By Bob Cummins
BYRON BAY — With the NSW state elections over, protesters in the Chaelundi state forest are preparing for expected government efforts to dislodge them.
Since late March, up to 50 protesters have blockaded the Liberation Trail and other access roads to the forest, near Dorrigo in north-western NSW. Neither the Forestry Commission nor the police have yet moved to break the blockade.
The protesters declared the area a wilderness park in response to a recent meeting of the Forest Products Association and the Logging Association in Dorrigo. About 130 supporters, including 100 school students, scattered sawdust in a protest when state cabinet met at Murwillumbah recently.
The Chaelundi area contains majestic stands of old growth eucalypts, tallowwood and brush box forest with patches of mature rainforest, and an unusually high concentration of tree-dwelling animals. The Armidale branch of the Wilderness Society and the National Parks and Wildlife Service both consider Chaelundi to have "high conservation and research values".
The forest was first blockaded in March 1990, after it was discovered that a road had been built in the forest adjacent to the Guy Fawkes River National Park. Protesters and the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) established the blockade, informing police the Forest Commission was roading and logging the area illegally because there had been no environmental impact study.
Eighteen protesters were arrested before the courts granted an injunction stopping the commission, which was forced to admit that an EIS was necessary. The protesters' convictions were overturned on appeal on the grounds that the commission could not close the forest to facilitate an unlawful act.
Since then, the commission has attempted to resume operations in some areas under the guise of a "partial EIS". Conservationists believe these partial studies are sly attempts to justify degrading the most significant parts of the wilderness.
Recently, after the commission announced that it had completed an EIS with some "reservations" and intended to log in the near future, the protesters headed back into the forest. The EIS was produced by a study team coordinated by consultants Margules and Partners.
The commission is planning to log three parts of the forest, totalling 561 hectares, to supply regional sawmills. The timber is to be used ... for telephone pole cross members!
The NSW parliament Public Accounts Committee and Labor Party spokesperson Jack Hallam have both delivered the Forest Commission enormous serves not only on Chaelundi, but on its whole operation. Hallam said a Labor government would replace the commission with a new body. But Premier Nick Greiner, perhaps remembering the origins of the northern NSW timber industry, is backing the commission.
The protesters were given some hope that the commission might be susceptible, if not to reason then at least to pressure, when NEFA leaders Dailan Pugh and John Corkhill extracted an unprecedented out-of-court agreement to repair soil erosion and rehabilitate logged areas in the adjacent North Washpool state forest.
The commission appointed a four-member board, including the two NEFA leaders in a paid capacity, to supervise the Washpool rehabilitation. The commission also agreed to prepare an EIS before any future logging in North Washpool and pay legal costs.
Corkhill said, "It seems the commission is prepared to do anything to avoid the court's close examination and final judgment on 10 years of unlawful logging in the Washpool and Billimbra state forests".
NEFA has some difficulty finding forestry experts to support its legal actions, since most work for the commission. It is on firmer ground with zoological criticism due to the presence of experts at New England and Queensland universities. Commission estimates of the effects of its activity on fauna appear to be based on studies in southern NSW, where wildlife density is lower. NEFA's financial support is limited, and its court actions often rely on the generosity of lawyers.
Meanwhile, illegal logging activities are proceeding elsewhere on the north coast. Trees have been cut from private land near Lismore and NEFA has protested against the illegal marking of a "fire trail" through Bundjalung National Park to the Esk River without an EIS.
Back at Chaelundi, despite frequent days of magnificent weather, the commission says bad weather is preventing it from tackling the blockade.