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Tasmania's Mammoth Trees Don't Fall Quietly

Clear-cutting of huge old-growth eucalyptuses brings activists out of the woodwork. But the state says it is managing the forests well.

March 30, 2004|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

STYX VALLEY, Australia — Here in the ancient Tasmanian forest, the world's tallest hardwood trees rise 250 feet from the valley floor. These are the Eucalyptus regnans -- the king of the eucalyptuses -- and some have been growing for more than 400 years.

Now, many of these enormous trees in Australia's southernmost state are being clear-cut, turned into wood chips and shipped to Japan for cardboard. The logging of the old-growth trees has turned this valley, with its giant tree ferns and carpet of green moss, into a battleground in the fight to save the world's rain forests.

Tasmanian officials argue that the state is doing a good job of protecting its forests and that 40% of the state is set aside in preserves. That includes nearly 16,000 acres of old-growth E. regnans, enough to guarantee the species' survival, they say.

But environmentalists decry the use of old-growth hardwood to make paper products and call clear-cutting of the ancient forest on public land destructive and wasteful.

Environmentalists also question logging practices in Tasmania, including dropping napalm-like jelly from helicopters to incinerate timber left behind on the forest floor, and spreading poisoned carrots to kill native possums and wallabies that come to eat new growth in cleared areas.

"Everyone around the country is experiencing shock and horror and revulsion about what is happening to Tasmania's forests and wildlife," says Geoff Law of Tasmania's Wilderness Society, a leader of the campaign against logging the Styx Valley. "A public resource is being squandered, and the return to the public is minimal."

For the last five months, activists from four continents have been trying to save a stand of eucalyptuses by living near the top of one of the tallest trees -- a 277-foot colossus that is 400 years old.

In a campaign organized by Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society, as many as six protesters at a time occupy three platforms lashed to the tree 230 feet above ground. Dubbed the "Global Rescue Station," the arboreal camp is equipped with solar power, a satellite phone, laptop computers and a month's worth of food. The activists reach the platforms by rope.

Forestry Tasmania, the state forestry agency, says it will avoid confrontation with the protesters and hopes they will eventually tire of living in a tree. Officials say the regnans remains targeted for logging.

"It is a production area," says Kim Creak, Forestry Tasmania's general manager of operations. "That in itself is a nice tree. But there are hundreds of trees like it ... in reserves, in fact, more than required by international standards for preservation of the gene pool."

Tasmania, an island about one-sixth the size of California, lies 150 miles south of mainland Australia. More than 20% of the state, endowed with heavy rainfall and stunning scenery, is protected as a Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

To Creak, it would be irresponsible to lock up Tasmania's forests and put more pressure on developing countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, where logging is devastating tropical rain forests.

Tasmania, where the government can regulate logging and replanting, should contribute to the global supply of wood products, he says.

The Styx Valley protest, Creak charged, is motivated by efforts to influence upcoming elections.

"We always reckon peaceful protests are fine," Creak says. "You can go into the forest and sit in a treetop and protest until the cows come home. We think their message is wrong, and it's a bit of theater. They are presenting a very narrow picture to a gullible public."

Australia's environmental movement originated in Tasmania in the 1970s with an unsuccessful campaign to block construction of a dam.

Soon after, Tasmania became the first place in the world where Green Party candidates ran for office, eventually winning dozens of seats in Australia at the local, state and federal levels. But today, Tasmania's population of 500,000 remains polarized between supporters of the logging industry and environmentalists who want to preserve more wilderness.

Now Green Party leaders are trying to make a federal issue out of logging the Styx. In January, a national survey conducted by the Newspoll market research firm found that 85% of Australians favored government intervention to protect Tasmania's old-growth forests.

Sen. Bob Brown of Tasmania, the Green Party leader, contends that the state government is bankrolling the destruction of the forest by the private logging company Gunns Ltd.

"We grow the trees for 400 or 500 years and get less than 1% of the enterprise," Brown says. "The Tasmanian government is subsidizing the cutting of these forests. It's a tremendous waste of a magnificent resource."

Environmentalists charge that the government is not so much interested in obtaining timber from the aging giants as it is in clearing the land to plant larger numbers of faster-growing trees that will provide a greater yield.

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