna disappeared along with a school, the youth centre, and an entire community.
Preolenna is ten minutes drive inland from the community of Lapoinya, where residents are embroiled in a desperate battle to save 51 hectares of native rainforest. Forestry Tasmania’s three year-plan to log Coupe FD053A as it is known is scheduled to commence in 2015–16. The coupe was selectively logged 60 years ago, and is home to the endangered Brooker’s gum (E. Brookeriana) and a flourishing native wildlife population. The coupe has been scheduled for logging for three years but residents were only notified in October 2014, after local resident Phil Duncan spotted a forestry helicopter flying low over the bush.
Stakeholders on both sides of this most recent forestry conflict are many and varied, with separate agendas both firm and unyielding. The residents of Lapoinya are of course the most active campaigners against the coupe’s logging, but are not alone in defending the coupe. They formed the ‘Forests of Lapoinya Action Group,’ or FLAG Lapoinya, and have commissioned an independent report on wildlife and birdlife, a carbon audit from the Wilderness Society, and an independent economic assessment of logging in Lapoinya. Conservationist Dave Reid lives at Oldina, a farming community not far from Lapoinya and Preolenna, and has been taking the fight up to forestry for almost twenty years. He describes the plantation schemes at nearby Preolenna as a ‘Blitzkrieg’ on farming communities and refuses to let the same happen at Lapoinya. Forest ecologist Richard Donaghey says the coupe’s rich ecosystem includes endangered bird and mammal species including the Tasmanian devil, whose population has been decimated in the past decade by the devastating facial tumour disease. But independent reports and audits have only prolonged what is already an untidy process, and community sentiment seems not to be about the ‘if,’ but the ‘when.’ The Lapoinya residents have had to prove, of their own volition, that this small and economically insignificant patch of native rainforest is more than just the heart of their community, as if that in itself is not worthy of saving. They are on the front line and will be the first to feel the full destructive force of forestry when the loggers move in. If this were a game of chess, they are the pawns.
On the other side of the board the stakes are equally as high. For young forestry contractors with huge outstanding mortgages on industry-specific machinery, the future is uncertain. Logging the coupe is not just a matter of money and quotas but a matter of conviction; FT must not be seen to relent, and a withdrawal from Lapoinya entirely would set a precedent for how other small coupes may be able to be spared across the state.
To understand the full context of what is happening in Lapoinya, it is crucial to get a feel of the external forces and the broader legacy of forestry at play in Tasmania. Forestry Tasmania is a government owned enterprise that harvests and manages the state’s public forests. Dave Reid says the company’s primary shareholders, State Treasure Peter Gutwein and Resources Minister Paul Harriss, should be held to account for their poor handling of public assets.
What is happening at Lapoinya is primarily motivated by FT’s obligation to fill native timber contracts with Malaysian-based multinational Ta Ann Holdings, notorious for converting large portions of rainforest to palm oil in the Indonesian state of Sarawak. Evan Rolley oversaw these agreements as chief executive of FT at the time; he is now CEO of Ta Ann Holdings’ Tasmanian subsidiary.
Hoping to get a further understanding of Forestry Tasmania’s side of the argument, I made contact with their Burnie office. I was redirected to James Ferguson, regional manager in Smithton, who again redirected me to Dion McKenzie, head of public relations down in Hobart. I left a message and number with him but as of the 24th September, I have not yet had a reply.
My experience is largely similar to that of the Lapoinya residents who have tried to maintain regular contact with FT. Initially Craig Butt, head of Forestry Tasmania’s North-West operations, handled the coupe’s public relations. When the anti-Lapoinya campaign got traction in the broader public and a community’s burgeoning outrage eventually boiled, the case became a statewide matter and was diverted to Mr McKenzie’s office in Hobart.
It all means very little to the residents of Lapoinya. They have lobbied Hobart and Canberra to save the coupe, but state and federal governments have largely turned the blind eye. They are victims of international markets, the nation’s short-term economic priorities, and local incompetence.
Phil Duncan lives only 200m walk from where the planned coupe lies on the east side of Broxham’s Rd. He is an engineer, a farmer, and now an activist. He isn’t against logging altogether, but sees a lack of sense or foresight in clear-fell logging. He would rather the coupe be logged in increments, working off the ridge of the gully and taking small portions of the forest gradually. This would allow the undergrowth to rehabilitate more quickly, the wildlife to relocate, and a more sustainable and efficient source of income for FT in the long-term. He sees their current plans as nothing more than a grab-and-run scenario, a desperate attempt to satisfy the Ta Ann quota.
Mr Duncan once planned to establish a tourism cooperative in the region, harnessing the natural beauty of Tasmania’s unique rainforests and the niche agricultural product industry that is already one of the state’s most exciting exports.
After months of research, I have no better idea of forestry’s future in the North-West, and no more hope that the Lapoinya rainforest and its rich and valuable communities of people, flora and fauna can be spared its ugly wrath. Forestry in Tasmania is not sustainable because it has become fundamentally disconnected from reality, caught up in quotas, cash returns, and jobs creation. With every community that falls we lose an invaluable microcosm of human endeavour and adaptation, not to mention rich ecosystems of incredible diversity. Forestry is a numbers game, and we are all losing. It’s only a matter of time.