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July 2000 Cover

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Australian Eco-Debate
Gets Personal


by Michael Parfit

(Excerpted from “Australia—A Harsh Awakening,” in the July 2000 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC)

“It’s like you’re really a part of something,” said Stewart Paton. He was sitting by a campfire in southern Western Australia with several young men and women, including one who said his name was Schroom Inappropriate Moondog Pooh Bear. They ranged in age from 16 to over 30 and were there to stop logging. They wore shabby clothes and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, and they knew, with vivid passion, exactly where they stood. This was a scene from the most angry environmental battle in Australia—the fight over logging.

“You travel around and draw on the energy wherever you are,” Paton said. “It becomes an addiction. This is like a religion. I can go over east and the same thing will be happening. There will be a fire, and people sitting around talking about these things.”

We were deep in a forest of enormous eucalyptus trees called karri. They are among the giants of the eucalyptus family and can stand nearly as tall as redwoods. The people around the fire were what Australians call “ferals.” The term normally refers to the many domesticated species that have gone disastrously wild here. But recently it’s been applied to environmentalists who live out in the forest on donations or social security checks, blockading roads or perching on platforms to fight the timber industry. The camp was here because the karri trees were scheduled to be logged.

Australia’s forests are tiny compared with its deserts. When Europeans first came, only 9 percent of the land was forest; that’s down to about 5 percent today. The logging of these forests, and particularly of shrinking stands of old growth, has been fought over for decades. The sale of old-growth wood chips to Japan for paper has been particularly controversial. The sides of the debate seem permanently divided, as much by philosophy and emotion as by facts.

On the environmentalist side people get an emotional or even spiritual attachment to a forest or to individual trees. “I’ve seen people go hysterical watching trees come down,” said Tom Whitaker, president of the South Coast Environment Group. “It’s probably the equivalent of watching your family getting shot before a firing squad.”

Yet the hardworking culture of loggers has emotional roots that are just as strong. After my night with the ferals I visited a nearby logging site. Six men sat around in drizzle in a lean-to, barbecuing beefsteaks and sausages for lunch on the surface of a wood-burning stove. Not one would ever say, “I feel strong and complete and more of a man when I’m working in the bush,” but I knew that was how they felt.

“These attacks on good, hardworking people undermine their self-worth and their pride,” said Jeanette Sturis, a resident of the timber town of Manjimup. “I get a spiritual connection too; I go to church and connect with people. I have no problem with people having a connection with a tree. But it is just a tree.”

***

In the clamor of conflict over the land of Australia, are there voices of resolution, of hope? Yes. They’re not loud, but they’re there. Well, that’s not quite correct. Pete Speldewinde’s voice is loud. It carries through the acacia scrub on the Peron Peninsula 450 miles [724 kilometers] north of Perth, where there’s an experiment in recovery.

“When a woylie is small,” Speldewinde said, boomingly, “it’s quite nice. It’s just a bundle of fur. Once it gets bigger, it’s all teeth and claws.” Woylie is the Aboriginal name for a brush-tailed bettong, a marsupial slightly smaller than a rabbit, whose numbers have been decimated by foxes and feral cats.

Speldewinde is a biologist for Western Australia’s Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM). The agency developed a program called Project Eden, which is designed to clear the peninsula of feral animals and restore native species. The idea of fencing off a chunk of Australia for protection is not new. There are dog fences and rabbit fences in other parts of the country, and there have been other efforts like Project Eden to revive endangered species by killing ferals. But this is probably the largest and best financed. Not only has CALM put in an estimated three million dollars so far, but private sponsors like a grocery chain are also involved. The chain gives a percentage of its take in selling chocolate “Easter bilbies” as part of an Australian effort to replace the bunny with something that doesn’t symbolize destruction.

Project Eden appears to be working. Not only are the original fauna recovering, but so too is much of the vegetation.

“Don’t let that cute face deceive you,” Speldewinde said, grabbing a leg. “See that claw? Not very pleasant.” He was holding the back leg of a woylie he’d just trapped.

Speldewinde, who was surveying the woylies on the peninsula, wielded calipers and read off measurements in millimeters. “Scrote, twenty-six point eight,” he said. No wonder these animals are a little testy, I thought.

Project Eden has been going on for six years. It started with an electric fence across the isthmus connecting the 405-square-mile [652-square-kilometer] Peron Peninsula to the mainland. After the fence was built, CALM started trapping and killing goats, foxes, and cats. Today cat numbers are reduced, goats are fewer, and the foxes are nearly gone. Woylies, the first species released here, seem to be surviving.

I couldn’t help feeling hopeful, though it’s a long leap from 400 square miles [644 square kilometers] to a feral-beleaguered continent. These little animals are not exactly equivalent to the megafauna that once roamed the land, but helping woylies get back on their nasty clawed feet is not a bad symbol of adaptation.

Speldewinde was done measuring the woylie. He put the sack it was in on the ground. The woylie stuck its head out warily. Cute! Big eyes, pointy little nose. Then it launched an absolutely astonishing leap that must have taken it 15 feet [4.6 meters] into the brush and was gone.

“It’s a great project,” Speldewinde said. “It’s like having your own Lego set. You’ve got something broken, but you’ve got these building blocks. So you work out what went wrong, fix that, and then rebuild the ecosystem. There’s not many places in the world you can do that.”

He shoved aside sharp branches. There was another trap ahead, with a woylie clanging around in it, eager to get back to rebuilding Eden. Speldewinde shouted over his shoulder, “I think it appeals to my megalomania.”

Later, in Queensland’s Bellthorpe State Forest, I walked with Aila Keto on what will no longer be a logging road.

“This is what I love,” said Keto, walking through the forest. “Just looking up.” It had seemed the longest odds that I would find resolution in a timber fight, but here it was.

Like Western Australia, Queensland has been mired in forest politics, with much bitterness. But both Keto, who runs the Australian Rainforest Conservation Society, and the forest industry wanted to try a new way out of the mess. Up to then federal and state governments had been trying to hammer out agreements through a lengthy bureaucratic process run by government agencies. Keto and the industry tried to avoid that.

“We used a process never before thought of by the bureaucracy,” she said, “with no support from the bureaucracy.” It involved direct negotiations between people like Keto and Rod McInnes, who represents the Queensland Timber Board.

“Aila and I circled each other at ten paces for quite a while,” McInnes told me later. “Then over four years we developed a pretty healthy respect for each other’s point of view—though we didn’t necessarily agree.”

“We tried to avoid tree sitting and blockading of roads,” Keto said. “Our philosophy is to try to rationally resolve conflict. Trust building is part of it. It has to be put in a moral context.”

The context was not just moral. It also came back to the issue that frustrates [paleobotanist] Mary White: information. One of the keys, Keto said, was that all groups accepted the same set of facts. McInnes agreed. The timber industry, he said, decided not to dispute the meticulous inventory of species and unique sites Keto and her colleagues had put together during the years of negotiation. Their work showed the value of biodiversity and the ways it can be maintained, such as the need for protected areas to be sufficiently large. And the environmentalists agreed to accept the economics of logging that indicated some of the small towns in the region were threatened. “We knew the agreement had to provide a solution to both,” Keto said.

But even with that unusual level of cooperation, the plan almost fell apart at the end. Unable to come to a final agreement, the two sides backed away, reverting to the kind of accusations and anger that I’d seen so vividly in Western Australia.

“In a way maybe that’s part of the process,” McInnes said. “In order to prove to each other that you weren’t prepared to cave in, you had to go out and do a bit of tub thumping. Then we thought, Well, crikey, is this really going to get us anywhere? And then, given that we’d both said we weren’t going to budge, we sat down and did budge.”

The agreement was signed last September. It provides for the conservation of large tracts of forest and guarantees resources to most of the sawmills for the next 25 years, while the government helps develop a logging industry based on plantations, mostly on previously logged land or land once cleared for farms.

“It was a very good conservation outcome,” Keto said. “And it offered a resource security for the mills that they had never had before. It was a sort of classic win-win solution. I firmly believe there are strong lessons here that would apply elsewhere.”

To McInnes the precedent didn’t seem as clear, partly because Queensland’s issues differ from those in Western Australia or Tasmania. For instance, Queensland does not have a big wood-chip industry.

“It would be nice to say that this is a role model,” McInnes said. “Unfortunately, the dynamics are unique. But that doesn’t mean that industry people and conservation people shouldn’t sit down and talk.”



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