The New South Wales Forestry Corporation yesterday closed the Leard State Forest, citing fire risks, in what activists claim is a politically-motivated action to quash the protest against Whitehaven Coal's controversial Maules Creek coal mine project.
There is no statewide total fire ban currently in effect, and the Forestry Corporation's website indicated yesterday that only the Leard State Forest and Jacks Creek State Forest were closed. The Lock The Gate coalition said in a statement these are the "two sites where community groups are camping to protest against the Maules Ck Coal mine and the Pilliga Coal Seam Gasfield respectively".
Phil Spark, a local farmer and ecologist, told NM by phone that police advised the protesters that Leard Forest was a prohibited area at 8:30am yesterday morning, giving a 12-hour deadline.
"But we did our own homework," Spark said. "The camp is actually on an old road reserve, and isn't part of Leard." They advised the Forestry Corporation, who "agreed". The protesters also contacted the police, who agreed not to evict the camp.
Phil Laird from the Lock the Gate coalition believes that the closures were politically motivated. "This is a serious abuse and mis-use of emergency fire provisions by the Forestry Corporation of NSW," he said.
"The Forestry Corporation has clearly been instructed by the NSW Government to close down the two State Forests, using fire closure as the highly implausible excuse, in order to evict the community groups camping in the forests."
Laird pointed to the ongoing mining activity as evidence. "The truth is that the greatest fire risk in the two State Forests in question is undoubtedly the use of flaring, blasting and the operation of heavy machinery by the coal and gas miners," he said.
"If fire risk was a genuine concern of the state government, then the first thing they should have done was shut down the mining operations, not a peaceful community camp."
A spokesperson for the Forestry Corporation told NM in a statement that, "The closures are in direct response to a range of concerns raised with Forestry Corporation by Police and the local RFS relating to the increased fire risk posed by a large group of people in these forests and obstruction of forest roads required for emergency access."
They did not comment on the fire risk from mining activity, saying that "Forestry Corporation of NSW is not responsible for approving mining projects on State forests, nor is it responsible for their operations."
The protest camp has become the site of renewed tensions between community groups, Whitehaven Coal, and the NSW Government after bulldozers went in on Monday to clear land for the installation of an access road and rail infrastructure.
Protesters in trees tethered themselves to the machinery to prevent them clearing land for the Maules Creek coal mine, which received approval under Labor Environment Minister Tony Burke last year and survived a Federal Court challenge in December. Georgina Woods, spokesperson for the Leard Forest Alliance, told NM that a man in his 40s and a woman in her 20s were arrested late Monday night, around 8:30, and taken to the Narrabri police station.
Traditional owners are also involved in the protest. In July last year 60 from the Gomeroi nation gathered outside Whitehaven's Boggabri office, claiming breaches in the cultural management plan. Gomeroi Elder, Uncle Dick Talbot, was on Monday turned away from the site while trying to inspect cultural sites that were allegedly damaged when bulldozers went in.
"Whitehaven Coal has completely ignored our pending legal request for an order to stop work to protect our cultural sites," Talbot said. Talbot's family and activists are continuing to try to access the sites, NM understands.
The controversy realting to the Whitehaven Coal developments exploded last year when activist Jonathan Moylan issued a fake press release on behalf of ANZ claiming the bank had pulled out of funding the project, causing the Whitehaven share price to temporarily collapse.
Protesters have today re-established the blockade and the action is going at a "ferocious pace", sources say.
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