The Return of the Forest Wars

“Whether we like it or not, community expectations on the conservation front are rising, not falling. And I suspect they will continue to rise…After 20 years, it is clear that RFAs have not ended the forest wars’. 

I am republishing this article from The Australian for those who cannot jump the News Ltd pay wall. Although the writer is supportive of the forest industry and the Regional Forest Agreements that are coming up for renewal in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, his report includes valuable background information.

The forest wars: loggers v greenies in Victoria, NSW

Graham Lloyd, The Australian March 1st 2018

Deep in East Gippsland’s Kuark forest, ancient trees tower overhead, the scent of sassafras wafts on the breeze and birdsong fills the air. Old-growth trees such as these provide a rare example of a landscape undisturbed by human harvest. But Kuark is under threat of logging.

Had it not taken action, Environmental Justice Australia says, by now the birdsong in Kuark would have been replaced by the sound of chainsaws, and the fragrance of sassafras supplanted by the odour of diesel.

The Kuark action taken in the Victorian Supreme Court is one of two legal challenges that point to the shape of things to come as the Keating era Regional Forest Agreements expire and discussions about how to manage forests nationally come to a head.Logging companies want increased access to timber and funding for new plantations.

Environmental groups have been flexing their political muscle — from the recent Queensland election, where they campaigned on tree clearing and the Adani mine, to this month’s Batman by-election in Victoria, where Labor is pitted against the Green

With RFAs coming to an end, green groups have started to apply to the timber sector the template of litigation and market intervention that has slowed Australia’s coal industry. “We are going back to the tools at our disposal: court action and the marketplace,” The Wilderness Society’s national director Lyndon Schneiders says.

International buyers are being warned off Australian products that do not meet “acceptable” forest practices. And courts are being asked by environmentalist groups to break through what they have long considered a key political compromise at the heart of the RFA process.

Environmental lawyers have challenged the belief that RFAs exempt logging operations from oversight under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

In Victoria, Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum has argued through Environmental Justice Australia that some of the past and future logging in Victoria’s central highlands should not be exempt from the EPBC Act, as it has not been undertaken in accordance with the RFA.

This is because the state government had failed to conduct five-yearly reviews, as required under the agreements with the commonwealth. The Federal Court is expected to rule on the matter today.

If the court action is a success in Victoria, the leadbeater’s possum quickly will be joined by the koala in NSW, where the state government has been similarly lax in sticking to the required timetable for five-yearly reviews of its RFAs.

While the Federal Court considers the possums, the Victorian Supreme Court has been asked to rule that the state government has an obligation to preserve a significant percentage of old growth in state forests.

The Victorian government says it has introduced 11th-hour protections in response to Kuark protests, whereby trees more than 2.5m in diameter could not be cut.

East Gippsland, where Kuark is located, was the first area whose RFA was due to expire, in February last year, but was extended temporarily. It is now due to expire this month along with the Central Highlands RFA, but the Supreme Court action is not expected to be heard until May.

The industry is already feeling the squeeze. Planned future timber harvest was lost to the state’s catastrophic Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. Last year the Victorian government poured more than $60 million into keeping the Heyfield hardwood timber mill open in the La Trobe Valley after the previous owner, Hermal Group, said dwindling timber supplies from VicForests had made it unviable.

Under government ownership, Heyfield is laying off workers and local manufacturers are saying it has become increasingly difficult to source timber of a size appropriate for making furniture. There is speculation about further cuts to timber supplies. The alternative is to downgrade protections for the leadbeater’s possum from critically endangered to endangered and open up new areas to logging.

The state government’s plan for Heyfield is unclear but it is possible the taxpayer money already invested will be lost along with the mill workers’ jobs it was trying to protect. A key decision on the leadbeater’s possum is expected shortly, before the Victorian election in November, setting up a contest of trees, possums and jobs.

Hermal, meanwhile, has been given $190m to relocate its operations to focus on plantation hardwood timber in Burnie, Tasmania.

In NSW, the looming expiry of RFAs has breathed fresh urgency into what have been long-festering concerns in forest areas from north to south. In January, eight NSW environmental groups wrote to Premier Gladys Berejiklian, urging her to intervene to protect an area of Gladstone State Forest near Bellingen, which they said was vital to the protection of koalas in NSW.

The environmental groups said polling in the north coast seats of Ballina and Lismore in December last year had shown people were very aware of the plight of koalas, and highly supportive of new national parks for their protection. The call coincided with a month-long NSW government road show for regional forest communities as part of its RFA renewal process. Environmental groups have boycotted the public information meetings, claiming a lack of good faith and accusing state and federal governments of having already made up their minds.

There are deep divisions within the NSW government over what environmental message it wishes to present in the lead-up to next year’s state election. State Nationals are pushing a hard line on tree clearing and environmental groups are worried redrawn RFAs may allow timber harvesting in hitherto protected areas.

Malcolm Turnbull committed the commonwealth to a new vision and plan for forest industries at an industry gala dinner in Canberra at the end of last year. The Prime Minister says the plan will provide “vision and certainty” and develop the industry as “a growth engine for regional Australia”. Details of the plan have been left to Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Anne Ruston, who has spoken in support of continuing the RFAs. “RFAs are the best mechanism to balance competing economic, social and environmental demands on native forests,” she told the industry in December. Federal Labor has offered conditional support. “If it’s a good plan, it’s a well-thought-out plan and it’s an economically responsible plan, then of course we will support it,” opposition forestry spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon says.

But he is realistic about the difficulties ahead. “Whether we like it or not, community expectations on the conservation front are rising, not falling. And I suspect they will continue to rise,” Fitzgibbon says.

Labor was the architect of RFAs in the mid-1990s as it ­became increasingly split after Graham Richardson famously identified the electoral power of the environmental vote in north Queensland. RFAs were the peace bargain that came at the culmination of a torturous “forest wars” period for the Keating government. The final straw came with a 1995 blockade of Parliament House by timber workers.

The recently released 1995 cabinet papers show that when the deal was done federal cabinet was told: “Inevitably, RFAs will involve compromises in ambit conservation and industry positions, and this can be expected to attract criticism from the more extreme elements on both sides.”

More than $400m has been spent but state-federal bickering has dogged the development of RFAs from the outset. The agreements are set to expire between this year and 2022, and are up for renewal.

Greg McCormack, chairman of industry group the Australian Forest Products Association, says RFAs “have not been brilliant for the industry”. “RFAs were supposed to be the line in the sand which would sustain our industry,” McCormack says. “Since then, three million hectares were taken out of production and moved into national parks. Having said that, without RFAs those seeking to close our industry down would succeed very quickly via relentless legal challenges under the EPBC Act.”

Environmental groups are looking for new ways to attack on this front.

The timber industry calculates it is responsible for $24 billion in economic activity and 80,000 ­direct jobs. In its blueprint for the future it has called for support to expand the plantation reserve, build a biofuels revolution, bring carbon abatement cash to the industry and ensure a sustainable native forest estate.

“We simply cannot grow as an industry if we don’t get more trees in the ground,” McCormack says.

The challenge for government is not to repeat the mistakes of the past. This includes the tax-effective managed investment schemes whereby hundreds of plantations were established across the country, the vast majority of which failed due to a combination of factors including poor management and inappropriate locations so that trees lacked access to market.

The schemes were introduced to encourage agricultural diversification after the decline of the local forestry industry. A Senate report found managed investment schemes had quickly become an attractive tax deduction for wealthy investors, but as demand grew the nature of the industry changed rapidly, to the point where it is best described as an abhorrent Ponzi scheme. Two of the largest schemes, Timbercorp and Great Southern, collapsed in spectacular fashion, with combined losses of more than $1bn.

Today’s industry has set a national target of planting an additional 400,000ha, with up to a quarter of that done by farmers on a small scale. For funding, the industry is eyeing $100m from the Emissions Reduction Fund across four years, establishment of low-interest loans for plantations and new carbon-related financing programs, “including carbon pricing mechanisms and purchasing of the rights to stored carbon”.

The industry says it can now access 5.5 million hectares of Australia’s 125 million hectare state forest reserves. It wants the RFAs to be extended for another 20 years on a rolling five-year basis, with state and federal agreement that there will be no loss in net timber supply.

Conservation groups say it is too early to commit to extending the RFAs.  “The first thing you should do is assess whether the RFAs have met their objective,” says Alix Goodwin, chief executive of non-governmental conservation group National Parks Association of NSW. “It should be a scientific and economic review done by someone who is respected and independent from the process.”

Such a review would look at the options for future forest management.

A base case might be to leave the forests as they are. A second option might be to continue logging. And a third option would be for state forests to be transferred to the protected areas system.

“Having done that, you would have a preferred pathway forward — and only if that said the best ­future use was logging would you then move to renegotiate the Regional Forest Agreements,” Goodwin says.

The National Parks Association has done its own research, which has led it to some stark conclusions about the economics of the state forest operations. It says the value of Australia’s native timber stocks has declined by 30 per cent to $2bn between 2005 and 2015, and hardwood sawn wood production has dropped by 44 per cent over a similar period. In contrast, plantation stocks increased in value to $10bn and softwood sawn wood production is up by 10 per cent.

The National Parks Association says Forestry Tasmania had lost $64m and Forestry Corporation (NSW) $84m between 2009 and 2012 in native forest logging operations.

Forestry Corporation also received annual funding from NSW Treasury in the form of a Community Service Obligation worth $15.6m in 2014-15.

In contrast to industry estimates, the association says direct employment in forestry and logging (including the native as well as plantation sectors) in NSW was 2131 according to the 2011 census, with extended employment of 5166, or 0.02 per cent of primary industries employment.  Across Australia, 7561 people were directly employed in forestry and logging, with indirect employment estimated at 18,328, NPA says. Employment in the native forest logging sector in NSW is estimated to be about 600, and in Tasmania less than 1000.

NPA says the primary drivers behind the decline in hardwood production in state forests are increasing competition from hardwood and softwood plantations, both domestically and internationally, and higher costs relative to international competitors.

There is weak demand for structural timber; decreasing demand from Japan for pulp because of falling paper consumption and efficiencies in the production process; and a reduction in the area of forest available for harvest.

“Many of these trends are predicted to continue, which means that demand will continue to fall and profitability from native forest logging will be increasingly difficult to achieve,” according to the NPA report.

“A strong case can be made that continued native forest logging operations are not a result of certainty and sound management via the RFAs but, rather, of successive and regular government intervention using public funds.”

Like the industry, environmental groups see the future in plantation timbers.

But Schneiders says the industry’s woes are largely of its own making.  “The industry is facing a shortfall of softwood timber because it put the wrong trees in the ground. They had the opportunity but billions of dollars was wasted on fraudulent tax schemes which put the wrong types of trees in the wrong places. Now they are going back again for another attempt.”

Nonetheless, environmental groups are willing to listen to proposals that include genuine carbon abatement. But they are wary of plans to encourage the use of forest residues for renewable power production. Most of all they believe there is still a rich vein of community opposition to logging old trees such as those at risk in the Kuark forest in Victoria, or a return to now protected stands in the north and south of NSW.

After 20 years, it is clear that RFAs have not ended the forest wars — but they may have helped to point the way to a more profitable future in plantations.

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/the-forest-wars-loggers-v-greenies-in-victoria-nsw/news-story/1ad61f912c3a0136a19aaf7617dcfb86

For Further reading on Belligen and the Tarkeeth Forest, see The Tarkeeth Tapes – Interviews on 2bbb, and If You Go Down to the Woods Today, 

Tarkeeth Tonka Toys

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The Tarkeeth Tapes – Interviews on Bellingen’s Radio 2bbb

 

Residents of Bellingen Shire have been protesting for almost two years against the aggressive forestry harvesting practices employed by Forestry Corporation New South Wales in the Tarkeeth Sate Forest.  The following is an on-line record and archive of interviews, videos and media coverage.

  1. Adele Hemphill talks to Bunda of 2bbb about the fires that have shrouded Bellingen in toxic smoke. 10th  November 2017

2. Adele Hemphill talks to Bunda about her forest neighbour from hell. 17th March 2017

3. Bellingen barrister John Carty talked to 2bbb’s Leo Bradney-George about the trials of the Tarkeeth Three, and particularly,  the acquittal of the Tarkeeth Two at Coffs Harbour courthouse on March 2nd 2017. 10th March 2017

4. Prior to the trial of the Tarkeeth Three on 17th January 2017, forest protector Sean Maigh talked to Leo Bradney-George about the Tarkeeth Forest and its defenders.

5. Paul Hemphill talks to Leo Bradney-George about an upcoming recital in the Tarkeeth Forest by acclaimed bandurist Victor Mishalow. 28th November 2016

The interviews are followed by a compendium, an archive, indeed,  of videos and media coverage of the Tarkeeth Forest protests.

See also on this blog:



Further viewing:  a selection of videos about the Tarkeeth protests

Here is what the recent burning of the windrows of Tarkeeth State Forest looked like to The Lord God Almighty. The Coffs Coast Advocate likened it to “a scene from a doomsday sci-fi movie”. The scariest thing is that this video was taken as dusk was descending. The Forestry Corporation fire crew work office hours – they had knocked off at four o’clock and left all this to burn overnight.

And this is what happened the day Adele walked  home from her friend’s house on the north side of the Tarkeeth Forest: “I am allowed to walk home on a public road… That is the closed forest, this is the public road under the Roads Act. If you think I have done something illegal, please call the police”.

In September, last year, the windrow fire set by Forestry Corporation closed Fells Road and had the potential to threaten local homes. “It’s  dying down. It was a lot worse a minute ago”!

Greens MLC Jeremy Buckingham’s live coverage of Simmo’s lock-on at Tarkeeth on 25th July 2016:

Protest leader Susan Weil’s live coverage of the Not In My Forest action group’s onsite protest at Tarkeeth State Forest on 28th July 2016, where Sean and AJ locked on to a timber harvester machine:


A short video of the destructive clearfell and burn forestry operations that inspired the Tarkeeth Three to direct action:


Further reading:

  • Tales of Tarkeeth – other stories in this blog about Tarkeeth’s past and present.

A selection of local newspaper coverage of the Tarkeeth Forest story:

selection of local media coverage of The Tarkeeth Three:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Country Life

Spring is here, spring is here
Life is skittles and life is beer
I think the loveliest time of the year
Is the spring, I do, don’t you? Course you do
But there’s one thing that makes spring complete for me
And makes every Sunday a treat for me…
Tom Lehrer

That music always round me, unceasing, unbeginning, yet long untaught I did not hear, but now the chorus I hear and am elated.  Walt Whitman

It is five in the morning and the sun she’s rising. Old King Koel has been making his lovelorn call for two hours already. As the shadows lift, a lone kookaburra calls. Another answers, and is immediately joined by a choral cacophony. A whip bird calls in the distance, and somewhere in the forest, a white-chested pigeon commences its hopeful woo woo. Just across the way, Barrel-chested wongas waddle across the grasss, and on a dance floor bedecked with festive straw swiped from the garden and blue trophies gathered from all over, a bower bird rasps loudly to a potential lady love who is edging across the garden. A mob of spangled drongos chortle and jingle amidst the trees as if they were about to watch the show.

The day brightens and as the nectar warms in the sun, spine-bills and scarlet honey-eaters flock to the bottle brushes, “Ollie, ollie” oriole carols in the tea trees, the noisy friar bird lives up to his name, and satin and regent bower birds bounce on the grevillia ground cover. The fig birds,  all green coats and red eyes, are up early, their minds set on the ripening figs, getting in early before the competition gathers. Through the morning, king parrots squeal as they keep watch over ripening bananas and pawpaws, and yellow robins ring like bells, following us through the gardens as we turn the earth to reveal juicy takeaway. On the forest fringes, a wompoo bassoons his courting carol. Bollocks are blue, bollocks are blue, wom-poo!

The sun moves on, and the day is subdued in the noonday heat. Afternoon reaches for evening and at four o’clock, and as if to schedule, a flight of glossy black cockatoos cruise in, squarking to each other as they settle into the casuarinas for a feed. Drongos chuckle and chatter, gamboling and  chasing each other through the trees, carrying on like, well, drongos,  as they take turns to swoop into the dam for a dip.

Then it is beer o’clock, and as we are sitting here, we hear some serous catbird courting. She’s way down in the valley below, and he, up on the spur. Over the next hour, they draw closer and closer together, her call becoming louder and louder, his keener and keener, their calls converging in the forest to our right. And maybe, soon, catbird kittens?

Changeover is upon us, that magical interlude when daytime segues into night-tide and the sounds of daylight and darkness meet, mingle and separate as the one melts and the other flows. Twilight approaches, and there is a flurry of argument and scuffling as birds grab their last snacks and hassle and hustle each other as they retire to their roosts. But the night-tide hunters stir in silence, and tawnies, boobooks and powerful owls depart their shady day-time perches.

And then it is frog time. The generator frog heralds the changeover from day to night. Next, the bleaters start up, followed by the ding dings, the bonk bonks, barkers, and bubble wraps, wark warks and wot wots, and the rubber duckies. And amongst them, little Peronii, the frog who drops down from the foliage of overhanging trees as the air cools. The music of the night!  We are waiting for the flying foxes to cross the evening sky for the silky oak nectar, and soon they will be slurping and chirpIng. And the mozzies have begun to butt up against the screens.

And did I mention the snakes? They’re waking early with these unseasonal Septembers…

Sumer is icumen in.

See also: Small Stories: a tale of Twin Pines

twilight

spinebill

bleater

sleepy time time

 

Trial and Tribulation – Radio 2bbb’s Tarkeeth interviews

People crushed by laws, have no hope but to evade power. If the laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to the law.  Edmund Burke

The protest against the aggressive and toxic nature of Forestry Corporation’s clearfell, burn and poison forestry operation at Tarkeeth State Forest has been ongoing for over a year. The protest campaign kicked off in March 2016 with meetings and rallies, followed by the establishment of a protest camp in June, and direct action by forest protectors in July.

In January 2017, the Tarkeeth Three, Peter “Simmo” Simmonds, John “Sean” May, and Amber “AJ” Daley were convicted at Coffs Harbour Courthouse for their direct actions to protect The Tarkeeth. Sean and AJ appealed their convictions, and these were quashed in March. Simmo, a dedicated and veteran environmentalist, did not appeal his conviction because he had breached an earlier bond in relation to his direct action against coal seam gas operations at Narrabri, when he locked on at Tarkeeth. Thus did the Tarkeeth Three become the Tarkeeth Two. Simmo has since been acquitted of breaching the Narrabri bond.

As forest protector and protest leader Susan Weil said after the January trial, the outcome of the court proceedings:“allows people around Australia to not panic, and to not be scared to go out and protest for the environmental issues and social issues that matter to them”.

The following article features two interviews broadcast by Bellingen’s community radio 2bbb, with respect to these direct forest actions and the subsequent court proceedings. There are also live videos of the locks-ons, and links to media coverage.


Bellingen barrister John Carty, Counsel for the appellants, talked with 2bbb radio host Leo Bradney-George about the trial of the Tarkeeth Three, and particularly, the acquittal of the Tarkeeth Two at Coffs Harbour Courthouse on 2nd March 2017.
John Carty explains how Forestry Corporation had acted in a “disingenuous and opportunist” manner.


Prior to the Tarkeeth Three trial on 18th January 2017, forest protector Sean talked with 2bbb radio host Leo Bradney-George about Tarkeeth Forest and its defenders.


Greens MLC Jeremy Buckingham’s live coverage of Simmo’s lock-on at Tarkeeth on 25th July 2016:

Protest leader Susan Weil’s live coverage of the Not In My Forest action group’s onsite protest at Tarkeeth State Forest on 28th July 2016, where Sean and AJ locked on to a timber harvester machine:


A short video of the destructive clearfell and burn forestry operations that inspired the Tarkeeth Three to direct action:


Further reading …

  • Tales of Tarkeeth – other stories in this blog about Tarkeeth’s past and present.

A selection of local media coverage of the Tarkeeth Three:

 

 

Tolkien’s Tarkeeth – In the Darkest Depths of Mordor

‘Twas was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair, ’til Gollum and the evil  one crept up and slipped away with her, her, her…yeah!   Led Zepellin, Ramble On

And the embers of Eden burn. You can even see it from space.  Bruce Cockburn

In September last year, as the Tarkeeth drama unfolded, I published Tolkien”s Tarkeeth – Images of Isengard. The aggressive forestry harvesting practices employed by Forestry Corporation New South Wales conjured up images of the sorcerer Saruman’s devastation of the forests of Isengard.

On Tuesday 11th April, Forestry Corporation set ablaze the debris left over from its clear-felling. That evening, Gwaihir, the Lord of the Eagles, flew over the burning hills of Bellingen Shire. This is what he saw:

Here is what the local newspaper reported:

https://www.coffscoastadvocate.com.au/news/like-a-scene-from-a-doomsday-sci-fi-movie-flames-b/3169934/

And here is what I wrote last September:

JRR had never heard of the Tarkeeth Forest, but if he had, I am certain he would have had some harsh words for the clear-felling and burning big that is razing our forest even as I write.

In 1962, he wrote:

“Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate. In all my works I take the part of trees against all their enemies”.

In 1972, just over a year before his death, he wrote:

“Dear Sir,

With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlorien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.”

JRR Tolkien Letters 241 and 339

Yes, he really did say “Forestry Commission” – an old British statutory authority that bears no relation to our own government-owned Forestry Corporation, but keep Sauron and also Saruman in mind as you read the following.

As I survey the desolation of the Tarkeeth, I remember the words of poets long-departed.

Thomas Hardy, in his poignantly uplifting ‘The Darkling Thrush’:

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

And TS Elliot, in ‘The Wasteland’, a title so prophetically apt when I view the impact of clear-felling on what was until barely a week ago was a diverse ecosystem that had prospered in a failed monoculture plantation (See: my post ‘If You Go Down To the Woods Today‘):

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

And then, there’s Bruce…

 

That was the year that was

As I contemplate my annual review of In That Howling Infinite, I am reminded, with clichéd predictability, of that well-worn Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”.

A torturous and seemingly endless US election campaign defied all the pundits by producing an colourful and unpredictable POTUS. In the UK, the unthinkable Brexit came to pass, dividing the polity and discombobulating the establishment. Next year is certainly going to be worth watching.

The slow and tragic death of Syria continued unabated with Russian and Turkey wading into the quagmire alongside Americans, British, French, Australians, Iran, Lebanon, Gulf tyrants, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Da’esh might be on the the ropes in Iraq, but the long term survival of the unitary state is doubtful. And the proxy wars of the Ottoman Succession have spread to Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle Eas as Gulf tyrants face off against Shia Iran’s alleged puppets, and, armed and abetted by British and American weaponry, South American mercenaries, and Australian officers, bomb the shit out of the place.

Whilst the grim reaper scythed through the world from Baghdad to Berlin, from Aleppo to Ankara, the Year saw the passing of a record number of icons of the seventies and eighties, two of whom who have provided a continuing soundtrack for my life, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie. We shall not see the like of them again.

In our little corner of the cosmos, we endured the longest and most boring election campaign in living memory, resulting in an outcome that only accentuates Australians’ disenchantment with a lacklustre Tory government, a depressingly dysfunctional political system, and politicians of all stripes who, blinkered by short-termism, and devoid of vision, insist on fiddling whilst the antipodean Roman burns.

Meanwhile, in our own rustic backyard, we find that we too are “going up against chaos”, to quote that wonderful Canadian songster Bruce Cockburn. For much of the year, we have been engaged in combat with the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales as it proceeds to lay waste to the state forest that surrounds us. As the year draws to a close, our adversary has withdrawn with only half of its proposed harvest completed. But it will return in 2017, and the struggle will continue – as it will throughout the state and indeed the nation as timber, coal and gas corporations, empowered by legislation, trash the common treasury with the assent of our many governments.

And yet, life on the farm remains pleasant and delightful, though dams are low and rain would be most welcome. The bird and reptilian life continues to amaze us, and an ironic corollary to the clear felling of the Tarkeeth Forest is that “refugees” are seeking shelter here. Wallabies rarely seen on our land are now quite common, whilst echidnas, and, we suspect, endangered spotted quolls have been sighted hereabouts

We took time out mid-year to revisit Israel and Palestine, and road-trip through the two countries was much an education as a holiday. We certainly got our history and archeology fix, and in travelling through the Golan and the Negev, we found respite in a stunning natural environment. But the answers to our many political questions merely threw up more questions. We have unfinished business in this divine but divided land, and will return.

In That Howling Infinite addressed all these concerns during 2016, and matters more eclectic and exotic.

And so, to the year in review:

The new year commenced with a reprise of our memorable journey to Hadrians Wall, and of the Victorian lawyer who helped preserve it for posterity, the saga of the viking Harald Hardraga and also, my subjective overview of world history. In a more lighthearted vein, I indulged in an unscholarly discussion of how film and fiction have portrayed or distorted history, and in a review of Mary Beard’s superlative history of Rome, I asked the immortal question “what have the Romans done for us?”

The Life of Brian

In April, in response to a discussion with a Facebook friend in Oklahoma, I wrote a trilogy of exotically-titled posts examining the nature of rebellion, revolution, and repression: Thermidorian ThinkingSolitudinem Faciunt Pacem Appellant, and Sic Semper TyrannisThe origin of these Latin aphorisms is explained, by the way, in the aforementioned Roman review.

Nightwatch

Our travels through Israel and Palestine inspired numerous real-time posts, and a several retrospectives as we contemplated what we had experienced during what was as much an educational tour as a holiday. Historical vignettes included a tribute to bad-boy and builder King Herod the Great, a brief history of the famous Damascus Gate, and its place in Palestinian national consciousness, and a contemplation on the story of King David’s Citadel which overlooked our home-away-from home, the New Imperial Hotel. Thorny contemporary issues were covered with an optimistic piece on the Jerusalem Light Rail, a brief if controversial post about  Jewish settlers in the Old City, the story of Israel’s ‘Eastern’ Jews, the Mizrahim, and what appears to be a potentially problematic Palestinian property boom. Th e-magazine Muftah published an article I wrote about the conflicting claims to the city of Hebron. And finally, there is a poem recalling our visit to the Shrine of Remembrance at Yad Vashem and honouring the Righteous Gentiles who saved thousand of Jewish lives during the Shoah.

Carnivale

Wintertime passed with our minds on the Tarkeeth Forest. I had the pleasure discovering the history of our locality, and connecting via Facebook with the relatives of the Fells family of Twin Pines. But the latter half of the year was very much taken up with enduring and bearing witness to the clear- felling of the forest to our east. “If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise.  If you go down to the woods today, you’ll never believe your eyes”. And you’d ask “what would JRR Tolkien have thought?”

Nothing quite prepares you for the devastation of clear felling. Joby, a Gumbaynggirr elder, surveys the Tarkeeth

The UK And US paroxysms fascinated and exasperated the mainstream and social media in equal measure, whilst the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the presidential election has initiated an a veritable orgy of punditry. Never have so many column inches and kilobytes been spent on loud sounding nothings as the sifting through the entrails of such events as Brexit, the US election, and the Australian senate! With half a dozen elections coming up in Europe, Trump’s inauguration and the triggering of Article 50 to take Britain out the European Union, we’re gonna have to endure a lot more. I confined my posts to two insightful pieces by respected right-wing Australian commentators, Paul Kelly’s Living in Interesting Times, and Greg Sheridan’s The Loss of American Virtue, and my own reflection on the right-wing media’s strange fascination with “insiders” and “outsiders”.

Finally, in comparison to last year, this year was very light on music and poetry. But American satirist Tom Lehrer got a retrospective, and murdered Pakistani qawwali singer Madhaf Sabri, an obituary, whilst an abridged and vernacular version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost told the tale of Lilith, the first and greatest femme fatale. In the words of the gloriously-named jockey Rueben Bedford Walker III says in EC Morgan’s magnificent The Sport of Kings, the subject of my first post for 2017, “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man”.

On that wise note,  I wish the world a Happy New Year – and may it be less interesting than this one.

In That Howling Infinite  is now on FaceBook. Check it out.  And just for the fun of it, here’s my review of 2015.

The Sabri Brothers

Dore Luciifer

Tolkien’s Tarkeeth – Images of Isengard

JRR had never heard of the Tarkeeth Forest, but if he had, I am certain he would have had some harsh words for the clear-felling that is razing our forest even as I write.

In 1962, he wrote:

“Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate. In all my works I take the part of trees against all their enemies”.

In 1972, just over a year before his death, he wrote:

“Dear Sir,

With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlorien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.”

( JRR Tolkien Letters 241 and 339)

Yes, he really did say “Forestry Commission” – an old British statutory authority that bears no relation to our own government-owned Forestry Corporation, but keep Sauron and also Saruman in mind as you read the following.

Images of Isengard

Images of Isengard

As I survey the desolation of the Tarkeeth, I remember the words of poets long-departed.

Thomas Hardy, in his poignantly uplifting ‘The Darkling Thrush’:

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

And TS Elliot, in ‘The Wasteland’, a title so prophetically apt when I view the impact of clear-felling on what was until barely a week ago was a diverse ecosystem that had prospered in a failed monoculture plantation (See: my post ‘If You Go Down To the Woods Today):

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

Tarkeeth Burning

Tarkeeth Burning

In posts to this blog, I endeavour as much as I can to maintain balance, and to avoid overly partisan positions. Today, please forgive me as I break my rule, and reproduce an open letter to the people of Bellingen Shire, the place I call my home, by local farmer, counsellor, forest protector, and mother, Susan Weil. It is a detailed but succinct explanation of what is happening right now in the Tarkeeth Forest.

Read on…

Tarkeeth morning, And Tarkeeth evening. What a difference a day makes

Tarkeeth morning, Tarkeeth evening
What a difference a day makes

The Birds are screaming!  Listen!

Tarkeeth Forest – Wrong Method, Wrong Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Plantation and Reafforestation Act hasn’t been amended since 1999 (other then to change the name to a Corporation in 2012) and as such lacks current environmental and social standards that are being upheld in the private plantation act and native forest act, both of which are far more stringent in their assessment processes. Why hasn’t the Act been updated in 17 years to reflect current world views and environmental standards?

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

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

The harvest and haulage plan stipulates that Forestry Corporation will commence replanting their new seedlings between 12-18 mths after harvesting, now I’m a farmer, and no decent farmer would ever leave 128 hectares fallow with our heavy rainfall, it would be over run by a myriad of fast growing weeds hence their need to use a chemical cocktail of thousands of litres of glyphosate,metsulfurin, liase and pulse penetrant to manage the weed problem. If a methodology adopted creates another environmental problem such as this how can we accept this as best practise when clearly it is in breach of this? This happened in Gladstone State forest two years ago when as a result of the leaving the forest fallow in excess of 18 months they wanted to deal with the weed infestation (they created ) by aerial spraying. Have Forestry Corporation learned nothing from their previous mistakes? Yet the Tarkeeth harvest plans show no amendment to previous errors, which is obviously very concerning for us. Best practise would demand they replant immediately after harvesting thus mitigating the need for the use of any chemicals in the first place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the inadequate Plantaction and Reafforestation Act Forestry Corporation can legally behave as corporate vandals, their not breaking any laws because they created a document to protect themselves from any community backlash. Why?

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

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

As a community we have the right to say NO this is not okay, this is not best practise and this is not good for our town long term. We understand their running a business but we want them run it better. Is that unreasonable of us to ask for that?

As a community we have a right to protect our “Jewel in the Crown,” we are in fact protecting Gumbaynggirr land, always was always will be. I believe we can do so for the benefit of all the stakeholders involved. I don’t believe that we need to compromise for the sake of a Corporation that legally manages this land on OUR behalf and is not following best practise and is simply serving their own agenda.

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

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

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

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

Susan Weil, Bellingen, 17th August 2016.

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Nothing quite prepares you for the devastation of clear felling. Joby, a Gumbaynggirr elder, surveys the Tarkeeth

Nothing quite prepares you for the devastation of clear felling.                                                                 Joby, a Gumbaynggirr elder, surveys the Tarkeeth

 

 

 

 

If You Go Down to the Woods Today

We live in heart of the Tarkeeth Forest, some ten kilometers from the seaside town of Urunga on the mid north coast of New South Wales. The forest lies between the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers, and these are connected tidally to the ocean at Urunga – the only place in Australia where two rivers meet the ocean together. The forest rises from the rivers to to ride the Fernmount Range, the easternmost extension of the Great Dividing Range that spans the eastern edge of our island continent. Above and between the two rivers, it is a rain-harvesting, filtration and stabilization ecosystem vital to the rivers and to the wetlands around them, and is a habitat for bird, reptilian, mammalian and marsupial wildlife, including koalas, quolls. wallabies, echidnas, goannas, owls, fruit doves, and cockatoos. The east-west Fernmount Range Trail is an ancient highway highway from the plains to Urunga, known to the Gumbaynggirr nation as a “place of plenty”. The forest contains areas of significant indigenous culture, recalling song lines and stories of the Dreamtime, places of ceremony, of birth and burial, and of atrocity.

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This land was rainforest once. In the late nineteenth century, much of it was cleared manually and laboriously for dairy farming, and in the late sixties, most of the landowners sold their farms to Australian Pulp Mills. APM cleared the farmland and established the flooded gum plantation that is now Tarkeeth State Forest to supply a paper mill that was to be built just south of Coffs Harbour. This never happened – the projects planners had inexplicably overlooked the lack of a massive water supply. Eventually, the plantations were sold to the government-owned State Forests News South Wales – now the Forestry Corporation. The plantation is now being harvested – clear felled, actually – a matter of considerable concern to us forest neighbours and to many in the Shire.

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Now, we are all aware that the forest is legally designated a plantation, and that harvesting is considered to be both necessary and legitimate by the powers-that-be in state and local government, and among many in the community.

But it is the aggressive nature of the proposed harvesting that is the issue: the large area involved, and it’s ecologically sensitive location; the decision to clear-fell rather than selectively harvest it as in the past; the plan to burn what cannot be sold off in windrows; and to ground-spray the cleared land with a cocktail of toxic chemicals. All this in a forest highland situated between the large rivers, where with heavy rains and frequent flooding, everything – soil, ash, poison, will flow downhill. It happened last year on the Never Never, with predictably bad consequences for the Bellinger river system. Clear-felling the Tarkeeth will add to the cumulative impact of similarly aggressive harvesting operations in other forests the the Coffs Harbour and Bellingen region in recent years.

Wrong plantation, wrong place, wrong method.

Forestry Corp does not present its Tarkeeth operations as a profitable excercise, rather as the write-off of one asset – a neglected, failed plantation of uneconomical flooded gum – replacing it with another – a plantation of blackbutt which be better managed and more valuable, together with some tallowood to compensate the dispossessed koalas for the temporary loss of their habitat. In short, a financial loss with the promise of a profitable plantation outcome in two generations.

This is lush farmland on the flood plains of the two rivers, with dairy farms, cash crops, and organic farms. There are oyster farms in the twin estuaries, whilst the confluence of the rivers and the lower Kalang are a fisherman’s idea of heaven. This part of New South Wales is called the Holiday Coast, and tourism is is the backbone of a local economy that boasts attractions that range from the rainforest and waterfalls of the Gondwana World Heritage Area of the Dorrigo National Park, to the well-preserved historical township if Bellingen with its federation facades, cafes and craft shops, to the long, golden beaches of Hungry Head and Tuckers Rock.

Tarkeeth Forest contains areas of significant cultural significance to the Gumbaynggirr nation – the traditional landowners, who have identified scar trees, artefacts and sacred sites, and stand to lose this precious history if this forest is destroyed.

Then there are the protected and endangered species that some folk say do not live in the forest, but we know are here in the understory and old habitat trees because we live here, between the eastern and western compartments. These include koalas, quolls, sooty and powerful owls, great barred frogs, and fruit doves. Forty years of native forest ingrowth and plantation neglect have ensured the development of a biodiverse ecosystem. Nature hates a vacuum and has filled the Forestry Corp’s  neglected vacant lot.

Broad-scale clear-felling by two mechanical harvesters is quicker and cheaper than the selective logging of marketable species. And large, open stretches of bare earth prepared by bulldozer and fire makes spraying and replanting much easier. The aim is loss-reduction, with some recoupment   from the sale of trees felled, rather than money-making. But the non-financial loss is incalculable: The destruction of “in-growth” native forest that has survived previous thinning and flourished, and of preexisting habitat trees, flora and fauna, and the loss of topsoil. And the potential for environmental disaster on the rivers when the rain and the floods come.

Tarkeeth Sunrise

Tarkeeth Sunrise

Images of Isengard

Images of Isengard

Whenever governments put economic and environmental values on the scales, the mantra of “jobs, jobs, jobs” always trumps the preservation of our forests, plains and waterways. But what “Operation Tarkeeth” does not provide is work. Jobs, local jobs for loggers and mill workers. The days of the logger with his chainsa, selecting and felling the best trees, are gone in this mechanized workplace. We watch the logging jinkers heading east to the Pacific Highway loaded with blackbutt poles for the Grafton mill, some 100 kilometers away, whilst good pulp logs are trucked to Queensland. The trucks come from Grafton too. Local mills get what’s left. The jobs created by this destructive operation are in haulage, and in security – as protests and trespass into the harvest zone have halted work on several occasions.

And yes, there are protests, and there is also division. Nothing divides a small rural community more than logging the nearby forests. And particularly a community that still remembers the last forest war. It has been thirty years since the ferals and the grannies took on State Forests in the old growth wildernesses of Chaelundi and Wild Cattle Creek, since the lock-ons and the tripods in the deep dark woods, since the time of division and derision, since the passionate defense of the jobs of the loggers and the businesses that depended in the local mills for a livelihood, on the one hand, and the people who believed preserving the forest as a future heritage was more important.      That war ended with a change of government and direction, and a truce as forestry agreements were made and national parks were extended.

A new generation has come of age since those days, But memories and loyalties, perceptions and prejudices are inherited, and are resurrected down the pub, around kitchen tables, and on social media. The old hatchets may have been buried a long time ago, but many folk still know where they buried them.

We played our own small part in that old war, as the Sydney base for the Wingham Forest “stump truck” that toured the state with two huge, old tallowwood stumps on its flat-bed. We thought that our days of rebellion, of rising up against the empire, were over. But the rebel heart is beating yet.

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Featured Image:  Nothing quite prepares you for the devastation of clear felling. Joby, a Gumbaynggirr elder, surveys the Tarkeeth.

Read also:

http://www.bellingencourier.com.au/story/4071463/when-a-tree-falls-in-a-forest-then-locals-hear-the-sound/?cs=483

https://howlinginfinite.com/2016/08/18/tolkiens-tarkeeth/

https://howlinginfinite.com/2016/05/11/small-stories-a-tale-of-twin-pines/

Small Stories – A Tale of Twin Pines

One of the pleasures of moving to the Australian bush and living in Bellingen Shire is discovering its often overlooked history. This is the story of Twin Pines. Not as dippy as Twin Peaks, nor as sinister as Wayward Pines, it is a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

When I first came to this land,
I was not a wealthy man,
So I built myself a shack,
And I did what I could.

I called my shack
Break My Back,
But the land was sweet and good,
And I did what I could.

When I first came to this land,
I was not a wealthy man.
So I built myself a farm.
I did what I could.

We live in heart of the Tarkeeth Forest, some ten kilometers from the seaside town of Urunga on the mid north coast of New South Wales. The forest lies between the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers, and these are connected tidally to the ocean at Urunga – the only place in Australia where two rivers meet the ocean together. The forest rises from the rivers to to ride the Fernmount Range, the easternmost extension of the Great Dividing Range that spans the eastern edge of our island continent. Above and between the two rivers, it is a rain-harvesting, filtration and stabilization ecosystem vital to the rivers and to the wetlands around them, and is a habitat for bird, reptilian, mammalian and marsupial wildlife, including koalas, wallabies, echidnas, quolls, goannas, owls, fruit doves and cockatoos. The east-west Fernmount Range Trail is an ancient highway that led from the plains beyond the range to Urunga, known to the Gumbaynggir people as a “place of plenty”. So the forest contains areas of significant indigenous culture, recalling song lines and stories of the Dreamtime, places of ceremony, of birth and burial, and of atrocity.

Exploring the history of the forest, I chanced across Lloyd Fell’s story of the Fell Family Farm. This was located close to the present Twin Pines Trail, just east of Fells Road on South Arm Road, and west of the new bridge across the Kalang. It’s a great story of how the road got its name, and of how, in the late 19th century, Moses Lacey, the first selector, ran a store on the river bank. How back then, there was no road along the river, the South Arm (of the Bellinger), and access to farms along the river was by small jetties. South Arm Road was built to serve a quarry, now disused, just west of the present Fell’s Road.

Lloyd tells the story of how in 1926, New Zealand farmer, solo-yachtsman, and returned ANZAC Chris Fell first saw the land that became the family farm, purchasing it from Moses’s deceased estate for a thousand pounds. Chris was impressed by the two mature pines that stood on either side of the track leading to a rough timber house that already stood there – and these gave the farm its name. He cleared the bush, felling and hauling timber (helped by his neighbour Bennett’s bullock team) until he had sufficient land and capital to run cattle. In time, he built up a prosperous dairy business and cattle stud, and he and his wife Laura, a Sydneysider from a well-to-do Vaucluse family, raised their three children there. It was a hard life on the land back then – one of dedication, hard work, and perseverance. Power did not come to the South Arm until 1959. Many in the Shire still remember Chris and Laura and indeed, went to school with Lloyd, Bill and Margaret. When the kids were young, they went to the small Tarkeeth school house located just west of the present Fells Road junction. There are quite a few folk who remember attending the little school before its closure in 1972. Indeed, since I published the story on a local FaceBook page, and a former pupil published a picture of the Tarkeeth School’s “Class of ’68”, old aquaintances and school chums have reconnected with each other. Here is the History of Tarkeeth School. It can be obtained from Bellingen Museum,

Twin Pines is no more. When Chris could no longer work the farm, Bill took over the business. In 1966, with changes in the dairy industry rendering to business unprofitable, he sold it to the Errington family.They sold it shortly afterwards to Australian Paper Mills who in the early ’80s, sold it to State Forests – now the Forestry Corporation. APM cleared the land and established a flooded gum plantation thereon and on adjacent blocks – today’s Tarkeeth State Forest. That plantation is now being aggressively harvested – clear felled, actually – a matter of considerable concern to us locals and to many in the Shire. in the South, the forest comes right down to the Kalang River, and this too is a cause for concern as the harvesting and reforestation operations involve clearfelling, burning and spraying with herbicide. The consequences of an extreme weather event could be dire.

The farm house was not demolished. When the plantation was established, but was destroyed by fire years later. 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. Fells Road puts the family name on the map, and whilst the Errintons did not linger here long, they are remembered in Erringtons Trail, a well-maintained forest track linking South Arm Road to the Fernmount Range Trail and thence the Bellinger Valley. Bennett the bullocky has a trail named for him too. Walking through the Forest Corp plantation, you can still just make out the place where the house stood. There is an old dam in the heart of the bush where tomatoes were once grown. In the the forest, amongst the plantation trees and native regrowth, you will come upon large, old angophera, grey gum, bloodwood and black butt habitat trees, their broad, spreading branches indicating that these once grew in open pasture.

The pines are still there, some ten metres in from South Arm Road. They are not on what is now the Twin Pines Trail, but at the beginning of a trail just to the east of it. A pair of big and beautiful hoop pines. And next to one of them, an old gate post, a dumb signpost to a a vanished past. Furthermore, they have had loads of babies. There are small hoop pines close to their parents, and eastwards along the road towards the new bridge over the Kalang. Nature never sleeps.

Twin Pines, Tarkeeth Forest

Twin Pines, Tarkeeth State Forest

Nothing remains of the Fells farm except some old fence posts, but standing there, it is easy to imagine what it would have been like in those days. But one thing has not changed. Walk into the bush halfway between the pines and Eastern Trail, you will see what Chris Fells discovered back in the ‘thirties:

“Down on the left as you looked out of the house, there was an especially thick, almost impenetrable circle of bush surrounding a small lagoon. Within this, was a haven for all kinds of wildlife such as bandicoots, native possums, snakes, frogs, and and a great assortment of birds: parrots, kingfishers, kookaburras, currawongs, black ducks, bowerbirds, honey-eaters, and by the water itself, the beautiful egrets, ibis and spoonbills. If you peep into the lagoon from the road, its great white paperbark trees, knee-deep in thick green water, gave it an air of mystery and magic”.

And indeed, as the photographs below show, the Tarkeeth Lagoon is still quite special. Folk who grew up on South Arm Road and explored the area as children, still remember the mystery of the place. Those animals and birds still live in the Tarkeeth, but the tall paperbarks have long since fallen and lie as moss and epiphyte-covered sculptures beside the water.

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Read the full story of Twin Pines here in Lloyd Fell’s small but captivating book:
http://www.biosong.org/TwinPinesStory.pdf

Local historian John Lean’s new book “Settlers of South Bellingen and the Lower South Arm”, his “Settlers of the Upper South Arm and Spicketts Creek”, and also, “The History Of Tarkeeth Public School” are available at the Bellingen and Urunga museums..

Chris Fell – The ANZAC Story

A century ago, on 31st October 1917, the Australian Light Horse charged the Turkish trenches during the Battle of Beersheba in one of history’s last great cavalry charges. The 31 light horsemen who fell are buried in the Beersheba War Cemetery along with 116 British and New Zealand soldiers who perished in the Beersheba battle. There are 1,241 graves in the military cemetery, soldiers being brought in from other Great War Middle East battlefields. It is a tranquil, poignant, and beautiful place in the Negev Desert, where the bodies of young men from Australia and New Zealand and from the shires of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were laid to rest. “Lest we forget”.

In his ebook The Twin Pines Story, Lloyd Fell tells how his father served as a mounted machine gunner with the New Zealand forces in the Gaza ampaign of late 1917. His war record reports that he was one of the machine gunners who fought through the day before the famous charge to knock out the Turkish machine guns on the strategic al Saba Hill east of Beersheba. Had these fortifications not been overrun, the Light Horse  would have been prevented from advancing on the wells. Afterwards, the machine gunners and their Kiwi mates took part in a bayonet charge against the enemy.

As Jean Bou wrote in The Weekend Australian:
“The New Zealand brigade was sent against Tel el Saba, but this steep-sided hill with terraced entrenchments was formidable. The dismounted horsemen, with the limited fire support of their machine-gunners and the attached horse artillery batteries, had to slowly suppress the enemy defences and edge their way forward. Chauvel sent light horse to assist, but as the afternoon crawled on, success remained elusive. Eventually the weight of fire kept the defenders’ heads down enough that the New Zealanders were able to make a final assault. The hill was taken and the eastern approach to Beersheba opened, but nightfall was approaching.
See:
http://specialreports.theaustralian.com.au/888793/a-remarkable-feat-of-arms/

Beersheba War Cemetery, Israel

This post opened with that great troubadour Pete Seeger singing Oscar Brand’s celebrated pioneer song. I conclude with his rendering of David Mallet’s tribute to the simple life.

Inch by inch, row by row,
Gonna make this garden grow.
Gonna mulch it deep and low,
Gonna make it fertile ground.

Pullin’ weeds and pickin’ stones,
We are made of dreams and bones
Need spot to call my own
Cause the time is close at hand

Postscript – About Bellingen

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

Between the two is 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 occupancy. In those 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 election by election, and the turn of the century, there may no longer be a National Party member. But demographics do change. The hippies’ children and the farmers kids grew up together, attended the high school together, played, partied, and paired, and now, there are grand children and great grandchildren.

As the timber and dairy industry has declined in recent, Bellingen’s economy has changed. Once exclusively agrarian – including a time as one of the prime producers of cannabis sativa – tourism plays a a vital role, whilst Bellingen and the “Holiday Coast” generally have seen a large influx of city folk seeking a different lifestyle for themselves and their children, and retirees seeking rural or seaside tranquility. In such numbers that Coffs Harbour and its seaside satellites have become in many ways the Costa Geriatrica.

Read read more about ‘Bello’ on wiki:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bellingen,_New_South_Wales

Read more about our farm: The Country Life

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”.