By Frank Zeller
CHAELUNDI — NSW Forestry Commission operations in the Chaelundi forest were halted at least temporarily on August 1 by the discovery of a rare beech skink habitat in the path of proposed roading and logging operations.
Operations stopped when the find was drawn to the attention of commission officers. Official Forestry Commission policy is to protect all beech skink habitats. The find vindicated claims that the Forestry Commission's belated environmental impact statement (EIS) was rushed and inadequate, said North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) spokesperson Andrew Steed.
Police have been staying in the forest around the clock since August 1 in an attempt to prevent anti-logging protesters reconstructing dismantled barricades by night. There are now about 100 police confronting protesters, whose numbers probably average about 150.
The NSW Forestry Commission has now closed the Chaelundi forest to the public, but activists are maintaining their protest against attempts to open up parts of the old-growth forest for logging. The fact that charges of trespassing are now possible doesn't concern most of the protesters, who point out that it has been difficult to prove trespass charges in previous forest disputes.
On July 26, Dr Helen Caldicott was acquitted of trespass charges from the 1989 protests against logging in the southern NSW forest of Coolangubra. On March 5, Australian Conservation Foundation officer Giselle Thomas was acquitted of similar charges arising from the early stages of the dispute over Chaelundi, near Dorrigo in northern NSW.
The activists will continue their protests from camps outside the closed area, at the entrances to the forest and on the boundaries of the adjacent Guy Fawkes National Park. Some of them have been camped in the area for four months, and they are determined to stay until the commission gives up its attempt to log the forest, no matter how long that may be.
For two weeks now, to the sound of protesters singing, chanting and beating bongo drums, police have demolished barricades by day, leaving at night only to return next day to find new barricades. "We don't really build a blockade to keep the state out forever", says blockade spokesperson Aidan Rickets.
"We build a blockade to reveal how desperate the state is, to show that it is prepared to spend more money on overcoming this blockade than it will ever get from logging the forest." Nevertheless, at the end of week two, the loggers are still locked out of Chaelundi.
The protesters deny media claims that they have driven metal spikes into some of the threatened trees, an action that could endanger the lives of loggers and mill workers. They say the story is an attempt to "set them up".
At stake are three sections of the 7000 hectare old-growth forest. These areas, said to have the highest density of tree-dwelling mammals in Australia, are home to 12 endangered species, including the powerful owl, the koala and the Hastings River mouse.
While protesters have resisted strongly, they have avoided violent confrontations with police. They have tied and superglued themselves to eight-metre tripods, and even wire-held monopods, kryptonite-locked their necks and limbs to cars, buried themselves to the neck in the Broadmeadows Road (also known as Blockade), and shivered for long hours in part-buried, cold, claustrophobia-causing concrete pipes.
About 150 protesters have been arrested on old stand-bys such as breaching the peace, resisting arrest and obstructing a public road. Some have gone without sleep for days as they spent their nights reconstructing barricades removed by police.
According to Aidan Rickets, the protesters' energy comes from their spirit: "It's to do with the fact that we get our spirit from the earth that we're protecting. We get our spirit from the love that we share as people in the knowledge that what we do is right. We're drawing our power from Gaia, the planet."
In the past week, Premier Nick Greiner has supported logging Chaelundi. The Forestry Commission has now completed an environmental impact statement, following protests and legal action by NEFA last year. The alliance rejects the EIS, saying it was completed in only six weeks and "the Forestry Commission paid for it and had it conducted themselves. It's a short, quick, dodgy EIS, which was simply done to get quick access to the compartments."
NEFA also claims that logging Chaelundi would violate the National Parks and Wildlife Act. It has urged environment minister Tim Moore to issue a new interim protection order under section 99 of the Environment Protection Act, which relates to protection of endangered fauna.
While Moore has so far not commented on the dispute, Coffs Harbour regional forester John Bruce says the Forestry Commission is searching for an exemption under the forestry act. He described this act as "very strange legislation" obviously not intended to be interpreted in its narrowest sense.
About 20 long-term protesters have been in the forest for several months, forming a community complete with solar-powered teepee village, recycling systems and composting toilets. They have shown tourists around the forest, built three blockades and decorated the road with sculptures made from rock, sticks, flowers and crystals. Two motorbikes were the only means of transport along the blockaded road. Health food shops have given discounts to the protesters, and there have been many donations of food and equipment.
The residents, now more than 200, are a colourful mix, many wearing dreadlocks, nose rings, beards, home-woven jumpers and patchwork clothing. Backpackers from around the world have fallen in love with the area and stayed.
Whether you call it Chaelundi State Forest, Chaelundi Free State, Chaelundi People's Wilderness Park, or compartments 180, 198 and 200, there is no doubt the majestic old tallowwoods, the stringy-barks, the blue gums and the lush rainforest are beautiful.
But off the road there are areas which have been "selectively logged", behind the green curtain of virgin forest which can blindfold the casual observer. Here most of the century-old trees are gone and only the dry stumps remain as evidence that the area was once dense forest. The canopy is thin, the fragile layer of topsoil is eroded and the earth is now scarred with old bulldozer trails. Piles of old branches are surrounded by body-high clusters of imported weeds.
John Bruce concedes that these areas have been logged "fairly heavily", but says forests don't disappear as a result of logging. "Forests regenerate after they are logged. There will be some changes in the structure. Let's face it, if you're cutting down big trees and growing little ones, there is a change in the forest structure."
The Forestry Commission gets a flat royalty of $28 per cubic metre for timber extracted from this area. Tonnes of branches are left by the loggers, and 50% of trunks are either burned or woodchipped after the logs have been squared in the sawmills. Most of the tallowwood is used for cross-members on power poles.
Conservationists say the situation is ludicrous and quote the Resource Assessment Commission's draft report, released in early July, which found that native forests have been over-cut in most
states and that "Australia's traditional hardwood timber milling industry is unlikely to exist at anywhere like its present size beyond the next decade".
The report suggested that the timber industry's future lay in equipment-intensive softwood plantations. This would replace the labour-intensive hardwood harvesting from old-growth forests, which had already threatened the survival of some forest types.
Timber workers are understandably worried about their jobs. At demonstrations in Coffs Harbour they claimed jobs would be lost if Chaelundi was saved, and that towns like Dorrigo would suffer especially.
Local greens say this is a short-sighted view. Ian Cohen, the green narrowly defeated by Fred Nile in the recent NSW elections, says even if the timber industry harvests all the available tallowwood in northern NSW, it will buy itself only another five years.