We live in heart of the Tarkeeth Forest, some ten kilometers from the seaside town of Urunga on the mid north coast of New South Wales. The forest lies between the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers, and these are connected tidally to the ocean at Urunga – the only place in Australia where two rivers meet the ocean together. The forest rises from the rivers to to ride the Fernmount Range, the easternmost extension of the Great Dividing Range that spans the eastern edge of our island continent. Above and between the two rivers, it is a rain-harvesting, filtration and stabilization ecosystem vital to the rivers and to the wetlands around them, and is a habitat for bird, reptilian, mammalian and marsupial wildlife, including koalas, quolls. wallabies, echidnas, goannas, owls, fruit doves, and cockatoos. The east-west Fernmount Range Trail is an ancient highway highway from the plains to Urunga, known to the Gumbaynggirr nation as a “place of plenty”. The forest contains areas of significant indigenous culture, recalling song lines and stories of the Dreamtime, places of ceremony, of birth and burial, and of atrocity.
This land was rainforest once. In the late nineteenth century, much of it was cleared manually and laboriously for dairy farming, and in the late sixties, most of the landowners sold their farms to Australian Pulp Mills. APM cleared the farmland and established the flooded gum plantation that is now Tarkeeth State Forest to supply a paper mill that was to be built just south of Coffs Harbour. This never happened – the projects planners had inexplicably overlooked the lack of a massive water supply. Eventually, the plantations were sold to the government-owned State Forests News South Wales – now the Forestry Corporation. The plantation is now being harvested – clear felled, actually – a matter of considerable concern to us forest neighbours and to many in the Shire.
Now, we are all aware that the forest is legally designated a plantation, and that harvesting is considered to be both necessary and legitimate by the powers-that-be in state and local government, and among many in the community.
But it is the aggressive nature of the proposed harvesting that is the issue: the large area involved, and it’s ecologically sensitive location; the decision to clear-fell rather than selectively harvest it as in the past; the plan to burn what cannot be sold off in windrows; and to ground-spray the cleared land with a cocktail of toxic chemicals. All this in a forest highland situated between the large rivers, where with heavy rains and frequent flooding, everything – soil, ash, poison, will flow downhill. It happened last year on the Never Never, with predictably bad consequences for the Bellinger river system. Clear-felling the Tarkeeth will add to the cumulative impact of similarly aggressive harvesting operations in other forests the the Coffs Harbour and Bellingen region in recent years.
Wrong plantation, wrong place, wrong method.
Forestry Corp does not present its Tarkeeth operations as a profitable excercise, rather as the write-off of one asset – a neglected, failed plantation of uneconomical flooded gum – replacing it with another – a plantation of blackbutt which be better managed and more valuable, together with some tallowood to compensate the dispossessed koalas for the temporary loss of their habitat. In short, a financial loss with the promise of a profitable plantation outcome in two generations.
This is lush farmland on the flood plains of the two rivers, with dairy farms, cash crops, and organic farms. There are oyster farms in the twin estuaries, whilst the confluence of the rivers and the lower Kalang are a fisherman’s idea of heaven. This part of New South Wales is called the Holiday Coast, and tourism is is the backbone of a local economy that boasts attractions that range from the rainforest and waterfalls of the Gondwana World Heritage Area of the Dorrigo National Park, to the well-preserved historical township if Bellingen with its federation facades, cafes and craft shops, to the long, golden beaches of Hungry Head and Tuckers Rock.
Tarkeeth Forest contains areas of significant cultural significance to the Gumbaynggirr nation – the traditional landowners, who have identified scar trees, artefacts and sacred sites, and stand to lose this precious history if this forest is destroyed.
Then there are the protected and endangered species that some folk say do not live in the forest, but we know are here in the understory and old habitat trees because we live here, between the eastern and western compartments. These include koalas, quolls, sooty and powerful owls, great barred frogs, and fruit doves. Forty years of native forest ingrowth and plantation neglect have ensured the development of a biodiverse ecosystem. Nature hates a vacuum and has filled the Forestry Corp’s neglected vacant lot.
Broad-scale clear-felling by two mechanical harvesters is quicker and cheaper than the selective logging of marketable species. And large, open stretches of bare earth prepared by bulldozer and fire makes spraying and replanting much easier. The aim is loss-reduction, with some recoupment from the sale of trees felled, rather than money-making. But the non-financial loss is incalculable: The destruction of “in-growth” native forest that has survived previous thinning and flourished, and of preexisting habitat trees, flora and fauna, and the loss of topsoil. And the potential for environmental disaster on the rivers when the rain and the floods come.
Whenever governments put economic and environmental values on the scales, the mantra of “jobs, jobs, jobs” always trumps the preservation of our forests, plains and waterways. But what “Operation Tarkeeth” does not provide is work. Jobs, local jobs for loggers and mill workers. The days of the logger with his chainsa, selecting and felling the best trees, are gone in this mechanized workplace. We watch the logging jinkers heading east to the Pacific Highway loaded with blackbutt poles for the Grafton mill, some 100 kilometers away, whilst good pulp logs are trucked to Queensland. The trucks come from Grafton too. Local mills get what’s left. The jobs created by this destructive operation are in haulage, and in security – as protests and trespass into the harvest zone have halted work on several occasions.
And yes, there are protests, and there is also division. Nothing divides a small rural community more than logging the nearby forests. And particularly a community that still remembers the last forest war. It has been thirty years since the ferals and the grannies took on State Forests in the old growth wildernesses of Chaelundi and Wild Cattle Creek, since the lock-ons and the tripods in the deep dark woods, since the time of division and derision, since the passionate defense of the jobs of the loggers and the businesses that depended in the local mills for a livelihood, on the one hand, and the people who believed preserving the forest as a future heritage was more important. That war ended with a change of government and direction, and a truce as forestry agreements were made and national parks were extended.
A new generation has come of age since those days, But memories and loyalties, perceptions and prejudices are inherited, and are resurrected down the pub, around kitchen tables, and on social media. The old hatchets may have been buried a long time ago, but many folk still know where they buried them.
We played our own small part in that old war, as the Sydney base for the Wingham Forest “stump truck” that toured the state with two huge, old tallowwood stumps on its flat-bed. We thought that our days of rebellion, of rising up against the empire, were over. But the rebel heart is beating yet.
Featured Image: Nothing quite prepares you for the devastation of clear felling. Joby, a Gumbaynggirr elder, surveys the Tarkeeth.