In Reserve

photo by Daan Spijer

I’m luckier than most humans. I live on a part of this planet that still has areas of bush (forest and scrub) suitable for wildlife and human introspection and renewal. Even in the suburbs of Melbourne there are reserves of remnant bush in amongst the houses of more than four million humans.

In January 2009, fire raced through one such reserve in Carrum Downs — two weeks before the devastating ‘Black Saturday’ fires of 7th February, which led to the deaths of 173 humans and countless thousands, perhaps millions, of native, feral, domestic and farmed animals, birds, insects, arachnids and soil dwellers.

I took my camera to the Carrum Downs reserve while there was still smoke rising from burnt tree trunks and the unmistakable stench of burnt flesh hung in the still air. About two-thirds of the reserve was a landscape of black skeletons. The green sections that were untouched by the fire were eerily quiet — it seemed that those creatures that could flee had done so. But where to?

I had tears in my eyes as I documented the devastation through my lens — black contrasted against almost pure sand. I wondered how anything would ever grow here again. I had no expectation of any remnant, dormant life buried in the ground. I attempted to record the enormity of the destruction but the camera could, of course, only take in a fraction of the entire scene at a time. I struggled to find frames and angles that might communicate what was here and what I felt.

Although the reserve covered only about ten acres, I spent more than three hours wandering across its now mostly bare landscape. It was a meditation. It was an inner journey, even as I struggled to share that meditation and that journey with those who might see my photos. Looking at those images later, I knew I had captured something important.

Ten days later I returned and saw green pushing up from the soil, everywhere — grasses and sedges recovering. I visited again another ten days later and was amazed. Many of the black tree trunks had tiny, bright green leaves emerging directly from the bark. It seemed an impossible colour, evidence of a seemingly impossible process. It was life symbolically giving the finger to a destructive force. I learned later that these were epicormic shoots, growing from a layer below the bark. There were now also nascent brackens and other native plants reclaiming the land, after having been so fiercely fried three weeks earlier. Birds had returned to the unburnt areas and I had a sense of life fighting back. There were also ants foraging everywhere amongst the burnt and recovering plant life.

The reserve slowly recovered over the next two years, indicating that the almost hundred thousand hectares of bush burnt on Black Saturday may also have a chance of recovery. Imagine, therefore, my outrage when bulldozers moved into that reserve almost three years after the fire and levelled more than half of it — for a freeway.

All the innate power to recover — evidenced by burgeoning foliage on the blackened trees and by new verdant ferns and brilliant flowers — was impotent in the face of humans’ capacity for destruction. If the plan had instead been to level rows of houses to allow the freeway to be built along a different route, there would have been immediate and fierce opposition and lengthy court battles. But the taking of the habitat and life on the reserve produced no outrage and no legal action, although there was some quiet protest about destruction in other reserves along the freeway route. The community — plant, animal and microbial — had no advocates and no obvious mourners.

I mourned as I revisited the diminished reserve and as I looked at my mementos — the photos showing promise of great beauty renewed. I cried as I thought of the once-again-bewildered birds and animals and that the new freeway lay over the bodies of other such reserves on the way south to places where the occupants of the noisy, speeding cars might enjoy some quiet greenery. What about the people who live around these all-but-destroyed places of peace and connection with the earth? Should they now have to commute for their nature fix, or are we hastening the growing disconnection so many people experience?

In the February 2009 Black Saturday fires, large areas of the Central Highlands of Victoria were destroyed, along with the wildlife that lived there. It was estimated that the wildfires killed about half of the fewer than three thousand remaining Leadbeater’s possums — Victoria’s official fauna emblem. Until 1961 the tiny creature was thought to have become extinct through the ravages of the 1939 fires, which burnt out almost five million acres of land. A perilously small population had, in fact, survived fires and logging.

Leadbeater’s possums live in hollows, high up in mountain ash trees that are at least 120 years old. They forage in surrounding mid-storey trees, including acacias, and are not known to travel along the ground. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries much of the area was logged. This was, however, a selective process, harvesting individual trees that were commercially valuable and worth the effort of felling by hand. The middle and understorey were left, as were younger trees that would eventually grow into commercially valuable timber. As many old trees would have been commercially valuable, the Leadbeater’s possum would have lost much of its habitat. That the possum survived at all, to be rediscovered in 1961, was likely due to the fact that sufficient forest was left to get on with growing. Evidence of this can be seen in the tree ferns, some of which are more than 200 years old.

Then the idea was born and brutally implemented to raze whole swathes of forest: clear-felling. This leaves a wasteland of debris and bare earth. The theory is espoused by the foresters that the complex ecosystem that once covered such an area can be encouraged to re-establish itself. It does not happen in under one hundred years and even then it is a poor facsimile of what once was.

I have seen the awful results of clear-felling. I have stood on the sad, empty ground and cried. I felt the loss viscerally — nausea overtook me and I had to sit down for fear of fainting. The brutalised landscape was blurred through my tears and my breaths came haltingly.

The forests ‘belong’ to all of us. They are our lifeline to sanity. The government ‘administers’ them and used to do so through the Department of Sustainability and Environment, which is logical. Much of the forest is declared to be state forest or state park and some of it is national park. Now it is administered by the Department of Environment and Primary Industry — alarm bells should sound when the management of forests is handed to the minister for agriculture. The government also owns a corporation, VicForests. This entity is charged with managing the harvesting of timber and selling it. After many years, it is still unprofitable. The mountain ash and other eucalypts in these magnificent forests are beautiful hardwoods, yet much of the harvested timber goes to make woodchips for paper and particle board. Recently, in the Central Highlands near Toolangi, I have seen trucks come out of the forest, laden with logs, all deliberately split to make them seem to be of lower grade. VicForests has stockpiles of this timber that it cannot sell because of lack of buyers in the local market; there is cheaper timber coming out of South America and Asia, which should not give us any comfort either. Some, however, is being used by local paper manufacturers, even though local plantation timber is available.

In Australia, all of this happens in order to retain a relatively small number of jobs in an outdated, unsustainable industry. There are good alternatives to wood for making paper (such as hemp) and the agriculture involved in growing these also employs people. Many of the areas in which clear-felling takes place are prime tourist areas, including eco-tourism which also employs people and has the added benefit that much of the money spent by the tourists stays in the local communities. Logging money largely goes to overseas-owned companies. We also need as much forest as we can leave alone to maintain adequate, undisturbed water catchment areas and as essential carbon sinks.

There are parts of the world where individual, prime-value trees are carefully felled (so as to cause minimal damage to the surrounding forest) and lifted out by helicopter. If this is viable in, say, Canada, why could it not be viable in Australia?

VicForests used to be limited to five-year contracts with timber harvesting companies. The law is being changed to allow twenty-year contracts. And, if timber resources run out before the end of the contract, taxpayers must compensate the aggrieved company. If forests aren’t already threatened, why does government contemplate the resources running out? If their survival is known to be under threat, why sign contracts at all?

The state of Victoria has legislation to protect threatened species. Under the laws, activities that have the potential to harm such species must be curtailed or stopped. The Leadbeater’s possum is certainly threatened, which means that logging in the possum’s habitat area should not be allowed. To overcome this ‘problem’, the government is planning to amend the protective laws to the point of nonsensical impotence. The government’s attitude is epitomised by a ministerial statement that Leadbeater’s possums are being successfully bred in captivity and that this will save them from extinction. We may well end up with the situation envisaged by Joni Mitchell in her song: trees in a tree museum; or have the remnants of forest flown off into space in order to preserve them, as depicted in the film Silent Running. I do not want that to be the experience of my grandchildren in the not-too-distant future.

National parks were declared, first in the USA and later in Australia, to ensure that something of the ‘natural’ world would remain in perpetuity for the benefit of all of us and of future generations. There was also the intention to preserve habitat for other species in acknowledgement that we have stewardship obligations toward them. The Tasmanian government now allows, actually encourages, mining in such national parks, even in areas listed as world heritage conservation areas. The government of Victoria is planning to change conservation legislation to allow more tourist ‘development’ in national parks — the building of luxury resorts and hotels on as yet unspoiled coastlines and similar facilities in native forests. The idea behind this is to make it easier for more people to ‘enjoy’ these places. However, such development would change those places so much that people who now go there to enjoy their unspoiled beauty will stay away. Why do we have so much difficulty allowing places to exist as they are and value them for just that? I used to live next to a national park in the Dandenong Ranges, east of Melbourne. I would wander in at any time of the day or night. The only people I met were there on the same terms — to enjoy the forest as it is. There were no hotels, restaurants or cafés in the park. I would often sit quietly in a small, natural clearing, a cathedral-like space. This was a place for connection with the spiritual world, at the same time as allowing me to connect with the earth and ground myself, sloughing off my cares. This was a place where I could re-establish my connection with the rest of all that is — feel again that I am the earth and the earth is me.

Many years ago I was walking through the Anglesea Heathlands, some fifteen kilometres west of the famous Bells Beach. I made my way through grassland, large areas of heath and low, scrubby trees. Suddenly, as I came to the top of a rise, the magic crashed around me like broken glass as I gazed in horror at the Alcoa open coal mine — a huge sore on the skin of the earth.

The last time I went into a forest, a large part of it wasn’t there. This was one of the logging ‘coupes’ near Toolangi. It was where I saw the results of clear-felling and where I cried. I was not alone — there were some thirty others, protesting against the bloody-mindedness of our state government. Among them was Steve Meacher, a local Toolangi man who has been putting great effort into trying to reverse the mad rollercoaster of wanton destruction. Steve is big, physically and in the energy he exudes, and he is an acknowledged leader in the community. He helps to marshal people to areas where their presence may hinder the clear-felling operations and bring public awareness to what is happening only two hours’ drive from Melbourne.

Toolangi was spared from almost certain destruction in the 2009 Black Saturday fires by a shift in the wind. It sits as a green splash in the middle of an area which is slowly recovering. The townsfolk are not all behind what Steve does — many believe the logging to be necessary for the local economy. Ironically, most of the loggers and drivers are not locals.

Apart from protesting in and around existing coupes in daylight to try and slow down or stop the clear-felling and the movement of logging trucks, the protestors have camped in the forest in areas marked for destruction. Some people have spent days, even weeks, high up in trees, eating and sleeping there. Steve and others have been arrested under laws which prohibit people from entering public forest areas that have been declared as ‘no-go’ zones. They continue to put themselves in the way of those who would destroy what little is left.

Professor David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University (ANU) is known for his studies, over more than thirty years, of the Leadbeater’s possum. He was a paid advisor to the Victorian government on recovery programs for the species. In September 2012 he resigned from this advisory position because of the government’s failure to devise any recovery program and its ramping up of the destruction of the possum’s dwindling habitat. However, Prof. Lindenmayer remains fearless in his efforts to save the animal from extinction (there are fewer left in the wild than there are Siberian tigers or orang-utans). He uses his credentials and his reputation to agitate for action. One such recent action was a letter, written jointly with Prof. Hugh Possingham of the ANU, published in Science, alerting a wider audience to the destructive policies of the Victorian government, calling its actions, “one of the world’s first deliberate, government-sanctioned extinctions of an endangered species”.

Steve Meacher and Prof. Lindenmayer are but two of the many people who, at a local level and on the world stage, are taking direct action and creating wider awareness of the likely devastating consequences of current government policies.

In Australia there is a difficult balance between state and federal environment laws. In many cases, the federal government can only take direct action to rein in state government action if a species is declared to be critically endangered and is at further risk from such state government actions. The Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, has taken the unusual step of writing to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, asking it to list the Leadbeater’s possum as critically endangered, so that he may have jurisdiction over its habitat and, hopefully, halt its destruction.

It is not only at the individual level that people are taking action — there are also not-for-profit groups taking on governments and industries. Environment Victoria has been successful in halting the opening of new brown coal mines in the Anglesea Heathlands. The Australian Conservation Foundation has helped to negotiate compromises in Tasmania to minimise the destruction of forests there. Environment Victoria is also active in suburban Melbourne to have voters communicate to the state government — especially in electorates the current governing party could easily lose in the next election — their concerns about the watering-down of environment protection laws and the lack of government encouragement of and support for the development of renewable energy technologies.

For many hundreds of years, people have been harvesting timber for building, for making furniture, to heat their houses and to work metal. We have now destroyed so much forest, and are continuing to do so at an alarming rate, that we face the possibility of the earth becoming uninhabitable.

The term ‘human race’ seems horribly apt at present. We seem to be running towards a finish line that we cannot see clearly, yet putting everything we can into the race, to get to the end totally exhausted and with nothing in reserve, never to run another race.