Farewell to a Tarkeeth Tiger

We Acknowledge the Gumbaynggirr People, the traditional custodians of the Land we are gathering upon, and the Land from the Tablelands to the sea; and who have been here for over sixty five thousand years. And we pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.

Our dear friend and forest neighbour departed our planet at eight in he morning of Monday 7th June 2021, and bid farewell to country on a beautiful winter’s afternoon on Saturday 19th June.

There must have been some two hundred friends gathered at Paradise Park, her lovely property in Fernmount in the Bellinger Valley. Many beautiful eulogies were delivered recalling and celebrating her long and remarkable life.

And it was indeed a colourful one. Like many in the Shire, she hailed from the United Kingdom, but as the daughter of a regimental sergeant major in the Grenadier Guards, she and her mother and sister lived in many corners of the British Empire. She had so many  amazing stories to tell about her family’s nomadic wanderings and also,  of our beautiful valle.

It was a honour to be asked to deliver one of those tributes. and this is what I said:

I cannot sing the whole song – I have been here for but part of it. But Annette’s story is a long one and glorious. Others will fill in the gaps – most particularly, the story of those early days. She was one of those present at the creation of the town that we know today, those optimistic days in the seventies which many describe, some in tribute, some in rebuke, as “when the hippies came to town”. It’s all there in Peter Geddes’ films of way back when (View his films HERE). At the end of this piece, i have written a brief guide to the ‘tribes of Bellingen”.

Warren Tindall, one of our oldest Bellingen friends, told us a tale of those early days. He e recalled how Annette was so gorgeous, she once stopped the traffic on main street street when she was crossing the road.  Another longtime friend, from one of the old logging families of the valley told us  how on seeing Annette on the sidewalk, a local drove his car into the bowser of the local petrol station. Of such tales are legends made.

I’ve been on at her for years to write The Great Australian Novel about those days gone by. She’d even come up with a ripper title: Gone with the Weed. 

It’s the organic way Bellingen as we know it was built. My oldest Bellingen friend Warren Tindall met Annette in Annandale in inner Sydney in the mid-seventies and came up here. He stayed for a while in this very house until he settled at Boggy Creek. I first met Warren in Coffs Harbour in January 1984 when HuldreFolk played at the Coffs Harbour Folk Festival. Warren brought the band up to Bellingen and we were the first musicians to play at La Bohème, which is now Number 5 Church Street which Annie Arnold over there ran for as The Cool Creek Café – that’s where we first met Annie. If I hadn’t met Warren, I’d never have come to Bellingen, Adèle and I would never have met Annette, and we’d never have been here, as Annette’s closest neighbours.

Big wheel keeps on turning.

Annette loved the Tarkeeth Forest with a fierce passion. She took the fight to its enemies, and Adèle and I were there with her when fainter hearts fell by the wayside. She defended her forest literally to her last breath.

We now know that her illness was a longtime coming, but the day she started to die was was the day FC started to cut down the trees right next to her home, the forest where her beloved animals lived. We’ve lost a fine forest defender and an irreplaceable one.

Four days before the end, I read to her a poem by the wonderful Irish poet William Butler Yeats. I’ve loved Yeat’s poetry since my schooldays, from the moment our headmaster recited to us Aedh wishes for the cloths of heaven. She hugged me to her, kissed me and said “thank you”. When I’d left, a nurse told her sister that a lovely man came in today and read to her from the Bible.

Annette would’ve smiled at that.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Farewell,  old friend , forest neighbour, and drinking buddy – weve lost couny of the many bottles of fizz weve downed togeher (most always French) – and Farewell to a Tarkeeth Tiger.

Gumbaynggirr postscript

What I did not say on that day – and I regret they I did not –  was that in addition to her well-known passion for the forest and its animals, Annette was a passionate advocate for indigenous Australians, and particularly the Gumbaynggirr, the traditional custodians of the Tarkeeth Forests:

I wanted, but right there in the moment, failed, to say this:

We are, indeed, gathering here on a registered Gumbaynggirr cultural heritage site. Important artifacts have been found here. Simple everyday tools, weapons and some extremely rare sacred items – which have all been repatriated by Annette’s much loved friend Michael Donovan. It is believed that this cultural area extends well into the logging area to my left and to the north up onto the Fernmount Range. Not far too, from here, in the Tarkeeth Forest, are rare, living, old growth scarred trees, and Annette brought Michael Donovan in to search.

Unfortunately, Michael Donovan cannot be here today. Here is in South Australia. Nor could  his parents be here to represent him. They are in Queensland. But Di will now read a letter from him. It was Di who brought Annette and Michael together.

In June 2020, in the wake of the devastating  bush fires of 2019-2020 and the midst of the COVID19 pandemic, Annette spoke to Bellingen community radio 2BBB about the Gumbaynggirr heritage of the Tarkeeth Forest:

On the afternoon Thursday 12th August, a smaller group of friends gathered to celebrate Annette’s birthday and to lay her ashes in the Buddha Garden close to her cottage. As on 19th July, a rainbow appeared in the north. Her beloved but aged cat Jet followed her into the hereafter on the following Monday.

Our deepest condolences to Annette’s mother Kay, her sister Marianne, and her brothers Paul and Mark.

She comes in colours everywhereShe’s like a rainbow

Rest In Peace – Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un – We belong to God and to Him do we return

إِنَّا لِلَّٰهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ

Annette with Julian King and Peter Greste 2017

Paradise Park

For more Bellingen stories in In That Howling Infinite’s Tall tales, small stories, obituaries and epiphanies, see: The Country Life ; A Tale of Twin Pines; The schools of the Tarkeeth: Crossing the South Arm

A Brief Guide to the ‘Tribes’ of Bellingen 

Bellingen is famous for its diversity. Not its cultural diversity – it has always been predominantly white man’s land – on land appropriated from Gumbaynggirr nation. But rather, it’s social diversity.

Bellingen is broadly made up of four amorphous “tribes”.

Here for ever, it seems, are the old farming and logging families. They were and remain conservative and Christian, and traditionally vote for the rural-based,National Party. Some call them the “born to rulers” because they’ve dominated local politics since local politics were invented – when you own the ball, you pick the team.

Then, in the mid-seventies, enter “the new comers”, predominantly city-bred young folk, seeking what was then called an “alternative lifestyle”. People still remember, some in tribute, others in rebuke, “when the hippies came to town.

Many bought up cheap land from dairy farmers who wanted to get out of the business, and established what were colloquially called “communes” but were officially designated “multiple occupancies” because families and friends would form cooperatives among themselves, buy land “in common”, and allot members house sites on which they built their own homes. There are still many such multiple occupancies in the Shire, characterized by their ‘new age’ names;; but most have lost their ‘communitarian’ ethos and lifestyle.

Some hippies wanted a life on the land. Others became artisans, artists and musicians; and many established businesses in town, like ”healthy food” shops and cafés and galleries and craft shops. They looked, dressed, thought and lived differently to the rest of the population. They practiced alternative religions, healthcare and lifestyle, and were politically progressive.

There was inevitably resentment on the part of many locals – and conflict. Town hall meetings were held to “run the hippies out of town”. When the newcomers opened a market in town, the council closed it down. When they established a community centre where the present council chambers stand, council tore it down in the dead of night.

But if time does not heal all wounds, these don’t hurt as much. As the years went by, many people married someone from the “other mob”, and the children of the old tribe and the new mixed with each other in schools, workplaces and social gatherings. Mostly, of the offspring followed the political, social and cultural footsteps of their parents.

In the nineties, and right up up to the present, a fourth and fifth “tribe” arrived in town.

Bellingen continues to attract younger people with what they perceive as Bellingen’s “hippie” and “alternative” reputation., with love and peace in their hearts and wellness and wokeness in their souls.

But increasingly, the town has witnessed an influx of more well-off city people seeking what is called a “sea change” or “tree change”. Many are retired and have sold their city homes at a good price, and purchase country properties with the idea of leading a quieter, slower life in beautiful surroundings. Others are professional people and tradespeople who also want a change of lifestyle, and a pleasant place to raise their families.

As with the earlier migrations, the reception of the newcomers is a mixed one. Some do not like the way the character of the town is changing with the arrival of people who are unaware of and even indifferent to the town’s past. Others are anxious when they see rents and house prices increase beyond what they can afford.

As always, the place is changing, and we cannot see what will become of the town and its diverse residents. But, always, at the end of the day, it’s a grand place to call home.

Postscript – About Bellingen

We have been visiting Bellingen Shire for the last thirty years, and moved a house onto our bush block over twenty years ago. Bellingen, the Bellinger Valley on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, is well known as a picturesque, well-preserved (founded in 1870) country town. In former times, it was the centre of a thriving dairy and timber industry, and more recently, as a popular tourist spot between the university city of Armidale and the country music capital of Tamworth to the west, and the Pacific “holiday coast” of Coffs Harbour, Sawtell, Urunga, and Nambucca Heads, to the east, with their sand, surf and sun.

Between the two is the Great Dividing Range, the rolling, high country escarpment of the New England Plateau with its gorges and waterfalls, and the world-heritage Dorrigo National Park with it timeless, untouched rainforests – a “land that time forgot”. And linking them all, the old trunk road, aptly if touristically named Waterfall Way.

Bellingen is popular for its cafes and coffee shops, craft industries and shops, music festivals, and federation facades. It’s visual appeal, and it’s bucolic rural environs have seen the town used on many occasions as a film location. In the seventies, it was a Mecca for young people seeking an alternative lifestyle. The hills thereabout are still scattered with cooperatives and communes, or, in local council-speak, multiple occupancies. In the old days, no love was lost between the “hippies” and the farmers and loggers, and politics were dominated by the rural, conservative “born to rule” National and Country Party. Nowadays, it’s heir, the National Party still dominates the political scene, but its clear majorities decrease fractionally election by election, and by the turn of the century, there may no longer be a National Party member. But demographics do change, as does society. The hippies’ children and the farmers’ kids grew up together, attended the high school together, played, partied, and paired together, and now, there are grand children and great grandchildren.

As the timber and dairy industry has declined, Bellingen’s economy has changed. Once exclusively agrarian – including a time as one of the prime producers of cannabis sativa – tourism now plays a vital role. Bellingen advertises itself to visitors and to present and future residents as a clean, green and sustainable shire. Nature’s wonderland, from its golden beaches to its mountain rainforests and waterfalls. A Tourist Heaven with a cornucopia of recreational activities for young and old – from lazy bathing and picnicking to energetic rambling and trecking, camping and climbing, canoeing and fishing. A cultural mecca with many cafes, live music, craft and artisan shops, and music and writers’ festivals.

Two years ago, the online magazine Traveller published a breathless paean to “the bohemian town that is heaven on earth’. Happy traveller Sheriden Rhodes wrote: Some places are so beautiful; it feels like holy ground. For me, Bellingen has always had that consecrated feeling. It’s obvious, given the name the early pioneers gave the Promised Land, a scenic 10 minute-drive from Bellingen’s township itself. Here the land is so abundantly verdant and fruitful; it literally drips with milk and honey. It’s a place so special the fortunate locals that call it home, including its most famous residents George Negus and David Helfgott would much rather keep all to themselves”.

This is the marketing spin hyped up by the council, the chamber of commerce, and real estate and B&B interests. The reality is somewhat different. Bellingen and the “Holiday Coast” generally have seen a large influx of city folk seeking a different lifestyle for themselves and their children, and also of retirees seeking rural or seaside tranquility – in such numbers that Coffs Harbour and its seaside satellites have become in many ways the Costa Geriatrica.

Many newcomers are not fully aware that the Coffs Coast generally is one of the poorest areas of rural New South Wales. Statistics for youth unemployment and senior poverty are among the highest in the state with all the attendant economic, social and psychological impacts as evidenced by high rates of depression, domestic violence and substance abuse. Health and transport services outside the urban centres are  pretty poor. Rising property values and high rents price low-income families and singles out of the market. Decreasing profit margins have forced many of those attractive cafes and coffee shops to close.

Nor is the clean, green, sustainable shire as picture perfect as the brochures portray It. There is environmental degradation with clear-felling and land-clearing, and flammable, monoculture, woodchip-bound eucalyptus plantations that encircle Bellingen – a potential fire bomb primed to explode during one of our scorching, hot dry summers. There is generational degradation of the Bellinger’s banks and the graveling up of its once deep depths. And there the encroachment and expansion of water-hungry, pesticide and herbicide reliant blueberry farms,

But on the right side of the ledger, we in the Shire are indeed blessed by Mother Nature. The coastline boasts magnicent headlands and promontories, and long, pristine and often deserted beaches. The World Heritage Gondwana rainforests are a national treasure, and surrounding national parks truly are a natural wonderland. We never tire of the drive from Urunga to Armidale via Waterfall Way, as it crosses the Great Dividing Range and the New England Plateau. The Kalang River as it flows beside South Arm Road and between the Tarkeeth and Newry State Forests is itself one of the Shire’s hidden and largely unvisited secrets, a haven for fishermen, canoeist and all who love mucking about in boats.

Compared to many places on this planet, we’ve really not much to complain about …

The Bonfire of the Insanities 2- the EU’s Biomass Dilemma

The Biomass Greenwash revisited

I believe in Santa, fairies, leprechauns and unicorns; I believe that politicians don’t lie, that the Pope is infallible, and that capitalism provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number

But I don’t buy the biofuel greenwash!

As Abe Lincoln, said, you can fool some of the people some of the time, and most of the people most of the time. And yet, never underestimate the capacity and willingness of some people to swallow bullshit for decades. Probably became they NEED to believe that something is being done about climate change and carbon emissions, and the boosters of biomass promise clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power. As some wits might ask, what’s the point of having a big brain if we insist on not using it?

In an earlier article, The Bonfire of the Insanities – the Biomass Greenwash, we described how the European Union’s desperation to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels kicked off a demand for wood pellets for burning to generate electricity that in turn created an industry. Promising clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power, it came for what it called forest waste, and then it came for the forest itself.

We revealed how a deliberate accounting error determined biomass burning to be carbon neutral, whilst a mechanism to prevent counting carbon twice became a rule that carbon wasn’t counted at all. Indeed, it was declared that the burning of biomass was “instant carbon sequestration” whilst emissions exuding from the new-age power stations were actually “biogenic carbon” – green power!

Since the widespread distribution of North Carolina’s Dogwood Alliance’s hard hitting film  BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?the true scale of the biofuel greenwash is being given the publicity it needs. The true colours of rebadged, born-again power plants like Drax near Selby, Yorkshire, the world’s biggest and hungriest, and our own Redbank in the Hunter Valley (more on that later), are now there for all the world to see. And they are not green.

A backlash against this greenwash is growing apace in Europe and the USA. But not in Australia, it would appear. Government and industry are enchanted by the lure of biomass with its carbon credit rewards and the prospect of creating a dependent, profitable domestic supply chain.

“We, the people” have yet to cotton on to the biofuel industry’s corporate jiggerypokery and semantic sleight of hand. In Australia and elsewhere, the general public, forest industry nostalgists, conservative politicians, and, even, many environmentalists believe that we are saving forests from destruction by using plantations for jobs and construction timber, when in fact the former are few, supplanted by hi-tech mechanization, and latter is destined for pulp mills and power plants.

While we in northern New South Wales might be alarmed about re-tooled plants like Drax and those in Ireland’s Midlands, something wicked this way comes. There is little community awareness of what is looming, and state and federal politicians chose to keep quiet about it.

Our State government has started implementing its plan for 70-80% of renewable electricity in our region to be generated by burning trees. As we’ve seen in our own Tarkeeth State Forest, biomass extraction is a shockingly destructive practice, and it is one which is destroying environments and communities all over the world.

Biomass extraction in Tarkeeth Forest, Bellingen Shire

In this grave new world, whole log “residues” can be chipped and transported to power stations or transported and then chipped in the power station, as at Vales Point on NSW’s Central Coast and Cape Byron in the north. Native forest biomass burnt with or without coal or something else, props up emission intensive enterprises with its “carbon neutral, renewable energy, subsidy attracting” hypnotism. Or else, the forest biomass is exported, as pellets, woodchip or whole trees.

It is a new industry for our own Bellingen Shire which is now supplying biomass to Cape Byron Power’s co-generation plant at Broadwater south of Byron Bay, the north coast tourist mecca and real estate hot zone.

The plan for our region is for 70-80% of renewable energy to be generated from forest biomass. By the middle of the year the former coal-fired Redbank Power Station at Singleton in the Hunter Valley, will be rebooted and burning 100% biomass, most of it to be sourced from forests up the 400km away. Redbank will be one of the largest wood burning electricity generators in the world. At 151 megawats, it five times bigger than either Broadwater or Condong,

Paul Hemphill © 2021

See also in In That Howling Infinite, The Bonfire of the Insanities – the biofuel greenwash; The Return of the Forest Wars and If You Go Down to the Woods Today 

In a brief statement and a powerful interview on Bellingen Community Radio 2BBB, Bellingen academic Dr Tim Cadman makes the global  and local case against  burning trees for electricity. and here, you can watch his short FaceBook video about the Tarkeeth biomass and Broadwater power station here: ttps://fb.watch/v/3Is1JLwio/.  Follow the truck from forest to furnace

Tim Cadman: the truth about Biomass ‘Green Power’

My name is Tim Cadman, I am a Research Fellow in the Law Futures Centre at Griffith University,  specializing in environmental policy, governance, sustainability, natural resource management including  forestry, and climate change. I am a ‘pracademic’ and spend a lot of my time working in developing countries in practical on-the-ground action-based research, including Papua New Guinea and the Brazilian Amazon.

I have been following, and attending the international climate change negotiations since 2001, when I exposed how forestry companies were clearing ancient rainforest on behalf of energy companies to create plantations for ‘carbon credits.’ Sadly, over twenty years later, this same problem is still besetting meaningful action on climate change.

I want to address so-called bio-energy, or biomass energy, and how it has become central to the destruction of forests in developed countries such as the US, UK, Australia and Europe, all in the name of ‘green’ power.

In the early days of the international climate negotiations an unintentional ‘loophole’ was created in discussions around what was termed ‘land use, land-use change and forestry’ (LULUCF). In the debate around how to count emissions from land use for agriculture, policymakers made a decision that all crops were the same, and as they were planted, harvested, and grew back, these emissions did not need to be counted. This included forestry, and this decision made its way into the Kyoto Protocol, and carbon ‘offsets’.

It doesn’t make sense for forests, which are not crops, are full of biodiversity, regulate climate, filter water, and provide a range of what are called ecosystem services that a field of carrots do not. This same problem, now admitted as such by many policy makers, has been repeated in the new Paris Agreement.

The consequence is that forests have now become a major source of electricity in Europe, the UK, and elsewhere.

As much forest as is grown across the UK every year is now burnt in just one power station, Drax, and is imported from the forests of the South east of the US, and the inland ancient temperate rainforests of Canada.

This same problem is being repeated here. In the mid north coast of NSW, under the guise of making use of what are called forest ‘residues’, large areas of forests are being cleared and converted to hardwood plantations. As with wood-chipping for pulp and paper, which originally was designed to make use of branches, such activities become a driver of deforestation, and the processing of ‘waste’ becomes the tail that wags the dog.

To make matters worse, there are now two converted sugar mills in the region that are  burning this wood for so-called ‘green’ energy and feeding it into the national grid. In short, our renewable energy is  contaminated.

And finally, to things even more dire, burning forests for power is worse than coal. The wood is wet, it is transported often up to two hundred kilometres in huge trucks, the source forest is burnt as part of forestry management. Capturing these emissions is just not possible.

This is the danger facing the forests of NSW. Forests are worth so much more, and in this period of unprecedented climate change, we need forests standing tall, not sent up the chimney.

Dr Tim Cadman © 2021

Tim Cadman BA (Hons) MA (Cantab), PhD (Tasmania), Grad. Cert. Theol. (Charles Sturt) Senior Research Fellow, Earth Systems Governance Project. Research Fellow, Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law. Griffith University

The road to hell is paved with flawed intentions

We republish below the full text of an article that appeared in The Financial Times on 1st July. As the debate ramps up here in New South Wales, it is a timely and informative wake-up call for environmentalists and governments alike.

Like BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?, it reveals how dirty fuel and dodgy mathematics, a generous subsidies system and stringent climate targets incentivises the use of biomass without adequate safeguards. It will require “large-scale logging  of the forests we need to store carbon”, says Almuth Ernsting, from the campaign group Biofuelwatch. And yet, current EU rules permit the use of whole trees for energy production.

Biomass fuels include pellets, organic waste and crops grown for energy. They produce around half of the world’s renewable energy, and 60 per cent of the EU’s, and are treated as carbon neutral if certain sustainability conditions are met. Across Europe and Asia, the two main markets for pellets, governments hand out billions in subsidies to the industry each year. And as the world races to decarbonise, the use of wood-based biomass is expected to increase. In a report this year about the pathway to net zero, the International Energy Agency said solid bioenergy could produce around 14 per cent of global energy in 2050, compared with just 5 per cent last year.

With a review of the bloc’s climate legislation imminent, ministers from countries including Finland, Estonia and Sweden asked for “all forms” of bioenergy currently labelled as renewable to also qualify as sustainable investments, “keeping in mind” the EU’s decarbonisation commitments. It was a none too subtle reminder that if the status of biomass is changed it may be almost impossible for the EU to meet its target for renewables to provide a third of all energy usage across the region by 2030. The politics of all this is perverse, says a former White House climate adviser.

According to a leaked commission document, Brussels plans to prevent some forms of wood-burning energy from counting towards the bloc’s green energy goals. Campaigners say the changes must go much further, by excluding forest biomass from the renewables list altogether. “We should not be subsidising people to cut down trees and burn them,” says Ariel Brunner, head of EU policy at conservation group BirdLife International. “The notion that you can save emissions by burning carbon fundamentally doesn’t work.”

Chopping down trees, shipping them around the world on carbon-intensive vessels and burning the wood for energy “doesn’t comport with the idea of clean energy”, says Sasha Stashwick, from the Natural Resources Defence Council, a US-based non-profit organisation.

Pellets can actually emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels when burnt, since wood is less dense. But the industry argues that those emissions are offset by the carbon absorbed by trees as they regrow. If the wood is being sourced from sustainably managed forests — where the volume of carbon stored in the trees is “stable or increasing” — the biomass is carbon neutral, the industry says. However, landscape assessments ignore the fact that trees would have grown more and absorbed extra carbon had they not been harvested, say some scientists and campaigners.

A reduction in the amount of carbon being absorbed “is effectively the same as a tonne more of emissions”, says Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a climate campaign group.

The industry is keen to impress that it does not cut down trees that would otherwise remain standing. Instead, pellets are made largely from wood residues — such as offcuts from trees harvested for other purposes — that would normally go to waste or end up rotting.“The forest is never harvested for biomass,” since it is more profitable to use the wood for furniture or other products, says Jean-Marc Jossart, secretary-general of trade association Bioenergy Europe.

Non-profit environmental organisations dispute this, and point to photos of trucks piled high with tree trunks en route to pellet mills. Belinda Joyner, a resident of Garysburg, North Carolina, who has spoken out against the nearby Enviva mill, says the trucks driving through town carry “whole trees”, adding: “I’ve never seen a truck with little logs.”

Enviva says concerns about whole trees are “one of the most common misperceptions . . . An untrained or uneducated eye often mistakes low-value wood for high-value lumber.” Large logs might be diseased or deformed, and unable to be used for other purposes, the company adds.

Oh yeah!

The EU’s Biomass Dilemma – can burning trees ever be green?

Camilla Hodgson, Financial Times ,1 July 2021

In May, a billboard appeared outside the EU parliament in Brussels playing a video that showed sparse, deforested woodland, spliced together with footage of the bloc’s top climate official, and the words “the EU burns forests as fuel”.

The protest formed part of a campaign by green groups to force Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president for the EU’s green deal, to strip forest biomass — combustible pellets burnt for energy — from the list of energy sources classified in Europe as renewable. The argument goes beyond definitions. Weeks earlier, nervous about the growing pressure on policymakers to change the rules, ministers from 10 European countries wrote to Timmermans to stress the “crucial role” played by bioenergy fuels, such as pellets, in helping member states meet the EU’s climate goals.

With a review of the bloc’s climate legislation imminent, ministers from countries including Finland, Estonia and Sweden asked for “all forms” of bioenergy currently labelled as renewable to also qualify as sustainable investments, “keeping in mind” the EU’s decarbonisation commitments.

It was a none too subtle reminder that if the status of biomass is changed it may be almost impossible for the EU to meet its target for renewables to provide a third of all energy usage across the region by 2030.

The fact that biomass pellets are produced from carbon-absorbing trees makes them controversial Biomass fuels include pellets, organic waste and crops grown for energy. They produce around half of the world’s renewable energy, and 60 per cent of the EU’s, and are treated as carbon neutral if certain sustainability conditions are met. Across Europe and Asia, the two main markets for pellets, governments hand out billions in subsidies to the industry each year.

But what producers use to make pellets — carbon-absorbing trees, which governments and companies are turning to as part of the solution to runaway climate change — makes them highly controversial.

EU policymakers are now debating changes to the treatment of wood-burning energy as part of a wide-ranging package of measures to cut emissions, due to be published on July 14 — revisions that could wreak havoc with the bloc’s renewable energy target and commitment to more than halve emissions by 2030.

“Without relying heavily on wood biomass,” many member states “will find it very difficult to meet their future commitments, be it emissions reductions or renewable energy commitments,” says Jorgen Henningsen, former EU commission director responsible for climate change.

Climate Capital

Any changes could also call into question the legitimacy of EU countries having used the fuel to cut emissions up to now, and narrow the options for further decarbonising the power industry and other sectors.

“The politics of it is so perverse,” says Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser. The idea that national targets might determine the future for biomass, rather than its true environmental impact, is “absurd”.

According to a leaked commission document, Brussels plans to prevent some forms of wood-burning energy from counting towards the bloc’s green energy goals. Campaigners say the changes must go much further, by excluding forest biomass from the renewables list altogether. “We should not be subsidising people to cut down trees and burn them,” says Ariel Brunner, head of EU policy at conservation group BirdLife International. “The notion that you can save emissions by burning carbon fundamentally doesn’t work.”

A heavily subsidised sector

The multibillion-dollar market for pellets — the modern iteration of a centuries-old fuel — took off in 2009, after the EU classified biomass, at the time little used, as a renewable energy source alongside solar and wind. That incentivised countries with clean energy targets to adopt the fuel, and made the industry eligible for subsidies. In 2018 — the most recent year for which figures are available — EU countries handed out €10.3bn in support for the biomass sector.

Growth over the past decade “has been tremendous”, says Thomas Meth, executive vice-president of sales and marketing at Enviva, a major US-based pellet producer. The EU’s 2009 move was “certainly one of the catalysts”.

Energy is the world’s indispensable business and Energy Source is its newsletter. Every Tuesday and Thursday, direct to your inbox, Energy Source brings you essential news, forward-thinking analysis and insider intelligence. Sign up here.

Much of the millions of tonnes of pellets used globally is made and exported from expansive forests across the US south-east. The US, Vietnam and Canada were the largest exporters of wood pellets by volume in 2019, according to UN data.

And as the world races to decarbonise, the use of wood-based biomass is expected to increase. In a report this year about the pathway to net zero, the International Energy Agency said solid bioenergy could produce around 14 per cent of global energy in 2050, compared with just 5 per cent last year.

UK power company Drax,a major user and supplier of pellets, says the market will be driven by “increasingly ambitious global decarbonisation targets”.

The industry insists swelling demand for these small, cylindrical chips can be met sustainably, and that responsibly produced biomass is carbon neutral since the emissions generated by burning pellets are sucked up by regrowing trees.

Green groups challenge the neutrality argument, and warn that increasing production puts natural forests in jeopardy. Using more biomass will require “large-scale logging . . . of the forests we need to store carbon”, says Almuth Ernsting, from the campaign group Biofuelwatch.

Drax power station in Yorkshire. The industry insists responsibly produced biomass is carbon neutral, as emissions from burning pellets are sucked up by regrowing trees © Alamy ‘We need the right biomass’

The debate in the EU is coming to a head over possible changes to the bloc’s renewable energy framework — one of many pieces of legislation being updated to align with the region’s ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent by 2030.

“We are expecting an almighty fight,” says BirdLife’s Brunner. “There’s a very powerful bloc of European governments completely enslaved to the agricultural and forest lobby.”

A person familiar with the discussions in Brussels, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the biomass question is “one of the most politically sensitive files” in the climate package. It has divided agencies, with the commission’s environment department wanting tougher biomass rules and the energy department pushing back.

But if European lawmakers strip “bio-based energy” from the renewables framework, “Europe will not meet any of its goals”, says Enviva’s Meth. Drastic changes are not “realistic”, he adds.

Timmermans himself has said that without biomass the EU will be unable to achieve its clean energy goals. “We need biomass in the mix, but we need the right biomass . . . I hate the images ofwhole forests being cut down to be put in an incinerator,” he told the Euractiv website in May.

Current EU rules permit the use of whole trees for energy production, though say this should be “minimised”. Critics say the rules are too lax, and that the combination of subsidies and climate targets incentivises the use of biomass without sufficient safeguards.

Under UN guidance, emissions from biomass are reported by countries in the land, rather than the energy, sector. As a result, importing nations can enjoy lower domestic emissions and rely on pellet-producing countries to count the carbon.

Although the rules should deter producing countries from over harvesting, counting land sector emissions accurately is notoriously difficult — a view disputed by some in the industry. “The level of accuracy and transparency with which different countries measure and report land use emissions varies,” says Claire Fyson, policy analyst at Climate Analytics, a non-profit organisation. The risk is of “importing biomass that hasn’t been sustainably produced, or whose emissions from harvesting haven’t been accurately measured”, she adds.
Incentives for ‘burning wood’

The backdrop to the political jostling is a longstanding argument between scientists, campaigners and the industry about whether biomass is carbon neutral.

In February, more than 500 scientists wrote to the European Commission and European Council presidents, urging them “not to undermine both climate goals and the world’s biodiversity by shifting from burning fossil fuels to burning trees”. They added: “Governments must end subsidies and other incentives that today exist for the burning of wood.”

Chopping down trees, shipping them around the world on carbon-intensive vessels and burning the wood for energy “doesn’t comport with the idea of clean energy”, says Sasha Stashwick, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a US-based non-profit organisation.

Wood pellet plant in Ahoskie, North Carolina. © The Washington Post via Getty Images

Pellets can actually emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels when burnt, since wood is less dense. But the industry argues that those emissions are offset by the carbon absorbed by trees as they regrow. If the wood is being sourced from sustainably managed forests — where the volume of carbon stored in the trees is “stable or increasing” — the biomass is carbon neutral, the industry says.

The complex calculation of whether carbon measures are “stable or increasing” is done at a “landscape” level — vast areas surrounding pellet mills that can span millions of hectares. Enviva and Drax say assessments of the US forests they source from are done roughly every five years using the country’s Forest Service data, in addition to other monitoring.

However, landscape assessments ignore the fact that trees would have grown more and absorbed extra carbon had they not been harvested, say some scientists and campaigners. A reduction in the amount of carbon being absorbed “is effectively the same as a tonne more of emissions”, says Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a climate campaign group.

Broad landscape assessments can also obscure the effects on forests of pellet production as opposed to other uses of the wood such as making furniture or paper, says Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. If forests are managed so that “they have no net growth, that’s negative for climate change”, he adds. Preventing additional growth is “so obviously wrong. Why does [the industry’s argument] take people in?”

The industry is keen to impress that it does not cut down trees that would otherwise remain standing. Instead, pellets are made largely from wood residues — such as offcuts from trees harvested for other purposes — that would normally go to waste or end up rotting.

“The forest is never harvested for biomass,” since it is more profitable to use the wood for furniture  or other products, says Jean-Marc Jossart, secretary-general of trade association Bioenergy Europe.

Non-profit organisations dispute this, and point to photos of trucks piled high with tree trunks en route to pellet mills. Belinda Joyner, a resident of Garysburg, North Carolina, who has spoken out against the nearby Enviva mill, says the trucks driving through town carry “whole trees”, adding: “I’ve never seen a truck with little logs.”

Enviva says concerns about whole trees are “one of the most common misperceptions . . . An untrained or uneducated eye often mistakes low-value wood for high-value lumber.” Large logs might be diseased or deformed, and unable to be used for other purposes, the company adds.

Net zero emission plans around the world map out an increasing use of biomass as countries race to dump fossil fuel energy. The IEA’s latest decarbonisation report estimates that the amount of land dedicated to bioenergy production could rise from 330m hectares in 2020 to 410m in 2050 — an increase roughly equivalent to the size of Turkey — if bioenergy use jumps as expected Stressing the need to proceed carefully, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre warned this year that most EU countries’ energy and climate plans did not “include an adequate assessment of the potential impacts of expanding forest bioenergy”. Only one out of the 24 woody biomass scenarios it modelled was likely to pose no risk to biodiversity and deliver short-term climate benefits, it concluded.

How the fuel is used may also change. Some strategies for reaching net zero talk about coupling biomass with nascent carbon capture and storage technology, which advocates say will generate “negative emissions”, in effect removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Critics say the technology is unproven at scale, and that negative emissions are only achievable if the biomass fuel is definitely carbon neutral. Without guarantees that it is, “we should certainly not be going full steam ahead” with the technology, says Phil MacDonald, chief operating officer at think-tank Ember Climate. “In theory, it can work,” he adds. But “you have to get things precisely correct along a complex supply chain.”

In its 2020 emissions inventory, the EU said the “very strong increase in the use of biomass for energy” had reduced carbon pollution across the region, though did not say by how much. will pay? Europe’s bold plan on emissions risks political blowback A lobbyist familiar with the discussions in Brussels, speaking on condition of anonymity, says changes beyond those outlined in the leaked document are likely, and that efforts are under way to limit which types of forest biomass are eligible for subsidies. “The challenge” for lawmakers is partly how drastic changes will be seen, he adds: the EU may have to “stand up in public and [say] what we have been doing . . . hasn’t worked”.

Martin Pigeon, from environmental campaign group Fern, says the  commission is “really split internally”, and there is “a serious fight going on” between the energy and environment departments. “Timmermans and [commission president Ursula] von der Leyen seem to be trying to broker a compromise,” he adds. But the risk is that the commission continues to “tinker at the edges of current sustainability criteria . . . without [producing] anything of substance”. In the US, green groups are hoping the Biden administration steers clear of biomass as it works towards its new goal of halving emissions by 2030.

The controversy in the EU over how biomass has been classified and used — including the subsidy system that incentivises its use — should be a “cautionary tale”, says Laura Haight, US policy director at the PFPI. “It’s essential that we define our policies carefully so that we don’t have the outcome that [they have] had.

Broadwater power station NSW

The agony and extinction of Blinky Bill

In 1991, Australian publishers Allen & Unwin, the Aussie buyout of the antipodean subsidiary of the venerable British publisher that gave us JRR Tolkien, published an original political and environmental history of Australia: William J Lines’ Taming The Great South Land – a history of the conquest of nature in Australia.

It was, and remains, an eye-opener and a page-turner. All our past, present and future environmental hotspots are covered. Squatters and selectors,  rabbits and real estate, hydro and homosexuals, uranium and aluminum, environmental degradation and deforestation, and the trials of our indigenous fellow-citizens who who up until a referendum in 1967 were classified as fauna and excluded from censuses. 

Behind many of the names that are attached to our suburbs, our highways, our rivers and our mountains are the names of dead white men who were aware of, even witnessed, and were often complicit in “dark deeds in a sunny land”. Perhaps I shall write more on this at a later date, but meanwhile, the following is what Lines has to say about our iconic wildlife, and particularly, our endangered koalas.

At the beginning of white settlement, it is believed that there were millions of koalas across Australia. But their’ perennial paradox and their doom has been that they and humans covet the same habitats – good land and good soil. We have always sought to acquire, clear and develop the land they like for timber, for farmland and for development. Research by the World Wildlife Fund has shown that eastern Australia is one of eleven deforestation hotspots in the world, the only OECD country on the list.

Lines writes that at the turn of the twentieth century, state governments were less concerned with planting trees than with “how to kill a forest quickly”. “Elsewhere in Australia, “settlers regarded native animals an obstacle to development, the equal of native trees. The morality of development sanctioned virtually unlimited increases in the quantity of humans and tolerated virtually any decrease in the populations of other life forms – except animals directly useful to humans, such as sheep and cattle”. 

Settlers and professional hunters therefore shot anything that moved in the bush. Around the turn of the century, encouraged by an international demand for fur – primarily for the fashionably consciousness in Britain and the US – hunters began killing large numbers of koalas. In 1908, 58,000 koalas passed through the Sydney markets. In1924 over two million were exported from the eastern states. By the late twenties, the total total nationwide is reckoned to have been about eight million. 

By the end of the Great War the koala was extinct in South Australia. Other native animals survived, however, so in 1920, SA removed the brush-tailed possum from the protected list. Within four months, hunters trapped more than 100 000. As a consequence of hunting and habitat destruction, over 70 percent of native land mammals in South Australia are now extinct, extremely rare or uncommon and endangered.

In 1927 the Queensland government declared open season on possums and koalas. The eradication of wild animals, the government believed, promoted closer settlement. Despite widespread protest the government persisted the slaughter, and within months 10 000 trappers disposed of over one million possums and 600 000 koalas – more than the total number of koalas which remain alive in the whole of Australia today. The carnage caused the virtual elimination of koalas from Queensland. 

Four years later New South Wales declared open season on possums and during June and July 1931, hunters and trappers brought over 800 000 possum skins to market. To avoid offending the sensibilities of city nature lovers, merchants marketed possum as chinchilla and koala skins as wombat. 

Efforts to protect the koala have and remain a matter of “one step forwards, two steps back”. To burnish their dubious environmental credentials, governments broadcast their good intentions, announce inquiries and censuses, and then withdraw discretely in the face of all-too-friendly fire from political and industrial interest groups and their lobbyists. A WWF scientist has remarked that ”drop bears have more teeth than of the (National Koala Conservation and Management) Strategy”. It was not just on the Big Rock Candy Mountain that the cops had wooden legs and the bulldogs, rubber teeth.

In her masterful and lyrically beautiful “Fathoms – the the world in the whale” (Scribe 2020), – the Sydney Morning Herald called it a “a marvelous work of haunted wonder” – Australian author Rebecca Griggs notes how we earthlings anthropomorphized the leviathan of the deep as the symbol and indeed monument to our fall from environmental grace and our quixotic hopes for a return to Eden. Writer and author Stephanie Wood attaches a similar symbolism to Australia’s iconic marsupial in a well-written feature on our koalas’ dire straits. We reproduce this in full below. 

“Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it is usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so”, she writes. Echoing Griggs, she asks: “if we can’t save koalas, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to save ourselves”.

See also In That Howling Infinite: Losing Earth – Tarkeeth and other matters environmental

Featured photograph: In the thirty years we have owned our property in Tarkeeth Forest, much of which has been designated primary koala habitat, we have heard koalas in the surrounding forest, but , we have never seen one – until the day after Christmas last year. Meet Chrissy Dunggir (that’s Gumbaynggirr for koala).

How good were koalas?’: A national treasure in peril

Dwindling habitat. Climate change. Mega-bushfires. Koalas face dire threats, yet politicians continue to obfuscate.

Stephanie Wood, Sydney Morning Herald 6th February 2021

A koala in a tree on Kangaroo Island, South Australia: “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.”

Kangaroo Island, South Australia: “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.” Ricky Carioti, Washington Post/Getty
Every summer for a decade now, the curious photos have surfaced: a koala gulping water from a firefighter’s bottle, a koala drinking from a watering can, another on its belly trying to slurp from a swimming pool. By late 2019, images were popping up daily: a koala clinging to a bike as a cyclist tipped water into its mouth, another drinking from a pot of water while a dog stood nearby. In northern NSW near Moree, one was photographed in the middle of a road after rain, its curling pink tongue licking a puddle.

The comments came from around the world: “OMG, so cute” and “How adorable!”

But there was something unsettling about the images; koalas don’t drink water, they get the moisture they need from gum leaves. Don’t they? Even scientists and koala experts who knew the species was in peril were unlikely to have realised just how portentous the images were.

In spring 2019, the fires started.

There was nothing cute about the new images, which came in a flood. Koalas with bandaged paws and scorched ears nestling in laundry baskets in a wildlife volunteer’s lounge room. A huddled koala trying to drink from a Kangaroo Island dam, the charred carcass of another nearby. A woman stripped down to her bra running out of a blaze near Port Macquarie holding a koala in her shirt; if you watched the video, you heard the koala mewling in pain as the woman doused it in water.

As the imagery spread and the world’s attention focused on this devastating escalation of the koala crisis, the animal became a global symbol of environmental grief and fear. Prayers and messages of love rained down. So did money. Port Macquarie’s Koala Hospital created a GoFundMe account with a $25,000 goal and got nearly $8 million. From Kazakhstan to Kentucky, people sewed mittens for burnt paws. A cosmetics firm made eucalyptus-scented, koala-shaped soap to raise funds. A little boy in Massachusetts moulded the marsupials in clay and his parents gave one to every person who donated more than $50 to the cause. A friend in London couldn’t stop crying. “You’re not looking at koala pics again, are you, Mum?” her daughter asked.

At the time of white settlement, it is believed there were millions of koalas across our continent. Two centuries later, before the 2019-20 fires, the most authoritative study available estimated 331,000 koalas remained in the wild nationally, 79,000 of which were in Queensland and 36,000 in NSW. But koala counting is a notoriously difficult exercise and the 2012 study, led by University of Queensland conservation biologist Dr Christine Adams-Hosking and drawing on the research of a number of koala experts, noted that in Queensland, population estimates ranged from 33,000 to 153,000, and in NSW from 14,000 to 73,000.

But if the numbers aren’t firm, one thing is: even before the fires, koala populations had been declining precipitously. Studies carried out in 2020 by Dr Steve Phillips, principal research scientist at environmental consultancy Biolink, found that in the past two decades, Queensland had lost half its koalas, and NSW a third. Experts are still trying to tally the full extent of Black Summer’s carnage but University of Sydney research found 61,000 koalas nationally and 8000 in NSW were injured, displaced or died during the fires.

We did this. Since settlement, our needs have always trumped those of koalas. We needed the land their trees were on. Sometimes we shot them to eat. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald in June 1851, the author noted that Aboriginal people called the creature a “kola” and settlers described it as “the native bear or monkey”. It was an animal with a “singular aspect”, he wrote, “its appearance is a sort of caricature upon gentlemen of the legal profession with their wigs on. It is said to be good eating, but is not frequently met with …”

“The response to the majority of recommendations were ‘Support in principle’ or ‘Noted’, which to me is saying, ‘We’re doing nothing’.”

We wanted their furs. From the late 19th century to the end of the 1920s, hunters slaughtered up to eight million koalas nationally to supply a voracious international fur market. Most went to England and the US, where they were described as “wombat fur” and often became part of that Jazz Age wardrobe essential, the fur collar wrap coat. By the late 1930s, the animal was considered extinct in South Australia and critically depleted elsewhere.

Still we wanted more: more land for farms and tree plantations and highways and developments of massive houses with manicured gardens. Developers saw dollar signs, their bulldozers kept moving. With all that came fast cars, feral animals, family pets and disease. A submission from a koala activist in northern NSW’s Ballina to the NSW parliamentary inquiry listed in wretched detail the fate of some local creatures: “Healthy breeding female, hit by car”; “Female, dog attack, dead”; “Male, retrovirus, ulcers in mouth and throat, hadn’t eaten for probably [two] weeks, maggots down throat while still alive, found sitting on a road after a storm”.

Above all else, our insatiable needs have led to the greatest threats koalas face: climate change and its handmaidens, more extreme droughts and bushfires. But despite the international spotlight the 2019-20 fires threw on the urgency of the species’ plight, one year on, governments have taken little meaningful action to protect the marsupial and its habitat.

The NSW Environment Minister, Matt Kean, says he wants to double koala numbers in the state by 2050 but in January his government announced it would fully commit to only 11 of the upper house inquiry’s 42 recommendations designed to protect koalas. Conservationists and koala scientists were horrified. “It’s really disheartening that the response to the vast majority of recommendations were ‘Support in principle’ or ‘Noted’, which to me is saying, ‘We’re doing nothing’,” Port Macquarie Koala Hospital clinical director Cheyne Flanagan says. “In koala circles, everyone’s disgusted.”

Meanwhile, for months through 2020 the koala became a political football after the Deputy Premier and National Party Leader, John Barilaro, staged a failed rebellion against his own government over koala policy. The result of the subsequent political wrangling was that, by the end of the year, policy to protect the species was weaker than it had been at the start.

Experts also point to the federal government’s shilly-shallying. Key national measures to protect the koala are either out of date or yet to be completed. “The koala was listed as a vulnerable species by the federal government in 2012; seven years later, we’re still waiting for a national koala recovery plan,” says Biolink’s Steve Phillips.

And what of the three billion other animals killed or displaced by last summer’s fires? One million lumbering wombats. More than 100,000 echidnas. Millions of kangaroos and wallabies; bandicoots, quokkas and potoroos. A terrible number of birds, lizards and frogs. The uncounted pretty beetles, butterflies and bugs. Well, it’s hard to spare too much emotional energy for a frill-neck lizard. But a koala … we can mourn a koala.

Scientists who study other species despair at the attention the koala gets. But a koala is emblematic; we feel in our bones that it says something important about us as Australians. “Koalas are woven into the narrative of Australia,” says Danielle Celermajer, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney and the author of the recently released book Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future. Dr Kellie Leigh, a koala scientist in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, offers an anthropomorphic explanation for why they have such a profound place in our psyche. “The whole thing about koalas is the head shape, with the forward-facing eyes and the big round head that instinctively reminds people of a human baby,” she says, adding that mobilising resources for koalas is not a single-species approach.

“They get people engaged in conservation who otherwise wouldn’t be.” The koala is also an “umbrella species”, depending on a broad range of habitats which are home to many other species. Put measures in place to protect koalas in the wild and other creatures will also be saved.

Given that fact, perhaps we should ask an inverse question: if we can’t save koalas, what can we save? And if we can’t save koalas, can we save ourselves?

A rolled-up towel serves as a tree-trunk substitute for this sedated koala during ANU research into the impact of bushfires.
A rolled-up towel serves as a tree-trunk substitute for this sedated koala during ANU research into the impact of bushfires. Micheal Weinhardt

Kellie Leigh names many of the Blue Mountains koalas she studies after gods “because we’re on the Mount Olympus for koalas … we’ve had Medusa, Mars, Athena”. The Greek mountain is the home of the gods and famously biodiverse. The Blue Mountains is – was – home to a surprising and remarkable population of koalas.

The mountains were long thought not to be propitious koala habitat, although records show there were at least some in residence. In a letter to the Sydney weekly The Catholic Press in 1921, a reader described a “shooting expedition” to Hazelbrook, during which her uncle shot a koala. She added that at one time, her family had kept at their Paddington home in Sydney four “tame native bears”, which had been captured in the mountains. After a month, one by one, they died. The last survivor sat in a backyard peach tree crying all night until the family decided to liberate it and “one evening at dusk we took it to Bellevue Hill”. The fur trade was believed to have knocked out any remaining in the mountains.

In 2013, during the devastating Blue Mountains bushfires, three koalas were seen emerging to seek water around the town of Winmalee. Another climbed a pole in a backyard near Mountain Lagoon. “It was like, ‘Hey, there are koalas … they haven’t been on record for a long time, what’s going on?’ ”, says Leigh, executive director of the not-for-profit Science for Wildlife, which in 2014 started to survey koalas at five sites in the mountains.

This koala, named Medusa, is being monitored by Science for Wildlife in Kanangra-Boyd National Park in the Blue Mountains in NSW.
This koala,Medusa, is being monitored by Science for Wildlife in Kanangra-Boyd NP, the
Blue Mountains, NSW. Dominic Lorrimer

Their significance could not be understated: they were largely within national park boundaries so developers could not get near them, they seemed to be breeding like rabbits and, most importantly, a study with which Leigh was involved found they had the highest genetic diversity within a koala population of any in Australia. Darwin 101: genetic variation individuals in a species allows for its adaptation to changing environmental circumstances and so ensures the survival of the species. Leigh dared to hope that the Blue Mountains koalas might one day help recolonise the broader World Heritage area.

Photo: Eddie Jim.

But genetic variation is of no assistance to a koala in the event of a mega-fire. In late October 2019, Leigh’s teams were surveying sites in Kanangra-Boyd National Park and in the Megalong Valley when lightning ignited a blaze 100 kilometres or so to the north. That fire, dubbed the Gospers Mountain fire, or “the monster”, would become Australia’s largest ever. In the days that followed, it raced in from the north, licking up Leigh’s survey sites in the south-east Wollemi National Park and on Newnes Plateau. Leigh pulled her teams out of the bush.

She floated an idea with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service: could she attempt to rescue some of the koalas at the Kanangra-Boyd site? “At the 12th hour we got a ‘yes’. ” Within two days, a Victorian climbing team had flown in and volunteers had started to track the radio signals coming from the koalas’ collars and scour canopies for creatures without collars. Two days after that, 12 koalas had been temporarily moved to Taronga Zoo.

It was a small triumph in a great tragedy. Only one of Leigh’s study sites – in the Lower Blue Mountains, near where residential areas were protected by firefighting efforts – was unaffected by the fires. She estimates that 80 per cent of the mountains’ koala habitat was burnt and perhaps 1000 animals died, and is now madly working to assess what koalas remain and what potential there is for them to recolonise. “It totally changed this little picture of hope we had,” says Leigh. “It was like, ‘Okay, it’s not a source population any more.’”

Koalas rescued from bushfires returned to their native habitat

Pockets of optimism remain. In November, I followed Leigh and a VHF signal along a ridge line within the Kanangra-Boyd site looking for Kali, one of the 12 koalas which had a Taronga Zoo holiday. The lovely hum of the bush in late spring: rising warmth, birdsong, a darting dragonfly. Only months ago, soon after the 12 were rescued, fire raced through here; the trees are blackened still and there is a subliminal scent of something burnt. But the young epicormic shoots are lush and our feet crunch over new bracken fern and lomandra grass. And there, high in a narrow-leaved peppermint gum (Eucalyptus radiata), is Kali.

“Kali” is the Hindu goddess of death and destruction but is also associated with motherhood and rebirth. There could not be a more appropriate name for this creature half-concealed behind branches above us. Leigh “pouch-checked” Kali for a joey when she was rescued and was surprised not to find one. “I was like, ‘That’s unusual, she’s having a year off breeding.’ ” When Kali was returned to the wild in late March, a joey was in her pouch, that bonus baby peeking out now from her position snuggled on her mother’s back.

Leigh has tracked Kali for nearly four years. “If she was a person, she’d be sitting there with a crocheted rug and a cup of Earl Grey tea watching over the kids,” says Leigh. “She’s a homebody; she breeds every year, has a joey every year and doesn’t go far; she has one of the smaller home ranges of those we have tracked.” But for a homebody, Kali is a rule-breaker, as are the other koalas on the mountains.

Koalas are generally known to like trees on richer soils, but the mountains are sandstone country. Generally, the rule is that they live below 800 metres in altitude, but two of Leigh’s sites, including Kanangra-Boyd, are above 1000 metres and often white in winter. It was not thought that the silvertop ash (Eucalyptus sieberi) was a food source but here, they eat it delightedly. Additionally, the Kanangra-Boyd population is one of only two NSW koala populations to be chlamydia-free. “So it seems to be, or was, a thriving, growing population in an area that’s above the climate envelope for koalas, using tree species they shouldn’t,” says Leigh. “Yeah, they’re just a bunch of rule-breakers.”

The story of Kali and her compatriots is just one of dozens of koala stories to have emerged from the fire grounds. Taken together, they shed some light on the challenges of saving the species: there are hundreds of stakeholders working in the field, from wildlife rescuers to scientists and multiple points of disagreement; the science is dense but there are still big gaps in knowledge about the creature; and, depending on where they live, koalas have varying behaviours and face different threats.

Some of the most gut-wrenching images came out of Kangaroo Island, where tens of thousands of koalas are believed to have died from a pre-fire population of about 50,000. Evan Quartermain, head of programs for the Humane Society International Australia (HSI), travelled to the island to help with rescue attempts. “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.”

But it was a tragedy of animal welfare rather than species decline. In the late 19th century, three koalas were put on French Island in Victoria’s Western Port in an attempt to rescue the species from the fur trade’s devastation. Descendants of those koalas were later used to repopulate areas in Victoria and South Australia, including Kangaroo Island. But despite a widespread misconception that the island’s koalas can be used to replenish depleted mainland populations, they have issues resulting from inbreeding. “Their genetic diversity is very low,” says Sydney University associate professor and ecologist Mathew Crowther. “They’re a very bad source population.”

Additionally, before the fires, koala numbers on the island had ballooned to the point that they were putting unsustainable pressure on the environment. Some proposed culling. Likewise, in parts of South Australia and Victoria, introduced koala populations breed so prolifically that they put untenable pressure on native vegetation. In 2015, The Age revealed that wildlife officials secretly culled 600 koalas in Victoria’s Cape Otway area. The animals were starving as a result of over-population.

The complexity of the subject matter is matched only by the confounding nature of koala politics and bureaucracy across federal, state and local levels. Federally, there’s a National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy but it’s out of date: it was developed before the east coast koala population was listed as vulnerable in 2012 and does not take into account updated predictions about climate change. “Drop bears have more teeth than the strategy,” conservation scientist Dr Stuart Blanch from WWF-Australia says.

Similarly, a recovery plan to bring koala populations back to health, a legislative requirement that followed the koala’s 2012 vulnerable listing, was to be finalised two years ago but remains undone. In June last year, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that the government had been waiting on the states’ draft plans. In November, Ley announced an $18 million koala package, which will include a national audit of populations, health research and habitat restoration. But within days, 23 conservation groups had signed an open letter slamming the audit as a diversionary tactic and a waste of money. Research scientist Steve Phillips agrees. “It’s garbage … The numbers don’t matter, it’s about the rate of change that’s occurred. We already know what that rate of change is and the science is very strong that the animal is very clearly on a trajectory towards extinction.”

Meanwhile, the skirmishes that occupied the NSW government through 2020 showed the complexity of legislation governing environmental planning policy over koala habitats at a state level and the extent to which conservative ideology plays a role in the debate about saving the creature.

In September 2020, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro threatened to move his MPs to the crossbench over the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) that, among other things, increased the number of tree species identified as koala feed and habitat trees from 10 to 123. Many described his move as a “dummy spit” but, seen in context, it was more understandable: since 2016 the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party has grabbed the heartland state electorates of Orange, Barwon and Murray and the Nationals are struggling to remain relevant. In claiming the policy was an assault on landholders’ property rights, Barilaro was appealing to his base (two-thirds of NSW’s koalas are on private land). He backed away from his threat but the political wounds were deep: a week or so later, the Nationals MP for Port Macquarie, Leslie Williams, defected to the Liberal Party. In a statement, Williams said her community rightly expected that policy should overshadow politics.

Related Article: Bushfires  Storms, tornadoes and explosions: Bushfires are getting stranger. How?

Dashcam Captures Speed Of Bushfire.

The machinations continued through spring as a bill amending the Local Land Services act (LLS), which regulates native vegetation management on private land, was passed by the lower house of Parliament but blocked in the upper house when Liberal MP Catherine Cusack crossed the floor to vote with Labor, the Greens and other crossbenchers. She told the chamber that she had never seen “such poor integrity of processes” which had “zero to do with protecting koalas”. She said: “It is to try to patch up a political disagreement … Far too many mistakes have been made already, many buried in regulatory complexity. But the trends, the science and the outcomes are very clear. We are failing, and this bill cannot possibly assist.”

During the state’s hottest November on record, the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, sacked Cusack as parliamentary secretary for voting against the government and announced she would scrap the SEPP and revert to its predecessor – a weaker, 25-year-old koala habitat policy – until a new one was developed.

Kellie Leigh, at right, surveys the koala population in Kanangra-Boyd National Park, NSW.
Kellie Leigh, at right, surveys the koala population in Kanangra-Boyd NP, NSW. Dominic Lorrimer

Kellie Leigh’s koalas might be rule-breakers but, mostly, koalas and people like the same habitats: good land, good soil types. “We always want to develop the land koalas like, that’s where we can grow our vegies and crops,” Leigh says. According to WWF international research, eastern Australia is one of 11 deforestation hotspots in the world, the only OECD country on the list.

Multiple koala experts I spoke to for this story noted that despite layers of bureaucracy and multiple koala plans and strategies, the hard decisions needed about the most important measure to save koalas aside from reversing climate change – habitat protection – are still not being taken. Port Macquarie Koala Hospital’s Cheyne Flanagan notes that the NSW government is taking some positive steps, including the development of a new koala strategy due to be released this year. But she says legislation to protect koala habitats is not tight enough.

“It’s still rape and pillage and open slather with regards to removal of habitat,” she says. NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, who chaired the upper house inquiry into koalas, says that successive governments have made koala protection policies “complex and overlapping, but ultimately there’s hardly any of it that actually stops koala habitat being cleared”.

Meanwhile, Evan Quartermain from the Humane Society International Australia believes there is an untold element to the habitat loss story: “It’s the cumulative effect of smaller developments … death by a thousand cuts.” They don’t get much attention but they’re happening everywhere, all the time. Often, what is lost is the critical “corridors” koalas need to travel across the land.

But the overarching threat to koalas is climate change. Ahead of a firefront that ravaged the NSW Southern Tablelands in January 2020, more than 40 koalas were rescued and taken to the Australian National University for sanctuary. Scientists were appalled to discover that most were starving to death. “They were in that condition because of the extreme heat and the drought that set up those conditions for the fire to happen. The climate was killing them before the fires even got there,” says Dr Kara Youngentob, an ANU ecologist. Youngentob says she has now seen eucalypts, trees adapted to one of the driest climates in the world, dying from moisture stress. “Before this past summer happened, I had a hard time believing that eucalypts could get that desiccated … [they] can’t handle the type of climate they’re now experiencing.”

Conventional wisdom has long been that koalas don’t need to drink water because gum leaves provide all the moisture they need. But a new study led by Dr Valentina Mella, a research associate from the University of Sydney, captured koala drinking behaviour in the wild for the first time: researchers observed koalas licking water running down smooth tree trunks during rain.

Usually, koalas get enough hydration from gum leaves. A scene like this in Gunnedah, NSW “really tells you there’s something wrong”, says a researcher.
Usually, koalas get enough hydration from gum leaves. A scene like this in Gunnedah, NSW “really tells you there’s something wrong”.Kate Wilson

So what should we make of all the photographs of koalas drinking from humans’ water bottles and bird baths and pools? “That is very incredible behaviour; that really tells you there’s something wrong,” says Mella, who has preliminary data showing the moisture content of eucalyptus leaves is declining. “No wild animal would approach a human unless there was something to get from it … these animals can’t find water anywhere else.” (Experts caution against giving koalas water from a bottle because when they tip their head back to drink, water can get into their lungs, potentially causing aspiration pneumonia.) Youngentob says when koalas in the care of ANU during the fires drank a lot of water, it was an indication they’d sustained physiological stress. “Drinking is kind of their swansong,” she says. “When you see a koala drink a lot, it’s on its way out.”

“It’s about climate change … these extreme temperature differentials that are just beyond the koala’s ability to adapt to.”

Sometimes people try to tell Biolink’s Steve Phillips that the decline in koala numbers is primarily due to disease. “Oh, bullshit!” he replies. “Every time I see somebody try to hijack the koala conservation argument and mention disease as one of the driving factors, I go, ‘No, no, no.’ It’s about climate change, and the drying out of the landscape and these extreme temperature differentials that are just beyond the koala’s ability to adapt to.” Phillips has seen the climate envelope for where koalas can survive shrink dramatically. During surveys in the mid-1990s, he found thousands of koalas in the Pilliga forests of north-central NSW. He returned in 2019 and surveyed 108 sites. “We did not find one single bit of evidence of koalas being alive.” East of the Pilliga, the “koala capital” of Gunnedah had a koala population of nearly 13,000 in 2012. Phillips says that, by 2019, estimates were that about 90 per cent had gone. “This wave of extinction moving through from the west has taken out the Pilliga animals and now looks like it’s going to take out the Gunnedah population.”

What he says next makes me shiver. “I could go out into the Pilliga at night 15 years ago and drive along the road with a spotlight and see four koalas and three brushtail possums and a couple of ringtails and possibly a carpet snake and various other things. Now I can do that and I see nothing.” A night in the Australian bush, and there is no life.

Kellie Leigh releases Lakshmi and her joey, Ra, in Kanangra-Boyd National Park in NSW in March last year. The koalas had been evacuated to Taronga Zoo to escape the Gospers Mountain fire.
Kellie Leigh releases Lakshmi and her joey, Ra, in Kanangra-Boyd NP in NSW March2020. The koalas had been evacuated to Taronga Zoo to escape the Gospers Mountain fire.Ian Brown

Why do we place so little value on the glorious, pulsing, sweet-smelling beauty of our landscapes and the creatures rustling within them? Why do we argue with what scientists tell us, scientists whose research is not published until it has undergone rigorous, peer-reviewed assessment? Why do we imagine things will go on as they always have?

Is it about greed and self-interest? HSI’s Evan Quartermain observes: “Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it’s usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so.”

Is it about priorities? Kellie Leigh’s mad scramble to save some of the Blue Mountains’ koalas was done without assistance from authorities. “All the firefighters were out protecting people and property,” she says. “There were no resources for wildlife.” Firefighters call it “asset protection” – protecting people and property.

“Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it’s usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so.”

But we diminish ourselves and imperil our own future when we take such a narrow, short-sighted view of assets and self-interest. Professor Danielle Celermajer wants people to recognise “we’re all earth beings … We are woven in relationships with other earth beings: animals, rivers, forests, rainforests, gum trees.” She rejects the idea that humans are in a different realm. “It’s a very pernicious fantasy we continue to indulge that everything else can go but we’ll be okay.”

On November 30, The Guardian published a story noting that international lawyers were developing plans for a crime of ecocide: criminalising destruction of the world’s ecosystems. On Twitter, Matt Haig, the acclaimed English author of the 2016 book Reasons to Stay Alive, posted a link to the story with the comment: “Ecological destruction is ultimately self-harm.”

The day before The Guardian story was published, a video of a koala under a lawn sprinkler in Bowenville, near Dalby in south-east Queensland, travelled around the world. “Even the koala bears are coming up with ways to stay cool there,” a perky TV presenter in Oklahoma City said. “That’s pretty cute.”

Dalby’s average maximum November temperature is 30.6°C. In November 2020, the maximum average temperature was 33.9°C. On November 29, the day the video of the koala under a sprinkler was shot, the thermometer hit 38.5°C. Watch the video. The koala is guzzling from the sprinkler head.

In December 2019, as an apocalyptic haze of smoke blanketed Sydney, thousands of people marched through the city demanding action on climate change. An image of one person’s placard pinged around social media: “How great were koalas?”

Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid

Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. And then, it’s all over. Calm is restored as summer winds down, the kids return to school, and the working year starts in earnest – until the next national shibboleth lumbers into view – Anzac Day in late April. 

This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we are too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words.

The fires have dominated the media space, with harrowing photographs and video footage of their impact on people, property, and wildlife, stories of heroism and resilience, and circular debates and divisions, political posturing and finger-pointing. They have crowded out others news and reportage from around Australia and overseas where much is happening, be it the US’ assassination of Iran’s foremost general, ongoing protests in Beirut and Baghdad, the continued pounding on tons and villages in Syria’s beleaguered Idlib province, devastating floods in Indonesia, and volcano eruptions in the Philippines and and Zealand – and, less catastrophic but infinitely entertaining, Britain’s imminent retreat from Europe, and Harry and Meghan’s divorce from the royal family.

The fires have also crowded out the predictable argy-bargy over our national identity. It’s as if the partisans and opinionistas right across our political spectrum have holstered their weapons in deference to our collective pyro-purgatory.

There is one piece, however, that I deem worthy of republishing in In That Howling Infinite insofar as it encapsulates perfectly a cognitive and cultural dissonance at the heart of our national identity that I touched upon recently in How the ‘Lucky Country’ lost its mojo.

Sydney journalist Elizabeth Farrelly is always worth reading for her perspective on our identity, our culture and our natural and built environment. On this Australia Day 2020, she asks the perennial rhetorical question: what does it mean to be Australian? Her observations are illuminating. Here is my summary – you can read it in full below.

“As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up …

Australian culture has always relied on easy exploitation. From the moment white people arrived, we’ve been kidding ourselves that arrogance and theft add up to a lifestyle with a future. We dig stuff up and flog it, no value added, no questions asked. We grow food in the most destructive possible manner – clear-felling, mono-culturing, irrigating and overgrazing; destroying soil, desertifying land and belching carbon. We crowd to the edge of the continent, gazing out to sea, chucking our trash over our shoulders, pretending it won’t come back to bite.

Even now, our Indigenous peoples are being displaced three and four times over. Last year we extinguished native title for Adani’s foreign coal-mining interests, making the Wangan and Jagalingou people trespassers on their own land. We relentlessly export such coal, helping drive temperatures in central Australia beyond the habitable, exiling people for a second time from their ancestral homelands. Then, should anyone dare critique this mindlessness, as Bruce Pascoe obliquely has, we label them non-Indigenous and  set the federal police onto determining their ancestry.

And we apply this domineering denialism, this refusal to listen, across the board. In agriculture it says, we don’t care what naturally grows here. We’re going to poison the insects, suck the water from ancient caverns and nuke the living daylights out of the soil with petroleum-based fertilizers. We’re going to burn oil and coal, and if we get fires that destroy our townships, we’ll clear the forests too. 

In politics and at home it says, if our women are troublesome, we’ll ridicule, intimidate and beat them into submission (with one woman murdered every week by her current or former partner and our political sphere internationally recognized for its misogyny).

In sport, it says it’s fine if our cricketers – so long as they don’t get caught. And in social relations, if people insist on different hierarchies – if they demand gender fluidity, or optional pronouns, or same-sex marriage or voluntary race-identity or anything else that questions our superiority we’ll come down on them like a ton of bricks.

It’s the arrogance we came with, two centuries back, but it’s getting worse, not better … God gave us white guys dominion and we’ve weaponized it. We’ll show this country who’s boss. 

Forget the Aussie flag, the flag of dominion. 

This we should carve on our hearts: there is no economy without ecology”.

See also: We got them Australia Day Blues;  and Down Under – Australian History and Politics

Survival-by-respect or death-by-stupid: your choice Straya

Elizabeth Farrrelly, Sydney Morning Herald 26th January 2020

It’s invasion day again only, this time, the eyes of the world are upon us. Under headlines like “Australia shows us the road to hell“, the world is wondering if our economy isn’t every bit as fragile as the landscape it routinely exploits. It’s wondering about our tourism, with massive cancellations already from China and a US travel warning putting Australia on par with Gaza and PNG. It’s asking how long Australia will be habitable. But beneath those questions lies another. What, at this crossroads, does it mean to be Australian?

The first three are questions of both fact and perception. As such they may be partly addressed by Scott Morrison’s $76m commitment to beef-up Australia as a brand. But the last is a question for us. Who are we, as a nation, and who do we wish to be going forward? 

Australia Bushfires: Tourism fire effects

The tourism industry has lost some $4.5 billion as overseas visitors cancel trips over bushfires.

As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can dust off our angel wings and smarten up.

Australian culture has always relied on easy exploitation. From the moment white people arrived, we’ve been kidding ourselves that arrogance and theft add up to a lifestyle with a future. We dig stuff up and flog it, no value added, no questions asked. We grow food in the most destructive possible manner – clear-felling, mono-culturing, irrigating and overgrazing; destroying soil, desertifying land and belching carbon. We crowd to the edge of the continent, gazing out to sea, chucking our trash over our shoulders, pretending it won’t come back to bite. 

 

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch

And sure, to some extent, that’s just colonialism. Colonialism is inherently macho, and inherently denialist. But it should be transitional. Now, as the NY Times argues, our political denialism is “scarier than the fires”. Smarten up? It’s time we grew up.

This is Australia’s moment of reckoning. It’s time we lost the attitude. Time we made a clear, rational and collective choice between survival-by-respect and death-by-stupid.

On top of Auckland’s Maungakiekie, the volcanic Māori pa also known as One Tree Hill, stands an obelisk. The land was bequeathed to the city in the mid-19th century by the beloved Scot Sir John Logan Campbell, who designed the obelisk as a permanent record “of his admiration for the achievements and character of the great Maori people”. That was then – now, New Zealand has Jacinda. And yes, these dots are connected.

Australia has shown no such reverence. Indeed, unable even to express genuine remorse for our repeated attempts at genocide and erasure-by-other-means, we’re still doing arrogant displacement. And we, as a result, have Scott Morrison, who must live with the disparaging epithet concocted by the lads at the Betoota Advocate – Scotty from marketing – because many Australians believe there is a ring of truth to it.

Morrison who responds to bushfires by wanting to clear more land. Who thinks hazard reduction is climate action and more advertising can persuade them back to a charred continent. Death by stupid.

It’s the arrogance we came with, two centuries back, but it’s getting worse, not better. Even now, our Indigenous peoples are being displaced three and four times over.

Last year we extinguished native title for Adani’s filthy foreign coal-mining interests, making the Wangan and Jagalingou people trespassers on their own land. We relentlessly export such coal, helping drive temperatures in central Australia beyond the habitable (Alice had 55 days above 40 degrees last yearand recorded street-surface temperatures between 61 and 68 degrees celsius), exiling people for a second time from their ancestral homelands. Then, should anyone dare critique this mindlessness, as Bruce Pascoe obliquely has, we label them non-Indigenous and set the federal police onto determining their ancestry.  

As if that very ancestry, those very records, hadn’t been, for two centuries, the subject of our energetic erasure. As if being Indigenous had always yielded some special right to speak, instead of the precise opposite. As if the speaker’s genetic makeup validated or invalidated his speech. What?

And we apply this domineering denialism, this refusal to listen, across the board. In agriculture it says, we don’t care what naturally grows here. We’re going to poison the insects, suck the water from ancient caverns and nuke the living daylights out of the soil with petroleum-based fertilisers. We’re going to burn oil and coal, and if we get fires that destroy our townships, we’ll clear the forests too. That’ll show them. 

In politics and at home it says, if our women are troublesome, we’ll ridicule, intimidate and beat them into submission (with one woman murdered every week by her current or former partner and our political sphere internationally recognised for its misogyny).

In sport, it says it’s fine if our cricketers cheat – so long as they don’t get caught. And in social relations, if people insist on different hierarchies – if they demand gender fluidity, or optional pronouns, or same-sex marriage or voluntary race-identity or anything else that questions our superiority we’ll come down on them like a ton of bricks. 

God gave us white guys dominion and we’ve weaponised it. By golly we’ll show this country who’s boss. Then if things get really rough, we’ll pop to heaven. Let’s hear it. A recent street poster picturing Morrison declaring Pentecostals for a Warmer Planet! may seem extreme, but Meritus Professor of Religious Thought, Philip C. Almond, explains why Morrison’s faith meansreducing carbon emissions … may have little intellectual purchase with the PM” – because world’s end means the second coming and, for the chosen, salvation. It’s also why Morrison’s beloved Hillsong church can happily advertise its coming conference, called Breathe Again, with Bishop T D Jakes saying “it’s amazing how God can strike a match in Australia and the whole world catches on fire”. As if the fires were God given.

That’s choice A, Scott Morrison’s choice. Business as usual but with extra cheesy advertising. Choice B, survival-by-respect, recognizes that even cheese can’t sell a pile of ash.

Survival-by-respect means just that: respect for Indigenous peoples, for nature and for women. It means knowing that listening is no weakness, but a path to greater strength.

On the ground, the shift would be dramatic but not impossible. Zero carbon cities would become an immediate priority: solar vehicles, green roads, every surface productive of food or energy. It would mean ending coal production. Investing in renewables. Creating whole new industries. 

This would mean listening to people who’ve spent 60,000 years here. Not copying, necessarily, listening. And listening, above all, to nature, heeding the fires’ overwhelming lesson. Forget the Aussie flag, the flag of dominion. This we should carve on our hearts: there is no economy without ecology. 

Sure, we can stick with lazy old Plan A. We can bow to Brand Australia and trust our grandchildren’s futures to the Rapture Hypothesis. Good luck with that, and happy Straya Day!

Bare Dinkum

Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. She is a former editor and Sydney City Councilor. Her books include ‘Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, ‘Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).

Small Stories – the schools of the Tarkeeth

Remember the days of the old schoolyard
We used to laugh a lot, oh don’t you
Remember the days of the old schoolyard
When we had imaginings and we had
All kinds of things and we laughed
And needed love…yes, I do
Oh and I remember you
Cat Stevens

Prologue

We live in heart of the Tarkeeth Forest, in Bellingen Shire and some ten kilometers west of 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 on either side of 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 waterways and wetlands around them, and is a habitat for bird, reptilian, mammalian and marsupial wildlife, including koalas, wallabies, echidnas, quolls, goannas, owls, fruit doves and cockatoos. The east-west Fernmount Range Trail is an ancient highway called the Yildaan Dreaming Track. It led from the plains beyond the Dorrigo massif to what is now the seaside town of Urunga, known then to the Gumbaynggirr people as a “place of plenty”. The first people would descend the spurs on the north and south flanks of the range to fishing and ceremonies on the riverside. The Tarkeeth Forest therefore contains areas of significant indigenous culture, recalling song lines and stories of the Dreamtime, places of ceremony, of birth and burial, and of atrocity.

As I wrote, two years ago, when retelling the story of the Fells Family and Twin Pines, “One of the pleasures of moving to the Australian bush and living in Bellingen Shire is discovering its often overlooked history”. Here then is another tale  of the Tarkeeth, and an echo from it’s past.

Bellinger beginnings

This is a copy of Hodgkinson’s “Aboriginals spearing fish on the Bellinger” from his 1845 book. The original  watercolour is believed to be in the National Library

Let’s begin at the beginning – the white man’s beginning, that is. The Gumbaynggirr have been travelling through these lands for centuries. Europeans entered what was to become Bellingen Shire in 1840 when stock-man William Miles led a party into the Bellinger Valley to ascertain the abundance of much prized, avidly sought (and rapidly depleted) Red Cedar in the area. They came on foot, all the way from Kempsey – a trek of some one hundred kilometres through virgin bush. Such was abundance of the “red gold” that Macleay Valley government surveyor Clement Hodgkinson financed and supplied Miles to take him there the following year to see for himself.

Arriving at the estuary of a large river, they headed west along that very ridge walked by the Gumbaynggirr for untold centuries.  Following a stream that descended southwards from the ridge, they encountered another large river that the Gumbaynggirr called the Odalberrie. Ascending the ridge once more, close to present day Tarkeeth, they descended the northern flank of the range through dense red cedar-rich forest to another large river that had cut a steep and deep course through forest meadows of swamp mahogany.

Further exploration revealed that the Odalberrie was the southern arm of this larger river, named the Bellinger – derived from the Gumbaynggirr name for the spotted quoll, a totemic and now endangered marsupial. It’s southern sister was unimaginatively christened The South Arm. A draftsman’s transcription error led to Boat Harbour, the settlement established on the Bellinger River during the 1860s, being renamed Bellingen. In subsequent decades, the deep and wide Bellinger River was navigable as far as Bellingen although one wouldn’t know it from today’s wide, shallow and gravelled-up successor.

Back in the day, there was no road along the northern bank of The South Arm. Access to the farms that were established along the river was by small jetties. Farmers and their families would travel by boat to visit the estuarine port of Urunga and to visit each other. In the late 19th century, Moses Lacey, the first selector, ran a store on the river bank.

.

Tarkeeth’s mighty Odalberrie – Kalang

A quarry was established at Tarkeeth in 1892 to supply stone for the construction of the breakwater at Urunga. The stone was loaded onto lighters at Tarkeeth and carried down the South Arm to the harbour at Urunga. South Arm Road was constructed primarily to serve the quarry. Whilst the river became the Kalang, after the Gumbaynggirri “galanga” – the native tree known as white beech, now uncommon although we have reintroduced scores of them on our property – the road kept its name, just one of many South Arm Roads on our north coast. [On a side note, we traveled right to the end of the nearest if these just this week, into the heart of the Dunggir (koala in Gumbaynggirri) National Park, to visit a friend whose house was miraculously saved during the recent and devastating Kian Road bushfires. His land, sheds, and machinery were destroyed, but he and his dogs and chooks were spared. Others weren’t so lucky – eleven nearby homes were lost  and a neighbour perished when his ute rolled over a long drop]

South Arm Road by the Kalang and the Tarkeeth Forest

The Quarry was abandoned in 1901, and new one opened across the river on the north side of Pickett Hill (about 250 metres past the junction of the old Pacific Highway – now Giinagay Way, “welcome” in Gumbaynggirr) – and Martells Road. You can still visit the Tarkeeth Quarry – it’s just west of the junction of South Arm Road and Fells Road – if you’re game – it is overgrown with treacherous pits and venomous residents.

And this is where our story of the schools of the South Arm begins.

Loading stone onto the Steam Drogher Matilda from the South Arm Quarry  for the Urunga breakwater (c.1900). From With Luck and a Fair Wind – Bellinger Shipping 1843 to 1933, Garry Barnett, Bellinger Valley Historical Society


Tarkeeth quarry blacksmith shop c.1900. Charles Thompson, 2nd from left ;Daniel Thompson,5th from left. Daniel was foreman. He died in 1905 in an explosion at the quarry (Scott Thompson)

Remember the days of the old schoolyard

In the late 19th Century, it was customary in remote areas for quarry management to establish a school for the children of its employees, and when a quarry was worked out, or outlived its usefulness, it was closed down and operations moved to a new location. The school would close move also. And so it was with the Tarkeeth Quarry.

To facilitate clear-felling and plantation re-establishment of the Tarkeeth Forest at Twin Pines, the Forestry Corporation of NSW cut a a new forest road linking the old Twin Pines Trail with Eringtons Trail, and called it Old School Road. By design or happenstance, some planner or surveyor sounded a historical echo.

As with most history where there are no longer any traces left on the ground, there is conjecture.  Col Sutton of the Bellingen Valley Historical Society advised me that it refers to the Barrieton School – named for the contractor who worked the old Tarkeeth Quarry between 1892 and 1901. . Ian O’Hearn, who like Col, has a deep knowledge of our local history, has reported that the Old School Road refers to the first Brierfield School called Fernmount South, and that the road connected up to the Old Brierfield Road which crosses the Fernmount  Range and joins Waterfall Way between Fernmount and Bellingen at Marx Hill. This school was relocated to the southern side of the river in 1906.

Barrieton School

Barrieton School  c. 1895. Scott Thompson:“William Thompson 2nd from right later became a school teacher at Bellinger Heads; my grandfather Charlie Thompson, 6th from right resided in Urunga his whole life.

The Barrieton Provisional School was established on 2nd April, 1896 and it closed in 1901 when the quarry was closed down. But another school called Nessville was opened on the south side of the river, off Martell’s Road, and near the quarry at Pickett’s Hill. People still remember the old Nessville school, some referring to it as “the rainbow house”. After the school closed, the property was owned by a well known local affectionately called Brad the Donkey Man. Frances Wit recalls: “My best friend lived there for years. He painted the house all different colours in the late 1990s  and had donkeys named Eeyore and Kinoki. He’d walk to town with his donkey and grocery-shop then walk back”.

The “rainbow house”, site of the old Nessville School, Giinagay Way

We would imagine that although the Barrieton School was established for the quarry-men’s youngsters, other children of the South Arm would have attended also; and it would have have been a mighty inconvenience when the school closed and they now had to walk or ride to Fernmount, Brierfield, Nessville or Urunga.

There was, therefore, considerable local pressure to establish the Tarkeeth School in the nineteen twenties. The folk of the Lower South Arm had to crawl over broken glass and put their hands in the pockets to get that. They petitioned the Inspector of Schools in distant Kempsey on the need for another school in Tarkeeth:

“To ensure an education for the children … both Brierfield and Nessvikke schools are a considerable distance” claimed the parents of twenty two children of school age. “Some of the children on the west end attend Brierfield, the Kruckows in the centre attend Fernmount, and the Dallaways on the extreme east attend Nessville. Those pupils attend badly, arriving at 11 o’clock, leaving early,  and missing generally two or three days a week. The children therefore practically receive little schooling” (from The Bellinger Valley Historical Society’s  The History of the Tarkeeth School).

And so it came to pass: delayed at first, due to a lack of government funds, the Tarkeeth School was built a little further down South Arm, opening in 1923 as South Arm Road Provisional School. By 1923, some twenty to thirty pupils were in attendance, and on January 1st 1927, it was deemed to be permanent school and gazetted as a public school. Not long afterwards, the education department asked the parents to come up with a more distinctive name for the school – its location was often confused with the South Arm Roads on the Bellinger and Nambucca rivers – and  at a public meeting, they settled on Tarkeeth School.

Small country schools never had it easy. Public funds were forever hard to come by, and improvements to buildings and amenities rare and hard-fought for, often through parents’ own efforts. Tarkeeth School’s requests for an all-weather shelter to protect the children from the heat and cold and the wind and rain were continually rejected by the education department, as was a proposal to build a tennis court out the back. The locals held fundraisers to get these done. But as the years passed, the department was more forthcoming. When the shelter’s roof was blown off by a severe gale, it stumped up the cash. When the water tank was deemed unfit to drink, the department found money; it paid for repairs and maintenance over the years, and as world war approached in 1939, even had air-raid shelters constructed.

Numbers fluctuated over the years, and the school’s status was therefore perennially tenuous, but the Parents and Citizens were a determined bunch and continually lobbied to keep it open. The history records how card parties were held at the Fells’ home, and bonfires and other entertainments were held in the school grounds.

And so the school endured for fifty years. That’s almost two generations. Many, many children passed through and moved on. Quite a few still live in the Shire and fondly recall their “days in the old school yard”. Until, at last, it closed in May 1972 when declining school numbers made it unviable.

Tarkeeth School – the class of ’68

The school was sold to an Erik Johannsen who lived there for many years with a collection of animals. Tragically, he ended his own life after setting fire to the school.

The school building is no more, and few recall its actual location. Adèle and went exploring and door-knocking, and rediscovered it. There is now an ageing weatherboard house on the site. But some of the old outhouses stand still. The children’s outdoors shelter survives, albeit somewhat worse for wear with white ant damage, as does the adjoining chuck shed and the girls’ lavatory. All that is left of the boys’ toilets are an old stone urinal trough which is in remarkably good condition. And you can still see where there was a small tennis court to the east of the school building.

The house now where the Tarkeeth School stood

Formerly, the school’s tennis court

The stone ‘trough’ of from the boy’s toilets

The remains of the weather shelter and girls’ toilets

The forest to the north of the school grounds

Schools of the Shire

The first public school in the valley was opened at Boat Harbour late in 1870 and as settlers spread further west along the river the village developed in the 1880’s when stores, a hotel, and churches were established, and by the turn of the century Bellingen had become the main town in the valley. The postal name Boat Harbour had preceded Bellingen and continued to be used until 1890 when the official postal address was changed to Bellingen.

Over the years, many schools large and small were established in the Bellinger Valley. local Kay Saunders has listed the following: Bellingen 1870, Fernmount 1871, East Raleigh (Repton), 1879, South Bellingen (Quinn’s, Fernmount South), 1883, Raleigh 1887, Urunga 1889, Thora (Beattie’s) late 1890s, Barrieton (South Arm Quarry) mid 1890s, Baradoc (Joyce’s) late 1890s, Nessville 1901, Hyde’s Creek, 1914, South Arm Road/Tarkeeth 1923, Thora 1923. Between 1900 and 1969, schools were established at Orama, Three Bridges, Best’s (Scotchman Kalang), Gordonville, Glennifer, Pine Creek, Snarebrook and Valery. The featured photograph is believed to be of Best’s in Kalang, in the early 1900s.

References and acknowledgements

  • For the story of Twin Pines and also, the Tarkeeth School, Small Stories  – a Tale of Twin Pines
  • Read more about our farm in The Country Life
  • Read the full story of Twin Pines here in Lloyd Fell’s small but captivating book.
  • Here is the The History of the Tarkeeth School – 923-1972. It can be obtained from the Bellingen Museum.
  •  John Lean’s The Settlers of South Bellingen and the Lower South Arm, for the Bellinger Valley Historical Society.
  • Photographs: Best’s School, John Gibson; Barrieton School, Ian O’Heane: Tarkeeth School Class of 68,Beverley Ferguson Crompton. Pictures of Tarkeeth and Nessvile Schools today, Paul Hemphill.
  • Read read more about ‘Bello’ on wikipedia.
  • Lean about the Gumbaynggirr language hereOur local indigenous language is still spoken  from the Nambucca river, up along the Nymboida to the west and along the Clarence river.
  • Many thanks to present and former Tarkeeth residents, to  alumni of Tarkeeth School who shared stories of the So You Are From Bellingen FaceBook page, and, Col Sutton, Ian O’Hearne, Lloyd Fell, and the Bellinger Valley Historical Society.
  • For other posts in our Small Stories series of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, see: The Odyssey of Assid Corban, the story of a Lebanese migrant to New Zealand, and The Monarch of the Sea, the rollicking tale of an unlikely “pirate king”.
  • No Bull! a true though somewhat overwrought local saga of battling bovines – set in Bonville, not far north of us.

© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

Postscript – About Bellingen

We have been visiting Bellingen Shire for the last thirty years, and moved a house onto our bush block over twenty years ago. Bellingen, the Bellinger Valley on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, is well known as a picturesque, well-preserved (founded in 1870) country town. In former times, it was the centre of a thriving dairy and timber industry, and more recently, as a popular tourist spot between the university city of Armidale and the country music capital of Tamworth to the west, and the Pacific “holiday coast” of Coffs Harbour, Sawtell, Urunga, and Nambucca Heads, to the east, with their sand, surf and sun.

Between the two is the Great Dividing Range, the rolling, high country escarpment of the New England Plateau with its gorges and waterfalls, and the world-heritage Dorrigo National Park with it timeless, untouched rainforests – a “land that time forgot”. And linking them all, the old trunk road, aptly if touristically named Waterfall Way.

Bellingen is popular for its cafes and coffee shops, craft industries and shops, music festivals, and federation facades. It’s visual appeal, and it’s bucolic rural environs have seen the town used on many occasions as a film location. In the seventies, it was a Mecca for young people seeking an alternative lifestyle. The hills thereabout are still scattered with cooperatives and communes, or, in local council-speak, multiple occupancies. In the old days, no love was lost between the “hippies” and the farmers and loggers, and politics were dominated by the rural, conservative “born to rule” National and Country Party. Nowadays, it’s heir, the National Party still dominates the political scene, but its clear majorities decrease fractionally election by election, and by the turn of the century, there may no longer be a National Party member. But demographics do change, as does society. The hippies’ children and the farmers’ kids grew up together, attended the high school together, played, partied, and paired together, and now, there are grand children and great grandchildren.

As the timber and dairy industry has declined, Bellingen’s economy has changed. Once exclusively agrarian – including a time as one of the prime producers of cannabis sativa – tourism now plays a vital role. Bellingen advertises itself to visitors and to present and future residents as a clean, green and sustainable shire. Nature’s wonderland, from its golden beaches to its mountain rainforests and waterfalls. A Tourist Heaven with a cornucopia of recreational activities for young and old – from lazy bathing and picnicking to energetic rambling and trecking, camping and climbing, canoeing and fishing. A cultural mecca with many cafes, live music, craft and artisan shops, and music and writers’ festivals.

Two years ago, the online magazine Traveller published a breathless paean to “the bohemian town that is heaven on earth’. Happy traveller Sheriden Rhodes wrote: Some places are so beautiful; it feels like holy ground. For me, Bellingen has always had that consecrated feeling. It’s obvious, given the name the early pioneers gave the Promised Land, a scenic 10 minute-drive from Bellingen’s township itself. Here the land is so abundantly verdant and fruitful; it literally drips with milk and honey. It’s a place so special the fortunate locals that call it home, including its most famous residents George Negus and David Helfgott would much rather keep all to themselves”.

This is the marketing spin hyped up by the council, the chamber of commerce, and real estate and B&B interests. The reality is somewhat different. Bellingen and the “Holiday Coast” generally have seen a large influx of city folk seeking a different lifestyle for themselves and their children, and also of retirees seeking rural or seaside tranquility – in such numbers that Coffs Harbour and its seaside satellites have become in many ways the Costa Geriatrica.

Many newcomers are not fully aware that the Coffs Coast generally is one of the poorest areas of rural New South Wales. Statistics for youth unemployment and senior poverty are among the highest in the state with all the attendant economic, social and psychological impacts as evidenced by high rates of depression, domestic violence and substance abuse. Health and transport services outside the urban centres are  pretty poor. Rising property values and high rents price low-income families and singles out of the market. Decreasing profit margins have forced many of those attractive cafes and coffee shops to close.

Nor is the clean, green, sustainable shire as picture perfect as the brochures portray It. There is environmental degradation with clear-felling and land-clearing, and flammable, monoculture, woodchip-bound eucalyptus plantations that encircle Bellingen – a potential fire bomb primed to explode during one of our scorching, hot dry summers. There is generational degradation of the Bellinger’s banks and the graveling up of its once deep depths. And there the encroachment and expansion of water-hungry, pesticide and herbicide reliant blueberry farms,

But on the right side of the ledger, we in the Shire are indeed blessed by Mother Nature. The coastline boasts magnicent headlands and promontories, and long, pristine and often deserted beaches. The World Heritage Gondwana rainforests are a national treasure, and surrounding national parks truly are a natural wonderland. We never tire of the drive from Urunga to Armidale via Waterfall Way, as it crosses the Great Dividing Range and the New England Plateau. The Kalang River as it flows beside South Arm Road and between the Tarkeeth and Newry State Forests is itself one of the Shire’s hidden and largely unvisited secrets, a haven for fishermen, canoeist and all who love mucking about in boats.

Compared to many places on this planet, we’ve really not much to complain about …