The Pilliga Forest is at the centre of a large battle over the right for companies to drill for coal seam gas (CSG) on public land.
Coal seam gas company Santos is planning to develop a $2 billion CSG project in the forest and it has already begun operating 40 exploratory gas wells.
The exploration licence was supposed to end on April 3, but Santos has been granted multiple extensions by the NSW government to put in more exploratory drill holes.
There are plans to drill another 440 wells in one section of the forest and another 400 in the western half. The attendant pipes and roads would have a large impact.
The Pilliga Forest stretches over 3000 square kilometres in north-western New South Wales and is the largest continuous remnant of temperate woodland in the state, with about 900 plant species.
It is an iconic, beautiful area, home to the Gamilaroi people, with sites such as the Pilliga sandstone caves with ancient rock engraving at Dandy Gorge and Salt Caves.
The nearby Liverpool Plains, has some of the best agricultural land in the state. It is also close to the Leard State Forest, where protesters have also occupied another camp to stop coal mining.
One of the main concerns about drilling for gas in the forest is that it sits on a recharge zone for the Great Artesian Basin. If the project is approved, there is a significant risk that the aquifers on which farmers depend for water for their cattle and sheep will be polluted.
The Great Artesian Basin is a vast aquifer comprised of porous sandstone spanning about a quarter of the continent, stretching from Cape York, through Barcaldine, to Bourke and Lake Eyre. The groundwater in the aquifer is recharged by rainwater, and the Pilliga Forest is one of those recharge reservoirs.
The water coming from the Great Artesian Basin feeds spring wetlands that can be distinguished from other wetlands in dry landscapes because of their permanent water source.
Organic farmer Brett Sanders, from Tambar Springs, said he'd be "stuffed" if the aquifers were contaminated by CSG extraction. He told the Australian on April 8: "The water of my farm [has] been in the family for 54 years. We're totally dependent on a spring-fed creek and bore water," he said.
Sanders took part in the blockade and attached himself to a metal pipe concreted into the ground at the site entrance. Another farmer said that he is only five kilometres from the drill site and the contamination of the aquifer would make his farm non-viable.
Lock the Gate Alliance spokeswoman Georgina Woods told the Australian: “More and more people have realised that the government is not going to look after the groundwater, and that they'll have to do it themselves.”
I visited the camp on April 4. As we were arriving on the Friday night, we heard that six farmers had locked themselves on to the rig truck at a drilling site and blockaded it for seven hours.
Grandmother Pat Schultz from Armidale also locked herself on to a truck carrying drilling equipment the same weekend. Describing her experience she wrote: “I ran around the truck wheels, crawled under the truck and got my lock-on device over the axle. Security grabbed my arm just as I clipped on. I made it.
“Two very nice police officers arrived. They took turns in asking me questions, Many of which I did not answer, such as my name and address. The police woman asked me why I was doing this; I replied: ‘I have been trying to stop Santos coal seam gas mining in the Pilliga for three years.
‘I do not believe they can do this without destroying the Great Artesian Basin. I will do whatever it takes to stop coal seam gas mining in the Pilliga and that is why I am locked on to this truck’.”
Shultz was eventually arrested and charged with “pedestrian impeding a driver” and “failure to follow a reasonable police order”.
On Sunday, 100 of us left in a convoy of cars for the drill site in the forest, organised by the Wilderness Society. The area taken over by Santos is huge, even though at present it is just exploratory. About 50 of us jumped over the locked gate, overwhelming the one security guard, and took photos of the rigs.
Santos has dug along all the forest roads, and laid down kilometres of pipes in the forest. We then drove to the site of the holding dam, built to contain millions of litres of wastewater. None of this water will be treated but just allowed to evaporate, leaving behind dried salts and carcinogenic chemicals.
We saw the area where a spill of contaminated water had taken place three years ago and still nothing was growing there. One aquifer had just been found to have 20 times the allowable level of radioactive uranium. We could also see the flare of methane, which burns all day and night.
CSG mining will devastate country towns, and people who live in them have a great incentive to fight for this land.