In Tasmania's towering forests, values hit head-on

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 November, 2003, 12:00am

Green groups are battling loggers and politicians to save 400-year old trees

Environmentalists and loggers in the Australian state of Tasmania are locked in a bitter war over the future of the world's tallest hardwood trees, which timber companies want to turn into wood chips for export to Japan.

Just west of the state capital Hobart is Styx Valley, where environmentalists, police and logging groups have been confronting each other.

Protesters from Greenpeace and the Australian Wilderness Society had forced a halt to logging operations since Monday, and yesterday police moved in on two activists who had attached themselves to bulldozers and other machinery.

At one site, 12 days ago, activists set up what they say is the world's tallest 'tree-sit', a plank and rope platform suspended 65 metres above the forest floor.

As police tried to persuade the activists to abandon their precarious tree-sits, a group of 50 protesters marched on Tasmania's state parliament, calling on the centre-left Labor Premier, Jim Bacon, to end the logging of old-growth forests.

Conservationists say political campaign contributions from timber companies were leading the government to ignore the damage, while officials contend that enough of the state's forests are protected and logging jobs must be preserved.

The valley, named after the Styx River of Greek mythology, is home to rare animals such as wedge-tailed eagles, wombats and several species of possum.

Conservationists were focusing their efforts on halting the logging of swamp gum, a hardwood species that is classified as the tallest flowering plant in the world.

At 80 metres high, many of them are taller than England's Canterbury Cathedral, and some reach an age of up to 400 years old.

Wilderness Society campaigner Geoff Law said visitors who arrived expecting untouched groves of forest are rudely awakened.

'Tasmania is marketed overseas as a pristine wilderness area. But when tourists come here they are amazed to find cleared forest, smoke and blackened stumps.'

He said the issue is a matter of money influencing politics.

'The major political parties support logging partly because they receive campaign funding from the timber companies but also because they are stuck in the past.'

Logging groups and the state government argued that vast areas of Tasmania were already protected as national parks, and that an end to logging means job losses.

Paul Lennon, Tasmania's deputy premier and minister for forests, said the state's logging industry was worth A$1.34 billion (HK$7.4 billion) and supported 10,000 jobs. The Wilderness Society said logging of old-growth forests supported less than 1,000 jobs.

'It is disappointing that the green movement will never accept that enough of the state is protected, even though the vast majority of forest is not available for harvesting,' he said.

A poll conducted two years ago showed that 70 per cent of Tasmanians opposed logging the state's ancient forests.