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Goolengook Journal

Article : "Goolengook, are Australia's unique ‘old growth’ forests protected in East Gippsland?" By James Travers-Murison

Photography Tony Hastings and myself

This is an interesting saga which will be disclosed over several editions about a visit I made to "an old growth" forest blockade in Victoria, Australia back in 1997. My visit was just prior to its removal by the Police and includes subsequent discussions I had with environmentalists and the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE).

I wish to hopefully catch the spirit of the protesters and the nature and value of the surrounding "old growth" forest. The emphasis I will try to manifest is one of empathy while informing and encouraging people to question their Government's forestry policy, and so realise in some countries that forests of National Significance are being logged despite the protests of the Government's departments own biologists. Almost all the scientists who worked on Goolengook have resigned or been dismissed from the DNRE. A large part of this story arose from one senior biologist still working with the DNRE who contacted me.


Location of Goolengook  

"You can't eat money," the sign said depicting the little businessman wearing a facemask with a uranium sign and a grey suit. He held a credit card in his left hand and green dollar notes in his right. The canvas sign was stitched lopsided onto the log, the small tree trunk that rested on cross poles. Large dead eucalyptus branches were pinned on the far side of the road and leaned diagonally across the blockade. This was the first barrier we met as I drove the Landcruiser up to the GECO (Goongerah Environment Centre Office) forest blockade in Australia's plateau country in the far east of the state of Victoria. It was a few days from winter in 1997.

The car was spattered in mud and tiny leaves. We had driven from the petrol station in Bonang across the logging trails to here using a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources 1:100 000 scale map. Earlier that day, we had been at the remote place of Goongerah, "Egg Mountain" in the Koori tongue, an alternative lifestyle place 70 kilometres North of Orbost. In the organised chaos of GECO headquarters, Noons had handed me a map and drawn his finger across the trails to follow through the forest.

"You'll have to get petrol, Bonang's the closest. I'll ring to see if they've got any," he said.

From Bonang we drove back to the turn-off to Bendoc and took the Errinundra road into the National Park. Large Mohawk like gums lined the way overflowing onto the solid gravel road. At GECO I had picked up a scrawny Glaswegian economics graduate with glasses called Mike. He, like myself, wanted to see what a ‘forest blockade’ looked like.

Phtg T.Hastings

At Mount Morris high on the Errinundra plateau I stopped to take a photograph of the monolithic gums. Vines thick like an umbrella encompassed a gum where the canopy had been broken. We turned down Greens Road and hidden away down a siding was the Ada Divide Track. The road continued twisting up the range, but the Ada Track dropped almost vertically into the valley.

"Shall we do it?" I looked at Mike.

"It's up to you". He was staring out the window at the sea of eucalypts beneath us.

Paint. T.Hastings

The rain slowly fell, I thought of winter mud and being stuck, having to desert the car and waiting for dry weather. We skidded down the track, which was partially overgrown; two wheel tracks covered in crushed leaves and bark. There were humps across the path to block erosion and prevent two wheel drive vehicles passing. Eventually we came to a scattering of tracks leading to various logging coupes that seemed to have illegally crossed over into the Errinundra National Park which this road bordered. We guessed that one track was the Ada track and continued through a falling valley of tall eucalypts and huge leafy ferns edging through the afternoon mist.

The track edged steep up another range, a log partially across the path and as we edged round the car slid back onto a large gum. Unable to reverse and not getting any grip, the wheels were off the track on ferns not giving any traction, Mike pushed us out. The track rapidly disintegrated into overgrown, swiping branches as we slid down another hill to another trunk across the road. Tried pushing, nudging with the car, chopping using a tomahawk, finally pulling - a rope attached and reversing the 4WD. It shifted a few feet before wheels started to spin, not enough. Half an hour and we gave up, turned back, and hoped to find another trail.

A clear fell at Barlings

Back at the logging enclosure the thick rutted mud gave way to an alternative route, Barling's road parrallel to the Ada Divide track, a proper gravel road. There were signs of logging , large tracts chopped out round one corner stretched wasteland a nuclear holocaust could have hit. Against dark mist stumps and logs lay askew, ripped up earth a few skinny eucalypts left between the bulldozer's tracks - "clear felling". Next corner a fallen tree blocked the way, huge branches, leaves cascading cross the road. No way through, we reversed and hoped somehow it would lead us forward.

The Ada sidecut got us back on the Divide track. Overgrown and as rough and steep as an old billy goat, we headed down its twisted old phone cord of a path and prayed no more trees would block our way. There were no alternative routes now. Up the side of hills, branches swiping the car every few seconds, the track endless. A muddy crossing at Lances road and we finally came through in the fading dark . From there the road was clear to the blockade. A wide gravel road, the Goolengook Road, to "the old growth forest" that GECO was blockading.

II. The Blockade and the Green Movement

Paint. T.Hastings

It was night when we arrived and six protestors were huddled round a fire under a huge tarp. Pumpkin soup, brown rice and pan flat bread were being served up. The mood was jovial. A photographer, an economist, a biologist, a student, an artist and Bear were there. Bear was a woolly solidly framed man who looked as if he'd grown up in a gum tree. He had that rough Australian bush manner, he could have been a logger, but instead he spoke about stopping the logging of 'old growth'.

"That wilderness has been here for a bloody long time." He munched on the pan bread.

"I can't see any big trees?" I stared at the meatless stew and they offered me a joint. I declined.

"Some of these trees you can join five people round." He looked at the others and then at me, I looked away. "They take hundreds of years to grow." His words were muffled and he covered his eye with a hand wrapped in rough wool gloves, fingerless gloves. "They can't be just regenerated overnight."

Phtg T.Hastings

James was a biologist working for the Department of Conservation near Bega's Wetlands, here for a few nights, his eyes smiled like shining balloons. He told me of biodiversity and natural habitats of fauna damaged by logging.

"Why blockade this site?" I asked.

Phtg T.Hastings

"It is a site of significant biodiversity" he replied. "Goolengook river is listed under the Heritage Rivers Act," he slurped soup onto his old woollen jumper, "however because the area is 'robust'," he took a mouthful of organic stew, "meaning it is considered that there are many such areas," he looked round, "has anyone got the honey". He turned back to me, "forestry has decided it is acceptable to log."

Bear looked worried, "the wide road," he put in a potato and offered more stew, "the clearing..."

James interrupted, "… at its end suggests forestry intends a large scale operation, probably clear felling." The joint was passed round and I went for a walk.

I asked them if they thought their tiny barricade would have any real impact on the logging of three or four hundred thousand hectares of native forest here.

"Is it anything more than a symbolic gesture?"

"To protect one area is better than none." James said.

The whole camp and blockade was on a gentle slope and stretched for almost a kilometre. It was made up of barbed wire barricades, tripod tree poles, trenches and rock piles placed like tank traps. Tents and even a tepee lined the road.

The next morning we took a look at the forest, clambered through the thick undergrowth, the photographer rushing ahead like a pixie. And he was dressed like a pixie, pointy boots, hacked off trousers over tights. I asked him about the forestry agreements. "The regional agreements allow logging of 40% of old growth forest." He paused and turned smiling. "They will be removing export licences, opening up the market to increase overseas buyers of woodchips." He spoke like it was all so obvious. The student pulled his chequered jacket tight against the cold. We marched upwards to the 'egg rocks'.

Phtg. C.Beavers

"The East Gippsland Regional Forests Agreement emphasises sustainable logging through the protection of biodiversity, old growth and wilderness," we were caught in waist high grass and ferns steeply stretching up the valley, "but it is being ignored in spirit, man." I was barely keeping up with him in my clean city trousers. They were wet and muddy now. "They're logging the big old trees through clear felling. They call it by another name, but all they leave are a few tiny seed trees." He turned to me. I was gasping for breath. "Almost everything’s knocked down so only a wasteland remains. Erosion results wiping out the variety of microorganisms, plants and trees. A fraction regenerate. The rarest species often never survive."

Phtg T.Hastings

A battered forestry leaflet they handed me showed statistics that most Australian wood is chipped for export to be processed into pulp, then paper. I checked these figures later in Melbourne examining the Regional Forests Agreement and Jill Redwood's 'Environmental Paper to the Democrats'. Jill, a mature woman who has been fighting to protect "old growth" forest for about 18 years, accuses the loggers of chipping saw logs. Thus according to her good quality timber is not turned into high quality "value added" products. She states the residual timber turned into wood chips earns the government very little in royalties, up to $5 a tonne in East Gippsland, but wastage goes for as little as 20c.

Jill states that the big old and very precious trees are so hollow from decomposition they are considered wastage by the mills. They are knocked down to allow maximum regrowth in a coupe. 650,000 to 800,000 tonnes of these and other wastage trees are trying to be sold by the Government for wood chips. She states that these big old hollow trees provide the perfect habitat for endangered species. Up to 300 species are considered rare or threatened in the East Gippsland area alone.

 Paint. T.Hastings

This includes a rare carnivorous marsupial called the Tiger Quoll. Although unlikely, extinction is a possibility if there is extensive logging of 'old growth'. For all this in infrastructure the Government, the Australian taxpayer, pays $18 a tonne for replanting, administration, roads, etc. to log the East Gippsland areas and it is considered to be a government operation that barely makes a profit.


NEXT EDITION: Discussions with the Government's DNRE seem to suggest all is well, however a government scientist reveals a different complexion.

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