Opinion: Don't repeat the Mt Killiecrankie disaster in the Kalang headwaters

A photo of the landslip site taken in 1992

A photo of the landslip site taken in 1992

During the 1990s, many environmentalists in Bellingen were involved in non-violent direct action campaigns led by the North East Forest Alliance to save the remaining old growth forests. The forests saved were included in the Comprehensive Adequate and Representative Reserve System based on nationally agreed criteria for the protection of forest biodiversity, old growth and wilderness values. These forests are now re-exposed to logging under the Integrated Forestry Operations Approval of 2018.

In 1992, I was the NEFA area coordinator for the Bellingen region. My name was on the freedom of information list, which allowed me to access information from Forestry offices that were located in Dorrigo and Urunga.

The job was a voluntary position. I was empowered to obtain Forestry's harvesting plans and venture into remote locations as a forest scout. In early autumn 1992, I acquired the harvesting plans, from John Ball at the Urunga Forestry Commission office, for Oakes State Forest compartments 168,169 and 170. Accompanied by Trevor Pike, we negotiated Horseshoe Road, winding our way up past Mount Killiecrankie to Catbird Road.

On arrival, we were staggered to find fresh dozer tracks and major road slumping and landslips on incredibly steep slopes. We continued by foot until we came face to face with the two men contracted by the Forestry Commission to create roads, log dumps and snig tracks for the proposed logging operations. The devastation created by the bulldozer was horrendous. The dozer operator had no idea of the massive damage he was causing nor the standards he was obliged to comply with.

There was a koala at the log dump where the contractors were working; they accused us of planting it there. It was blatantly evident that the workers had not done any soil erosion mitigation, pushing soils into water courses and drainage lines. It was impossible to engage with the contractors. We returned to Bellingen and I reported our findings to John Corkill (NEFA) and the Bellingen Environment Centre where I was the forest action coordinator.

A few days later we returned to the forest with Dailan Pugh (NEFA) and Rob Mylan (BEC) to survey and photograph the abomination. In April 1992, a blockade was established at Mt Killiecrankie (Oakes SF) adjacent to the New England wilderness to halt the logging operation and roadworks that were causing mammoth soil erosion in the headwaters of the Bellinger River. Meagan Edwards and I escorted a fluvial geomorphologist into the pristine Sunday and Scraggy Creeks which form the headwaters of the Bellinger River. We observed spoil and rubble six feet deep in places. The creeks were running red with sediments.

The Standard Erosion Mitigation Conditions for Logging in NSW were first formulated in 1975. However, the guidelines have been continually breached during and after logging operations, making it very difficult to trust Forestry Corporation.

Conservation and Land Management investigated NEFA's complaints and found numerous violations - 26 incursions into streamside protection areas. Eighty eight thousand tons of soil pushed into watercourses and unmapped drainage lines that polluted the Bellinger River. NEFA gathered expert evidence but did not proceed with a proposed court case on the basis that the Environmental Protection Authority would take the necessary action.

The EPA did take action. The Forestry Commission of NSW, the predecessor to Forestry Corporation of NSW, was charged with an offence of polluting waters contrary to section 16 of the Clean Waters Act1970. While the offence was proven, no conviction was entered against them. However, the case did prove the need for legally enforceable recommendations on forest logging, and forced Forestry Commission to apply for Pollution Control Licences. Furthermore, Standard Erosion Mitigation Guidelines for Logging in NSW were subsequently drafted by CaLM in 1994, in order to control erosion and strengthen the conditions under which logging operations can be carried out.

Forestry Corporation is quite aware of the highly unstable and erodible soil types in the Kalang River headwaters. For years, red and pink rocks travelled kilometres downstream in the Bellinger River following the environmental vandalism that occurred in 1992 in Oakes State Forest. If the currently scheduled logging operations in Scotchman and Roses Creek SF occurs, the creeks and streams of the Kalang River headwaters will be exposed to unnecessary sedimentation and pollution. Industrial logging requires wider roads and larger log dumps, so the impact on the environment is even greater.

We are in the midst of an extinction crisis. There is a war against nature happening right now. We urgently need proper protection of our precious biodiversity hotspots such as the Kalang River headwaters. Please heed the warnings in this story and don't allow a repetition of the 1992 Mt Killiecrankie disaster in the Kalang headwaters.

Catherine Eaglesham