Letter-to-the Editor: Tarkeeth State Forest

There are consistent misconceptions in our community about the Tarkeeth State Forest. One of them is that we (forest community & concerned peoples) don't want a single tree cut down (a bit silly for anyone to claim this given our appetite for timber products) and that we are making a big fuss about a plantation whose sole purpose for being there is to provide a consistent supply of quality hardwood products for our community, generating jobs and boosting our local economy. 

Some facts: There are between two to three harvesting machines on site ( that translates to three employees) the rest of the jobs are for the haulage truck drivers and a few onsite operation managers. If we are talking about jobs perhaps we should be asking many of the out of work loggers that have been here for generations, many of whom would consider themselves conservationists. Perhaps if we have a conversation with any of these men they would take pride in telling you how well they managed our forests for many years prior to mechanisation and without the environmental fallout associated with clear felling. 

They logged selectively and if they did their job properly their methodology would actually help stimulate forest re growth, preserve habitat and support forest diversity. None of these men are being employed by forestry,  in fact many of them have been replaced by mechanised corporations like forestry and their livelihoods have been  made redundant. So if you're jumping up and down about job security perhaps you're just talking about haulage drivers and a small handful of operators not the actual loggers themselves, because I can assure you their not benefitting from clear felling. In fact if we stop clear felling and work with best practise which is selective logging and revert back to more traditional methods then our haulage contractors would be employed far more regularly and consistently then they are currently. 

If you're talking about good quality timber, again you're mistaken, the majority of all of these forests are flooded gum and as such there will be no profits made from this project. Forestry corporation have admitted that our "Jewel in the crown" as they keep referring to our valley is going to be an assett to them in 40 years time, thats an asset for them not us. 

Forestry is currently clear felling the Tarkeeth, Kalang, Tuckers Nob, Newry and Pine creek. That's a massive cumulative effect of aggressive clear felling in a small valley that sits between the Bellingen river, the Kalang and the Never Never Rivers. You don't need a science degree to understand the effect that cumulative clear felling will have on our main catchments and environment long term as the near extinction of our river turtles showed last year. The scope and scale of their operation in our valley long term is going to have a serious impact on our waterways. 

I'm hard pressed to find a boost to our local economy (Bellingen itself) bar a few employees for a limited period of time. This operation will end in a few years and provide minimal employment for another 40-50 years. Responsibly managed, selective  logging would provide far more jobs far more consistently for this community. 

In theory, plantations are an excellent idea in helping to preserve our native forests, but like all good theories in the wrong hands and with poor foundations it doesn't always translate that well into reality. For instance, the current Plantations and Reafforestation Act 1999 was created by the very same governmnet that currently owns Forestry Corporation. The current Act allows Forestry Corporation to conduct their business with minimal community opposition and one has to wonder about the integrity of any business that can operate in whatever manner they choose without any accountability. 

Forestry Corporation claims they have consulted closely with local residents to balance the needs of all stakeholders. The true translation of this means they sat down with the community and told them what they were going to do and ignored and rejected all of the residents requests that would impede their project. Thus grossly betraying the community consultation process. But it's true they did consult with the community. 

They told us they worked closely with the local indigenous community to balance their needs. Whilst I can't and won't  speak for our indigenous community, suffice to say I think this has been grossly miscommunicated and very poorly managed on all fronts. 

The Plantation and Reafforestation Act 1999 lacks current environmental and social standards that are being upheld in the private plantation act and native forest act, both of which are far more stringent in their assessment processes. Why hasn't the Act been updated in 17 years to reflect current world views and environmental standards? 

Forestry Corporations Plantation and Reafforestation Act works on a state wide minimum standard, which means  if there is a plantation in an area of high risk such as all of those found in Bellingen (Steep slopes and high rainfall) they do not have to make any special provisions for these deviations to the standard. They can continue to operate under the same standards regardless of the location. How can this be considered best practise? 

One of these standard states a 20m buffer zone for riparian zones. This is hardly ample given the amount of chemicals they plan to use and our high rainfall and steep slopes. You don't need to be a genius to do the math to see the shortfall and the consequences of that insufficient standard. 

The harvest and haulage plan stipulates that Forestry Corporation will commence replanting their new seedlings between 12-18 mths after harvesting, now I'm a farmer, and no decent farmer would ever leave 128 hectares fallow with our heavy rainfall, it would be over run by a myriad of fast growing weeds hence their need to use a chemical cocktail of thousands of litres of glyphosate,metsulfurin, liase and pulse penetrant to manage the weed problem. If a methodology adopted creates another environmental problem such as this how can we accept this as best practise when clearly it is in breach of this? 

This happened in Gladstone State forest two years ago when as a result of the leaving the forest fallow in excess of 18 months they wanted to deal with the weed infestation (they created ) by aerial spraying. Have Forestry Corporation learned nothing from their previous mistakes? Yet the Tarkeeth harvest plans show no amendment to previous errors, which is obviously very concerning for us.  Best practise would demand they replant immediately after harvesting thus mitigating the need for the use of any chemicals in the first place. 

Forestry Corporation continues to talk about sustainability when it comes to their forest management plan, but in actual fact, they are only referring to the fact that they will be replacing the existing crop with another. That's not sustainability that's just called succession cropping. Sustainability should infer methodology. 

One of the definitions of sustainability is "The endurance of systems and processes which includes the four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture." 

Sustainability should relate to Forestry Corporations capacity to preserve and look after the environment (soils, habitat, wildlife, waterways and communities) to engage in meaningful dialogues with local community members and adopt their ideas and concerns into their plans, to provide long lasting and consistent employment for local community members and to show respect and care for indigenous sacred sites and artefacts. 

Forestry Corporation should be using "best sustainable " practises such as selective logging to minimise soil disturbance and erosion, to promote biodiversity within the forest and to do away with the need to manage weeds via chemical applications which would not be a problem if the earth were not disturbed in the first place. 

Sustainability should include ongoing jobs for ethical logging practises and should include a meaningful dialogue with residents that provides outcomes for everyone's interests not just the agenda of the corporation itself. We call that best practise. 

According to the Forestry haulage and harvest plan they are replanting a chemical dependent monoculture plantation of Blackbutt (90%) and tallowood (10%). This is an interesting point. Forestry has claimed there were no koalas residing in this forest  despite statutory declarations provided by residents sighting them and including an independent field study conducted by an ecologist for a Tarkeeth resident. Yet forestry plan to plant tallowood for the same koalas they believe aren't there and then they plan to destroy the habitat and food source in 40 years.

A research study conducted by forestry commission stated that Tallowwood was slow growing and failed to thrive in this region that white mahogany and Black Butt were the preferred species. Given that, why would Forestry choose to plant this species given its poor performance and in doing so attract a threatened species only to have its habitat and food source removed? It doesn't seem to add up, whichever way you look at it. 

Under the inadequate Plantaction and Reafforestation Act 1999, Forestry Corporation can legally behave as corporate vandals, their not breaking any laws because they're working within a document that protects themselves from any community backlash. Why?

Well, we now know the answer to all of our concerns. In 1999 when the Act was created on the back of an environmental push from activists to protect native forests and move towards plantations (a move we support) the government did not want to allow any room for communities and  environmentalists to challenge or impede their business. They knew that a plantation if left for 40-50 years to mature would build its own ecosystem, that the native forest would compete and a native understory would develop attracting native wildlife making it hard to tell if indeed it was just a plantation or a diverse forest. 

So, to ensure there was no opposition they created a guaranteed harvest plan, to ensure that nothing and no one could impede or prevent a harvest from being carried out. Hence the current Plantation and Reafforestation Act 1999. They created an Act that makes it impossible for anyone to legally challenge their methodologies or practises and it prevents them from being sued as the Act is so lax that it's impossible to hold them accountable since their not breaking any laws. They wrote their own law.

As a community we have the right to say NO this is not okay, this is not best practise and this is not good for our town long term. We understand their running a business but we want them run it better. Is that unreasonable of us to ask for that? As a community we have a right to protect our "Jewel in the Crown," we are in fact protecting Gumbaynggirr land, always was always will be. I believe we can do so for the benefit of all the stakeholders involved. I don't believe that we need to compromise for the sake of a Corporation that legally manages this land on OUR behalf,  is not following best practise and is simply serving their own agenda. 

This community would support a well run, responsibly managed selective logging business that balances the needs of all. Why would we not demand that they manage OUR land better? Why is this community squabbling over a plantation when what we are really talking about is ending clear felling and adopting better methodologies and best practise that allows us to have our cake and eat it too. What's not to support here? Am I missing something ? 

To remedy this situation we need accountability and responsible governance - but therein lies the root of this problem. To do that we need to change the laws and amend the Act. That is not an easy process in itself and to do that we need community support. 

It's easy to sit on the sidelines and commentate on this issue, it's clearly divided opinions in our community and that's always challenging to deal with. But for those whose lives are being directly impacted by this it's hard to really understand the anxiety, sadness and fear they face on a daily basis. We rarely act on something unless it affects us directly, I guess that's human nature, but please try and have some compassion for the people who are dealing with this day in and day out as they watch a place they love and cherish being torn apart by a corporation that really doesn't give a damn. 

To feel powerless to affect change is a horrible place to live and whilst it's easy to get caught up in the semantics of this campaign try and remember that people we care about are hurting over this. I don't know if the community will ever see eye to eye on this for a myriad of reasons but I hope that within this process we can still hang on to our humanity and see beyond the story.