Tasmania is home to some of the world's tallest and
oldest trees - and to a logging industry determined
to turn them into woodchip. The battle is intense.
The Ecologist, December 2004
It's raining in the Styx Valley, but Lee barely seems
to notice. He wants to show me the forest. We're walking
downhill through the misty rain, sliding on wet mud
and roots. Lee, who works for the Tasmania Wilderness
Society, is fingering leaves, listening to the calls
of birds high up in the canopy, pointing out things
he thinks I ought to know about.
'This is a wet eucalypt forest', he explains, as I pick
my way across a fallen tree. 'There's less than twenty
percent of this left in the whole of Tasmania, and only
five percent of it is protected.' He examines the leaf
of a small sapling, weaving its way upwards from under
a tangle of moss and leaf mould.
'A baby myrtle,' he says. 'These can last a thousand
years.' He moves on. I follow, steadying myself on low-slung
vines. The forest we're walking through is unlike anything
I have ever seen. It is a verdant mass of vast, thick-trunked,
ancient eucalypts, smaller, younger trees, and a low-level
jungle of oddly-beautiful bushes and shrubs. The canopy
of this temperate rainforest is seventy metres above
our heads, and from it come the calls of whipbirds,
cockatoos, rosellas and parrots. Thick vines hang from
the vast, old trees, and ferns grow high up on their
branches. Fallen, rotting trunks smothered in multi-coloured
fungi litter the ground. The sheer variety, the colour
and the chaos of life is stunning.
We reach a part of the bush that shows signs of habitation.
A small camp has been set up, with wooden benches and
a canvas shelter. Inside it are leaflets, posters, pens,
badges - the detritus of a political campaign, out here
in the middle of the wilderness. Next to the camp is
the biggest tree I have ever seen in my life. Craning
my neck and looking up into the canopy I can just see,
high above, a wooden platform strung with banners.
'Here it is', says Lee. 'The Global Rescue Station.
People camped up there for five months to draw attention
to what's happening to these forests. We really got
the world's attention.'
The 'Global Rescue Station' is a treehouse built by
Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society sixty metres up
a vast swamp gum tree. The swamp gum - Eucalyptus regnans,
to give it its scientific name - is the tallest flowering
plant in the world. It is also the second-largest hardwood
tree in the world - topped, just, by California's giant
redwoods. Twenty people could stand side by side and
still not cover as much ground as the base of its vast
trunk. Swamp gums reach over 300 feet in height, and
over 600 years in age. They are, in short, one of the
most remarkable plants on Earth. And the wet eucalypt
forests of Tasmania are their last refuge.
I stand under the huge tree and look around me. There
is something deeply primeval about this forest; something
overwhelming ancient in the air. It is Lord of the Rings
with no need for special effects. This place has never
seen, heard or experienced the modern world. But it
will. And soon.
For this part of the Styx Valley has another name: Logging
Coupe SX13C. It is owned by Gunns Timber, the biggest
producer of hardwood woodchips in the world. One day
soon, Gunns will bring its logging machinery into Coupe
SX13C and begin work. It will saw down the swamp gums,
load them onto logging trucks and take them to the sawmills,
to produce woodchip destined for export to Japan.
When the loggers have done their bit, the helicopters
will come. From above the forest they will drop incendiary
chemicals, similar to napalm, on the myrtles, the eucalypts,
the cockatoos, the whipbirds, the banners, the tree
ferns and the Global Rescue Station. The remains of
the forest will burn for days. When the fire stops,
Coupe SX13C will be a charred mass of blackened stumps
and white, ashen ground.
Finally, the loggers will return. They will lace the
area with carrots, implanted with a nerve-attacking
poison known as 1080. Everything that eats it - wombats,
possums, wallabies, bandicoots - will die. Cleared of
potentially destructive wildlife, the area will then
be planted with lines of fast-growing, non-native trees,
which will provide the loggers with a means of producing
woodchips in a way which is much more economically efficient
than the old-growth forests of the Styx valley ever
In Ancient Greek myth, the River Styx wound seven times
around the Underworld - the land of the dead. If all
goes according to schedule here, Tasmania's Styx, too,
could soon flow through a lifeless world.
From the top of the grain silo, I have the best view
in the whole of Launceston. Specifically, I have the
best view of the field below me, in which are parked
256 gleaming, beautifully-painted logging trucks, which
have driven from all over to be in Tasmania's second
city today. It's a special occasion; so much so that
the logging companies have given their workers the day
off to attend.
The man from the grain company, who responded surprisingly
well to a complete stranger asking to climb up his silo,
and even led me up the precarious network of ladders
himself, lights a cigarette.
'I'd say there'd be about three million dollars' worth
of trucks there' he says. 'Amazing sight, isn't it?'
I look south, across the river, to the city park where
I have just come from. The sedate, English-style lawns
are milling with burly, tattooed, orange-shirted loggers
and their families. There are over three thousand of
them and they are in no mood to negotiate. They carry
banners that say 'Tasmanian timber creates Tasmanian
jobs', 'support our forest industry' and 'greens tell
lies.' Their children hold signs reading 'my dad needs
The loggers are queuing up to get into the town hall.
Any moment now the Australian prime minister, John Howard,
will arrive to announce his new policy on the logging
of Tasmania's old growth forests. Australia is in the
middle of a general election campaign, and the fate
of the nation's largest temperate wilderness is very
much on the agenda.
Eventually Howard - who will later win the election
with an increased majority - arrives. The conservative
prime minister, who has spent eight years exposing Australia
to the cold winds of the global market, has today morphed
from Thatcherite to labour rights activist. He tells
the workers in his audience that he will never 'sacrifice'
their jobs for the sake of 'green ideals'.
Around him, smiling, sit the appreciative bosses of
some of Australia's biggest timber interests. In recent
years their profits have soared as the ancient forests
in their care have continued to burn. At the same time,
the number of people they employ has fallen dramatically,
as they have cut the jobs of thousands of workers like
those who now stand here cheering wildly as Howard announces
that old-growth logging will continue in Tasmania for
the sake of their future.
The bitter conflict over the logging of Tasmania is
the fiercest, and most polarised, environmental battle
I have ever seen. Both sides believe passionately that
they are right. Both sides have an enormous amount to
lose. And both sides loathe each other with a passion
that they don't bother to disguise.
The battle is over what are known as 'old-growth forests'
- forests which have been undisturbed by logging or
other human practices, and which as a result contain
very old trees and a huge diversity of species. Tasmania,
a still largely forested island off the south coast
of Australia, contains vast tracts of this, and much
of it is unprotected.
Eighty percent of Tasmania's old-growth forests have
already fallen victim to logging or development. Only
13% of all the island's Wet Eucalypt Forests, like those
in the Styx Valley, are left. Much of that is still
unexplored, and may be logged and burned before anyone
knows what's in there. Ninety percent of the ancient
trees cut down will end up as woodchips, and almost
60% of the land cleared in this way will never be forest
again (see box 2).
This logging, which has been a mainstay of the Tasmanian
economy for over a century, is proceeding fast: Tasmania
has one of the highest rates of land-clearing, in proportion
to its size, in the industrialised world. But stop old-growth
logging, says the forestry industry, and you will destroy
Tasmania's economy. Herein lies the true focus of this
Both sides use statistics to prove that right is on
their side and both claim that the other side manipulates
the truth. The closest to this truth, though, probably
comes from the impartial government agency known as
the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). According
to their latest survey, from 2003, the number of people
employed in forestry, logging, sawmilling, pulp, paper,
woodchipping and other wood product employment in Tasmania
was 6,852. To this, you then need to add the 'associated
jobs' which logging brings - the drivers of logging
trucks, those who repair them, and so on.
Environmentalists say this takes total logging employment
to around 7,300 people. Loggers say it is more like
10,000. Either way, in a total Tasmanian working population
of 225,000, logging provides a minimum of 3% of the
state's employment - and a maximum of 4.5%.
But this is just part of the statistical scrabble,
for old-growth logging is only part of the industry;
the rest of it is based around the logging of plantations.
Loggers, at least in public, say that the end of old-growth
logging would destroy the entire forest industry and
lead to mass unemployment. Environmentalists say that
old-growth logging could be stopped in its entirety,
with the loss of perhaps only 400 jobs. Unfortunately
for the loggers, the Greens have on occasion been backed
up by industry leaders themselves, when they though
no-one was listening. In early 2004, for instance, the
managing director of Gunns Ltd, Tasmania's biggest forestry
company, was quoted in the Australian Financial Review:
'up to 480 jobs could be lost if Gunns had to stop using
old growth wood,' he admitted, 'but its share price
would not be adversely affected.'
Geoff Law sighs when I tell him that all these statistics
are giving me a headache.
'We get this all the time,' he says. 'Beware getting
bogged down in a statistical debate. The forest industry
puts out a lot of deliberately misleading information.
The facts are very clear.'
Geoff is founder and director of the Tasmania Wilderness
Society, one of the leading lights in the campaign to
protect the old-growth forests. I'm talking to him in
his office in Tasmania's capital city, Hobart. He's
a tall, thin, driven man, and he's rattling off facts
much faster than I can get them into my notebook.
'Our position is clear', he says. 'We want to protect
the remaining areas of high-conservation value, within
which there should be no logging. That means all the
remaining old-growth forests. The loggers will tell
you this will make them unemployed, but it won't. What
they don't tell you is that there are huge areas of
plantation that already exist - 230,000 hectares of
it. These are logged, turned into woodchips and then
exported. At the same time, the forest industry has
been cutting jobs in Tasmania as it seeks to become
more competitive in the global market. Sawmills close
every year and we export wood to Japan to be sawn there.
Where's the employment potential in that?' He pauses
to answer his phone and I gratefully keep scribbling.
But he's soon back.
'These old trees are falling every day,' he continues.
'Last year, the loggers burned an area of old-growth
forest and managed to kill a tree that had been the
largest living thing in Australia. There's a clear alternative
to this. We can protect all the old-growth forests and
focus our forestry industry on existing plantations.
If we re-tool the industry so that it begins to process
plantation wood here instead of exporting all the raw
materials abroad, we can provide more jobs in a sustainable
forest industry and leave the old-growth in peace.'
He sits back in his chair.
'As you can see', he says, 'the stakes are very high.'
Barry Chipman scowls as he drives me across town in
'Law's talking absolute rubbish, as usual', he says.
Chipman is a tall, rangy man with a grey moustache,
as driven as Geoff Law and just as convinced that he's
right. Chipman has been a logger all his life and is
now head of the Tasmania branch of Timber Communities
Australia, an organisation which brings loggers and
their families together to support the timber industry.
'Sixty-eight percent of all old-growth forest on all
Tasmania's land is protected', he tells me. 'Over ten
thousand people are employed in the timber industry
in Tasmania. All this rubbish about only 400 being employed
You were at that rally the other
day, weren't you? Well how many blokes did you see there?
A lot more than 400, don't you reckon?' This, as I'm
sure Chipman knows, is not quite the point. But I decide
to mention it later. He's not an easy man to interrupt.
We're driving across Hobart to meet some loggers, who
want to tell me why the Greens have got it wrong. I
was looking forward to disliking Chipman, but I've been
let down. He's friendly, enthusiastic and passionate
about what he does, and he won't let up until I've got
the message: logging in Tasmania is a sustainable industry.
'I don't care what the Greens say', he insists, as we
get moving again. 'They'll never be satisfied. They
just want the end of the timber industry. You think
woodchips are evil? People need them. You're consuming
them right there!' He taps my notebook.
But, I say, the Wilderness Society says old-growth forests
can be protected and more jobs can be provided at the
same time. Wouldn't it be better if everyone could just
talk to each other?
'Ah, you know', he says, looking pained. 'This debate
is very polarised, and it's disappointing. But you know
- one of our blokes will do his best out there in the
bush, try and do a good job, stick to the logging code
of practice, and then he'll go home and see on TV some
Green saying loggers are less than human. And you know,
this happens so much, it's got to the point where we've
become so thin-skinned that when people ask us questions
about what we do, we see it as an attack.' He shakes
'It's a damn shame', he says.
Chipman can be pretty convincing. So can the three
old loggers he introduces me to in northern Hobart.
Basil, Harry and Neville have been in the timber industry
all their lives. Like Chipman, they seem to believe
in what they do, they want me to believe it too. And
I almost do. Almost, but not quite.
Because it doesn't add up. They tell me that burning
a eucalypt forest is not nearly as apocalyptic as it
sounds; eucalypts need fire to re-seed themselves. Without
it, the forests wouldn't survive. They're right about
this - yet I also know that their industry is burning
the forests at ten times the natural rate. They tell
me that only one percent of logged old-growth forest
is replaced by plantation, when the real figure is more
like 40% (see box 2). They tell me, as Chipman did,
that 68% of all Tasmania's old-growth forest is protected;
a figure that, it turns out later, is correct but also
misleading. Much of this 68% is smaller trees in remnant
populations which are no good for logging anyway. Ancient,
tall forests are down to about 20% of their original
size, and over half of what remains is under threat
They tell me, too, that clear-cutting an ancient forest
is really no big deal if it's reseeded - the trees will
just grow again. But they don't tell me how a 500-year
old tree can grow again somewhere where the forest is
due to be re-logged within 40 to 80 years; a typical
logging cycle in Tasmania.
I look into their eyes. Basil, Harry and Neville are
convinced they're doing the right thing - the thing
that their fathers and grandfathers did before them.
They know that they are being driven into a corner by
public opinion and growing green pressure. They feel
persecuted, and they want understanding. They want to
stick to what they have always known, and have everyone
leave them alone, to do their jobs. The trouble is that
it's not that easy any more.
The whole thing is very depressing. I'm beginning to
think that nothing can be done. And then I meet Graham
Green. Green, a young, bearded timber worker, lives
in a wooden house which he built himself, on the slopes
of Mount Wellington near Hobart. Green is a shingle-maker;
like Barry Chipman, he relies on the old-growth forests
for a living. Unlike Chipman, he is no friend of the
'I used to be a member of Chipman's group myself', he
says, as we drink tea in his dining room, which has
a stunning view over the forested valley. 'But I left.
They're not a real community group. The industry funds
them. The problem I have is that this forestry model
they promote is so incredibly destructive, and the benefits
go to so few people.'
Green thinks he has a better idea. A few years ago he
set up his own organisation, Timber Workers For Forests.
It has over 200 members, all of whom make a living from
the forests. Their vision for the future is very different
from the industrial scale clearcut-and-burn model of
the timber industry - but it is still based on using
the forest's resources.
'All of my members use quality old-growth timbers for
their work' he explains. It's a unique wood. So why
are we logging it and replacing it with non-native plantation
trees? Tasmanian forestry is an absolute disaster. We've
got this stunning quality of timber and we're just burning
'The problem', he says, 'is the global market. We could
have a sustainable timber industry here, but generations
of small-minded politicians and industry leaders have
locked us into big contracts with Japanese pulp companies.
They have to compete with other suppliers to provide
the cheapest woodchips. And the cheapest way to produce
them is clearfelling.'
So, I ask, what's the alternative?
'Our vision', he says, 'is a smaller but smarter forest
industry. We stop focusing on the cheap export of woodchips,
and focus instead on how to get the best value out of
our unique timbers in a way that is genuinely sustainable.
All my members make a living from timber - we want to
keep harvesting these forests, but not like this. We
want to see a model in which we can selectively harvest
trees from five to five hundred years old, within a
forest that is strictly monitored, to ensure that we
take nothing out that will not replace itself. We can
then process that here, turn it into high-quality furniture,
boats, housing materials ...' He finishes his tea.
'We can actually harvest these forests, provide more
employment and protect the old-growth at the same time,'
he says. 'In fact, we already do. Our sector - the speciality
timber sector - employs maybe 650 people in Tassie,
compared to 400 or so in old-growth logging. We use
much less land to employ that many people, and we use
it better. The industry knows that it's trashing our
forests. I regularly receive anonymous phone calls from
loggers who want to tell me how bad they feel about
what they're made to do to these old trees. They can't
give their names for fear of reprisals. What sort of
industry is so ashamed of what it's doing?'
The future of Tasmania's last ancient forests, then,
rests on a single, crucial question: can old-growth
logging be ended, quickly, and can it be done without
wrecking the economy? All the facts seem to suggest
it can - but that money and political determination
will be needed to make it happen. There is, it seems,
no reason why the forestry industry cannot be re-focused
on a combination of plantation logging, processing of
wood within the state, and the kind of small-scale sustainable
forestry that Graham Green wants to see. It would, in
fact, make both economic and ecological sense.
Two obstacles stand in the way, though: a profit-hungry
industry, which will always find it easier to destroy
ancient forests for quick bucks; and many of the loggers
themselves, who still, despite an ongoing decline in
both their jobs and their ancient forests, see old-growth
logging as both a lifeline to their future and a link
with their past.
It seems to me that this battle will only be won when
both sides stop looking at it as a battle, and look
at it instead as a shared campaign for a shared future.
At the moment, though, that possibility seems a long,
long way away.
- Tasmania lies about 155 miles off the south coast
of mainland Australia. It is about the same size as
Ireland, and its population - 472,000 - is around
the same as that of Liverpool.
- Only five per cent of Australia - the driest inhabited
continent on Earth - is forested. Much of this is
in Tasmania, Australia's southernmost state. Native
forest covers around half of the island.
- Endemic, rare and endangered wildlife includes
the Tasmanian devil, Forester Kangaroo, Fairy Penguin,
Quoll and eleven bird species found nowhere else on
Earth. The legendary Tasmanian Tiger, officially declared
extinct in 1936, may still survive in remote parts
of the ancient forests.
- Tourism in Tasmania - much of it centred on the
state's wilderness - provided an estimated 22,000
jobs in 2004; at least twice as many as the logging
TASMANIAN FORESTRY FACTS
- An average of 20,000 hectares of native forest
are clearfelled and burned in Tasmania every year.
- 80,000 hectares of native forest have been converted
to non-native plantations in the last seven years.
- Tasmania exports more woodchips than every other
state in Australia combined; it is the only state
that clears and woodchips native rainforest.
- An estimated 90% of wood taken from native forests
on public land become woodchips, for export mainly
to Japan. No more than 4% become sawn timber.
- In 2003, 14,600 hectares of native forest was clearfelled
and burned. Only 6180 hectares - just over 40% - were
replanted with native trees. The rest became fast-growing
plantations or were converted to 'non-forest use'.
- The rate of logging in Tasmania has quadrupled
over the last decade. Logging companies' profits,
too, have steadily increased. Logging jobs, meanwhile,
have declined. Five thousand jobs have been lost in
the last 25 years, as the industry has mechanised