New campaign to save old growth forests

Issue 

By Tracy Sorensen

SYDNEY — Activists have halted logging in a part of the Tantawangalo State Forest in south-east NSW, in a reinvigorated campaign to save remaining old growth native forests. About 200 people gathered in coupe 944 on July 5-6, blocking access roads with tripods and concrete pylons.

Up to 100 people are now maintaining a permanent base camp in the area. While Forestry Commission bulldozers sit idle — tripod legs wedged between blade and engine, with someone perched on top — there have so far been no clashes with police or loggers.

Environmentalists had no choice but to return to Tantawangalo, South East Forests Alliance convener Jeff Angel told Green Left, because the state government appeared to have a "vendetta" against the forests.

Furious over the way north-east forest campaigners were able to stop logging in the Chaelundi State Forest using state fauna protection legislation, the government has introduced a series of bills to wipe out crucial existing environmental protection laws.

The Natural Resources Management Package, said Angel, "hands over the high conservation value forests to a resource security regime which will prevent further environment protection or independent assessment. At least 40 endangered species will be threatened."

Coupe 944 was chosen as the site for the protest actions because it is home to a small remnant population of koalas, which, said Angel, "needs all the help it can get". Other endangered animals in the area include the yellow-bellied glider and the southern brown bandicoot.

According to forest campaigner Fiona McCrossin, the blockade was a chance to "put the focus back on the south-east". The activists are rallying around an alternative bill that would protect 110,000 hectares of old growth native forests from woodchipping.

The South East Forests Protection Bill, drawn up in consultation with SEFA and other environment groups and introduced by independent MP Clover Moore, will be debated when parliament reconvenes in September.

The state government's Natural Resources Management Package sets up a management council which would make regional assessments and recommendations about the use of public land, including national parks.

But assessment procedures already exist, said Angel. It appeared the only point in changing them was to create a "developer-dominated body", which represented a serious assault on public influence over

A second bill in the package repeals the Endangered Fauna Act, the legislation used to save the Chaelundi State Forest. The bill was "an attempt to rewrite science", said Angel. An animal would have to be "teetering on the edge of extinction" before it would be accepted as "endangered".

A third bill enshrined a form of resource security. Areas of old growth native forest handed over under this legislation would no longer be the subject of environmental impact statements or endangered species legislation.

"It's just pure National Party propaganda, this resource security bill; there's no other way of describing it. It doesn't even ask whether the people who are going to get the forest are going to make a buck out of it, they just get the forest."

The package would also remove the natural environment and Aboriginal sites from the Heritage Act. Overall, said Angel, the package represented a major assault on environmental groups and community participation in decision-making.

With opposition to the package from Labor and most of the independents, the minority Liberal government was unlikely to get the numbers for the bill. But forest campaigners would not sit back to wait and see. "We've got to continue the pressure and continue the information program to make sure it fails", said Angel.

Clover Moore's South East Forests Protection Bill would convert 100,000 ha of old growth forest into a national park, phase out logging over nine months and set up an adjustment and special employment package for displaced timber workers. State Labor politicians have promised to support the bill if the federal government makes funds available.

Brett Cullen, a member of the Tantawangalo Catchment Protection Association, told Green Left that his group had written to the National Parks and Wildlife Service requesting that it immediately issue a stop work order (under the Endangered Fauna Act) in the coupes inhabited by koalas. The TCPA's May 10 letter was backed up by extensive independent scientific evidence of koala habitation. The NP&WS had not acted on the request by July 6, when the blockade began.

According to the TCPA, there are probably significant genetic differences between the Tantawangalo koalas and those found in the coastal areas of northern NSW and Victoria. They may therefore play a key role in the long-term conservation of the species.

The Forestry Commission has said it intends to continue logging in Tantawangalo, checking each coupe before logging for the presence of koalas and other endangered animals. But the commission is not competent to collect, analyse and interpret the relevant data, says the TCPA. This is clear, says the group, from the fact that logging has n areas known to be inhabited by koalas.

The blockaders have vowed to hold coupe 944 indefinitely. Ring SEFA on (02) 247 1734 or the Tantawangalo Base Camp on (064) 586 656 for information on how to get there.