It was standing room only when community members and supporters attended Ringwood Magistrates’ Court on September 6 to witness the dropping of all charges against 12 activists, arising from protests to protect the Gun Barrel coupe in Toolangi State Forest from clear-fell logging in July and August last year.
The withdrawal of all charges, without explanation or reason, is a significant victory for the accused and their supporters, and every Victorian who cares for the protection of natural heritage.
It vindicates the community’s ongoing determination to protect this special place that means so much and belongs to all Victorians, from mindless destruction for the short-term profit of a few.
For almost six weeks in July and August last year, a large number of Toolangi residents with friends and supporters from surrounding communities, and others from further afield, united to protect Gun Barrel coupe on Sylvia Creek Road from clear-fell logging by a VicForests appointed contractor.
The coupe is a part of Toolangi State Forest, about a third of its total area, that had escaped destruction during the Black Saturday bushfires. It is therefore of special significance to many and is of critical importance to native wildlife, including the Victorian faunal emblem, the endangered Leadbeater’s Possum.
In the coupe, vegetation had been identified as Leadbeater’s habitat, as defined by the action statement for the species, which is supposed to guarantee protection under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act.
Submissions and letters were written, calls made and meetings held, including public meetings in Healesville and Toolangi halls. Yet VicForests persisted with plans to clear-fell the coupe.
Even when the Department of Sustainability and Environment identified an active nest-site within the coupe, this was played down, denied and eventually ignored as logging continued. As a result, many community members felt they had no option but to engage in peaceful but determined direct action to protect this special place.
The response from VicForests and the Victorian government, through its Departments of Primary Industry and, ironically, Sustainability and the Environment, was to use threats of arrest and laying of charges to try to intimidate the community into acquiescence while the logging was carried out.
In this they were unsuccessful and locals swung into action. Many attended the coupe every working day. It became the longest blockade of logging ever mounted in the Central Highlands, ceasing only when Healesville-based non-profit group MyEnvironment obtained an interim injunction in the Supreme Court and the logging machinery was removed.
During the blockade, the authorities continued the intimidation. Objectors were threatened, harassed and photographed by government officers. Several were eventually arrested and charged.
At least one woman was tackled to the ground and bundled into a vehicle. There were even threats to release police dogs, accompanied by an ominous warning: “There is a danger of being bitten.”
Those charged were given special bail conditions preventing them from returning to the coupe or even entering Toolangi State Forest.
The bullying continued, with frequent reminders that to breach bail conditions would be a more serious offence than those that led to the original charges.
Campaigners particularly welcomed the dropping of charges on the eve of Threatened Species Day, which marks the death of the last thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) in 1936. We will not allow Leadbeater’s Possum to follow the thylacine into extinction.
These charges have been hanging over us for more than a year and have been used by government officers to intimidate us, try to control our conduct and minimise our ability to oppose logging.