Tassie's Southern Forests In Limbo

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Miranda Gibson is off her tree. Were her 449 days spent living 60 metres up a towering eucalypt near Mount Mueller in southwest Tasmania worth it? Or will the loggers return now she’s been smoked out?

The 31-year-old forest campaigner who broke the record for Australia’s longest tree sit is glad she won’t have to endure the coming winter exposed to the elements. But she’s adamant she will take to the trees again if it means saving Tassie’s unprotected High Conservation Value (HCV) forests from logging.

“If doing it again would mean the difference between areas being destroyed or forests being protected, then I would absolutely do it again,” Gibson told New Matilda.

Several deliberately lit fires in bushland off Muellers Road in the Tyenna area, near the town of Maydena, forced Gibson to descend on 7 March. She had gained international attention for her campaign as she beamed images and updates to the world from the canopy.  After all that, it was a quiet and anti-climactic descent down a long rope and into a big bear hug from a beaming Bob Brown. Since then she has enjoyed small luxuries, like being able to walk further than three metres at a time.

Coming back to earth has been bittersweet.

“I won’t feel a sense of relief until that forest is protected and until I know that area is never going to be logged,” Gibson said. “The forest is still under threat. It’s a big weight on my mind.”

In August 2011 the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between the Tasmanian government and the federal government put 430,000 hectares into “Informal Reserves”. It looked like genuine efforts to protect these HCV forests were underway. However, it turned out to be an empty promise designed to pacify conservationists – while still allowing Malaysian logging company Ta Ann to log the old growth forests and market their products internationally as "eco-plywood" and eco message flooring.

According to Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim, “Ta Ann has been caught out in the past mislabelling timber products sourced from high conservation value forests as plantation timber. Plantations could and should provide Ta Ann with a guilt-free, certified product that would boost its image internationally and help to restore lost buyer confidence.”

It became clear that the only way to guarantee protection for Tasmania’s remaining native forests would be through a World Heritage listing, the world’s highest level of protection.

Conservationists claimed a victory when Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke announced on 31 January that would submit a nomination to extend Tasmania’s World Heritage areas to include HCV areas currently at risk of logging — including old growth forests in the Great Western Tiers and Styx, Huon, Upper Florentine, Picton and Counsel River valleys. If accepted by the World Heritage Committee when it meets in Cambodia on 16-27 June, it will be the largest addition to Tasmanian’s World Heritage area since the 1990s.

But the Coalition has accused Burke of jumping the gun, with the Tasmanian parliament not yet having passed its Tasmanian Forest Agreement 2012. This is a peace deal between industry and green groups that has been decades in the making and underpins the World Heritage Nomination. The bill has already passed in Tasmania’s lower House. The state’s Legislative Council, was due to vote on the bill on 21 March. However voting was delayed while amendments were debated and it’s now likely the bill will be amended and sent back to the lower House. Green groups say they will closely scrutinise any amendments.

“This process is about finding a workable way forward for the forest industry in Tasmania, while securing the protection of over 500, 000 hectares of critical areas of spectacular high conservation forest,” said McKim. “This consensus cannot be achieved without the support of the industry and environmental signatories who have driven this process from the beginning.”

In its blasting of Labor’s World Heritage submission, the Coalition looks like it is buying time to stop the nomination becoming a key federal election issue. In January Opposition forestry spokesman Senator Richard Colbeck announced his intention to write to the World Heritage Committee to seek a 12-month delay.

But forest campaigners and green groups say by then, it could be too late for many of the southern forests.

“The immediate and urgent issue is to stop those areas getting logged before June and the responsibility for that is on Tony Burke,” Gibson said. “We’ll continue to put pressure on the Australian Government in every way we can to ensure that logging ceases. There’s definitely a concern that the area of forest in the Tyenna valley where the tree sit was could be logged. It has been nominated for World Heritage, but it seems like the Australian government is not taking it seriously to protect those areas.”

If the World Heritage Committee moves in favour of extending Tasmania’s World Heritage areas, it will guarantee protection for more than 170,000 hectares of mainly tall old growth eucalypt forest bordering the existing Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, increasing it by 12 per cent.  Added to the World Heritage List in 1982 and extended in 1989, June 2010 and June 2012, the Tasmanian Wilderness is one of the three largest temperate wilderness areas remaining in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Australian Greens and environment groups are furious the pristine Tarkine wilderness in the northwest of the state was left out of the World Heritage Nomination due to mining concerns in the area.

For now it looks like many of the southern forests have a better chance of survival than the Tarkine, although logging is still continuing in Butlers Gorge and other areas of native forest nominated for World Heritage. Gibson’s grassroots action group Still Wild Still Threatened continues to conduct intermittent peaceful direct action, such as tree sits and blocking access to logging roads, at Butlers Gorge and other threatened areas. There are usually 10 to 15 protestors at each action and at present they are regrouping and working on strategies to keep an international focus on these areas.

Steve Whiteley, General Manager Operations, Forestry Tasmania said coupe number TN044B, the site of Gibson’s tree sit, will not be logged. However he continued, “Some of the areas nominated for World Heritage listing were scheduled for harvesting this year as part of the planned harvesting program. Forestry Tasmania has removed 12 of these areas from the harvesting schedule. It has been acknowledged by the signatories and the two governments that harvesting in a small number of coupes will need to be completed to honour existing contracts. Harvesting in those areas will be completed progressively and finished before 14 June 2013.”

The area of Gibson’s tree sit, identified in the World Heritage nomination as "10-Styx-Tyenna", is a prime example of the HCV blend of eucalypt forest with a rainforest understorey that has attracted international attention for its heritage value — and consternation that the Australian government would allow timber sourced from these old-growth trees to be sold internationally as sustainably sourced timber.

These forests are renowned for their towering eucalypts, some of the oldest and tallest in the world, significant karst systems and a wildlife habitat that is home to the endangered Tasmanian devil, which Still Wild Still Threatened has caught on film. It’s an area rich in biodiversity, with other threatened or endangered species documented in the area including goshawks, wedge-tailed eagles, and spotted-tail quolls. It is also an area highly valued for its Aboriginal heritage.

An independent report (pdf) published in February 2012, the Verification of the Heritage Value of ENGO-Proposed Reserves written by Peter Hitchcock found “…the syndrome of a fire dependent forest above a fire intolerant forest (that) is only known in the associations between eucalypts and Australian rainforest, represents a unique ecological phenomenon, a superlative natural phenomenon of global significance, outstanding universal value.”

While politicians continue to debate the fine print of the Tasmanian Forests Agreement, forest campaigners are locked in a race against time, as they keep watch over the next three months for logging operations scheduled in the southern forests.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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