Who shall describe the inexpressible tenderness and immortal life of the grim forest, where Nature, though it be mid-winter, is ever in her spring, where the moss-grown and decaying trees are not old, but seem to enjoy a perpetual youth; and blissful, innocent Nature, like a serene infant, is too happy to make a noise, except by a few tinkling, lisping birds and trickling rills? (Thoreau: from The Maine Woods)
Henry David Thoreau, wrote The Maine Woods in the 1850s, during one of his wilderness sojourns to observe and reflect on nature. Apart from being one of my favourite writers and philosophers, Thoreau was probably the world’s first greenie – he preferred to live in nature and in harmony with his natural environment, taking only that which he needed to provide himself with shelter and food. Many of us aspire to this practical philosophy, many are horrified by the idea, but very, very few are able to emulate Thoreau.
This year is the United Nations’ International Year of Forests. The official website reminds us of the importance of forests to life on Earth – they contain 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and are home of 300 million of the world’s people. It also points out the utilitarian value of forests – 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods and the trade in forest products was valued at $327 billion in 2004. Most of the economic value of forests is in managed and plantation forests which are sustainable and have long-term, ongoing value to local communities and global trade. Ecologically, forests are the largest carbon sinks we have – their conservation is vital as we face up to climate change. In Australia we are fortunate to still have remnant native forests, but our management of them has not been sustainable and they are disappearing as multinational logging companies move in with their heavy machinery and state forest authorities bargain with governments for the right to harvest (ie. destroy) our natural heritage.
The late environmental and feminist philosopher, Val Plumwood, was a passionate advocate for forests. In the 1970s, as Val Routley, she and her then husband Richard Routley (later Richard Sylvan – after divorcing, they both adopted different surnames) were working at the ANU’s Research School of Social Sciences and looking for land in the south-east NSW district to build a home close to forests and surrounded by nature. It was during these weekend excursions that they discovered that large tracts of publicly-owned land, covered by native old-growth forests, were to be converted to softwood plantations. Thus began the Fight for the Forests: the Routley’s controversial exposé of the destructive practices of the forest industry, supported by the government.
At a seminar convened at ANU to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the book, Plumwood recalled:
On the plan, almost everywhere in the SE public forest estate deemed suitable for exotic softwoods, the incumbent native forest would be flattened, windrowed, and burnt; the ecological effects of this were never considered. Higher altitude native forests would be replaced by ‘more productive’ pinus radiata or douglas fir. This was land clearing on a massive scale – not for agriculture on private property, but in the public forest estate, and carried out not by greedy farmers, but by the very people who claimed to have saved the forests from them – the foresters. [quoted in Judith Ajani’s The Forest Wars]
The fight for native forests is still going on in Australia. The magnificent old growth forests of SE NSW are still being ‘harvested’ and sent to the woodchip facility, located at the impossibly beautiful Twofold Bay near Eden, where they are reduced to chip and exported to Japan. Last year logging began in the Mumbulla and Murrah state forests near the coastal town of Tathra, despite those forests being home to a significant koala colony – one of the most southernmost in the country, and the endangered long-nose potoroo. Where is this native habitat being taken after it is felled? The Eden chipmill. The forest industry claims repeatedly that the only timber sent for chipping is ‘waste wood’ (a carefully contrived misnomer – there is no waste in forests), that which cannot be used for other purposes. This is a fallacy and has been proven so on numerous occasions and with photographic evidence. The trucks that rumble down the road to the mill at Twofold Bay haul long, straight trunks, some of them up to 80-100cms in diameter. The actual so-called ‘waste’ is bulldozed into piles in the forest and burnt.
In Tasmania 85% of the native forests are gone – destroyed by clear-felling, scarring the land with erosion gullies and then turning it into monoculture. Last year the multinational timber company, Gunns, dropped the price it was paying to the logging companies in Tasmania forcing a reduction in production but the scaling back in forest destruction is too late for what was once the largest tree in Australia, a 79 metre tall hardwood nicknamed El Grande, which was burnt down in a regeneration burn by Forestry Tasmania in 2002 (pictured below – before and after destruction).
I hope the International Year of Forests is able to bring to light some of the stark facts about forestry in Australia and how our once vast and invaluable public forests are being destroyed in the name of corporate greed. One can only imagine what Thoreau would think.
Recommended: Judith Ajani’s detailed and rigorous examination o f forestry in Australia, and her economically and ecologically supported argument that Australia can source all its timber requirements from sustainable plantation timber: The Forest Wars (Melbourne University Press, 2007).
Also, a great article by Tasmanian writer, Richard Flanagan on the tragedy of Tasmania’s forests in The Monthly, here.