Kings of the Forest

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In Tasmania, timber-getters and conservationists tussle over the fate of Australia's tallest hardwoods

Some call it a swamp gum, a bland name for a tree like this one: a giant spear exploding from the forest floor in Tasmania's Styx Valley. Nor do the statistics-height 92 m, girth 15 m-capture the visual impact of the massive trunk, mottled with grey and silver like elephant hide and so vast that surrounding trees seem mere twigs in its shadow; or the backbend needed to make out its crown, moving far-off in a wind that sounds like a pounding sea. Eucalyptus regnans, its scientific name, describes it better-it's a tree regnant. Some 400 years in the growing, its roots anchored deep in the earth, it rules over the rainforest at its feet.

E. regnans are the tallest hardwoods and the tallest flowering species in the world. Western Tasmania is one of their last strongholds, and this particular tree is the tallest living example on record. Together with an 89-m E. regnans nearby, it towers above all others in the Big Tree Reserve, a 15-hectare enclave around which the Styx Valley spreads under fine mist. Two-thirds of this forest, west of Hobart, is classified as old growth: its trees are over 110 years old, E. regnans the predominant species. About 1,000 hectares are protected. But roughly 22,000 hectares are state forest and are being logged; much of the timber is chipped and sold to Japan for making paper products. That includes E. regnans less than 85 m tall, regardless of age-a year-round harvest being opposed by a collection of Tasmanian environment and community groups. But to the timber industry, it's business. "I don't really see the value of saving something just because it's old," says Graham Sargison, field services manager at Forestry Tasmania, the government enterprise that manages 1.5 million hectares of state forest.

Despite its small size, Tasmania exports more woodchips than the rest of Australia put together. In 1999-2000, woodchips and wood products brought $A303 million in export earnings; that year Tasmania produced 5.1 million tons of woodchips, up from 3.9 million tons in 1998-99, when woodchips fetched about $A75 a ton overseas. The state's big player is Gunns Ltd., which operates Tasmania's four woodchip mills, owns 175,000 hectares and also logs state land. It makes no secret of its reliance on woodchips, predicting that their export will account for 65% of company revenue in 2002. But it is less forthcoming in other areas: the Australian Bureau of Statistics this year ceased publishing woodchip production rates for the state because Gunns' market dominance entitles it to keep its rates confidential. Meanwhile, Forestry Tasmania declines to reveal details of the stumpage fees it receives from companies harvesting in state forests. But Doctors for Forests, one of several anti-logging groups formed this year, claims the stumpage now averages between $A7 and $A12 a ton, a return they describe as pitifully low.

Every year, $A20 million worth of forest products leave the Styx on the back of trucks. "To us it's a multiple-use wood production area," says Sargison, "and a particularly good one." Some trees are better than others: the older the tree, the more prone it is to rot. That's why trees more than 200 years old are more likely to become woodchips than sawlogs or veneer timber; Forestry Tasmania says half the Styx's logs go straight to the woodchip mills. What's left behind can be seen in a clear-felled coupe just behind Big Tree Reserve-a muddy field chaotic with splintered branches, a trunk lying beside a stump several meters in diameter. It will all eventually be burnt, then left for natural regrowth or plantations.

Geoff Law, campaign coordinator at the Wilderness Society, believes many Australians have no idea that ancient E. regnans are among the trees being chipped. Law started the campaign to establish a 15,000-hectare national park in the Styx Valley last year. He says logging of old growth has sped up since then, citing Forestry Tasmania's last three-year plan and its prediction that the amount of public forest being harvested for woodchips will increase 23% in 2001-2002. But that forecast is "very much a plan, not a sales document," says Sargison. "Rarely do we harvest every coupe in the plan." Those who want the Styx saved, like Geoff Couser, an emergency physician who this year helped establish Doctors for Forests, aren't convinced. The group of 670 health professionals doesn't oppose the timber industry, he says, just its emphasis on woodchips and old-growth logging: "What we're saying is, Let's do it better than it's being done now."

But Forestry Tasmania suspects that critics of the industry, which the company says employs around 8,300 people, will never be satisfied. "No matter how much we try to appease them, there's always one more step they want," Sargison says. He's not alone in pointing out that 1,000 hectares of the Styx were reserved in the 1997 Regional Forest Agreement, part of 438,000 hectares of conservation reserves -and that's enough, he says. While Forestry Tasmania agrees the tallest E. regnans are "unique," the company sees the Styx campaign as "a bit of a beat-up." It's been a Forestry rule since August last year that trees more than 85 m high be spared. But Law and other environmentalists think the rule is inadequate, saying it relies too much on contractors' discretion and not enough on protecting 300- or 400-year-old trees that aren't quite tall enough to escape the axe. "And it's the freak show response," says Law. "Save one tree in a coupe and get people to come and look at it before it falls over because of the wind."

The campaigners know that to create their dreamed-of Valley of the Giants National Park, they need political intervention or community support. So far they've run public tours and open days, distributed 60,000 guides to the forest and sent videotapes condemning Gunns' involvement in the harvest to fund managers and investors. But they've received little support from the major political parties. Independent federal Senator Shayne Murphy says that's because neither the Coalition nor Labor wants to tackle a difficult debate over conservation and jobs. A former state secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Murphy quit the Australian Labor Party a month before November's Federal election over the state of the industry. He claims there's a dependence on woodchipping, caused partly by a decline in the number of sawmills from around 260 in the 1980s to about 30 now. Timber good enough to sell as sawlogs, he says, is now chipped instead. That means little value-adding or job creation: "If we're going to cut these trees down, we should utilize them to the nth degree." Increasing demand for higher-quality chips overseas also means that lower-grade wood is now being "left on the ground and millions and millions of tons are being burnt. It's outrageous." When Time visited the Styx, several logged coupes were littered with huge piles of such waste. Forestry Tasmania's Sargison says the waste is undesirable but is an "operational problem."

Since its July opening, as many as 800 people a day have visited the Tahune AirWalk, a 600-m-long walkway 20 m above a forest of myrtle and sassafras southwest of Hobart. The Forestry Tasmania­state government project has proved hugely popular, though none of the trees on show here are as tall or old as the Styx's royalty-the biggest are 60 m tall and about 200 years old. Yet the Tourism Tasmania website urges visitors to see the "forest giants" E. regnans, and Geoff Law believes tourism in the Styx could make its ancient trees as famous as California's redwoods. Forestry Tasmania is having a boardwalk put through the Big Tree Reserve-it says tourism and logging can coexist.

In recent weeks it's been reported that a tree 96.5 m tall has been found in the valley. No one knows how many other huge E. regnans might stand in dark gullies and on barely explored slopes. "There is a whole side of the valley that has never seen an axe, and that inspires people," Geoff Law says, looking out from atop a cleared slope. But it inspires people in different ways. Where some see majesty in trees centuries old, others prefer to see dollars. n