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Chipping Away at Australia's Old-Growth Forests

A daring woman fights to save centuries-old trees from being turned into paper cups for Japan. But a new administration may thwart her efforts.

FROM her tiny cabin nestled in the once-quiet heart of an ancient Australian rain forest, Jill Redwood is battling to save her neighbors - towering 500 to 1,000 year-old eucalyptus trees.

Chain saws whine in the distance now, and Ms. Redwood has for several years organized protests against the export of wood chips, which fuels demand for fresh timber. Such activities have hardly endeared her to the nearby logging community of Orbost.

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Every day scores of Orbost-bound trucks, each carrying up to 40 tons of timber from nearby cutting sites, rumble past her 20-acre homestead. Some blast their horns. Others, on occasion, knock down her mailbox. There have been even less pleasant warnings left in the mailbox.

"I keep a rifle behind the door now," Redwood says, sipping a glass of apple juice at her kitchen table.

"I think a lot of people are sympathetic to what I do. But they have kids in school who could get beat up, and jobs in town that are at risk, if they get identified as a 'greenie,' she says."

But if Redwood is ostracized in Orbost, she is less alone today than she used to be. Her fight to save the East Gippsland Forest, a 4,400-square-mile chunk (5 percent) of Victoria, a state in southeast Australia, has become part of a larger national crusade by environmentalists to save what remains of Australia's untouched forest lands.

Dwindling forests

Before European settlers came to Australia, about 12 percent of this mostly dry continent was forested. Today less than half the original forest cover, and just 25 percent of coastal rain forests, remains intact, according to a 1992 federal report.

As Australia's old-growth forest becomes increasingly a patchwork of logged and unlogged land, shy animals like the tiny long-footed potoroo, the powerful owl (Australia's political version of the US Northwest's spotted owl), and the tiger quoll are becoming endangered.

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Australian environmental groups contend that their country's forest heritage is being systematically ground up into wood chips and loaded onto ships, mostly bound for Japan.

There, the chips are made into paper, packaging, cups, and fiberboard by companies like Harris-Daishowa (Aust.) Pty. Limited, a majority Japanese-owned company that runs a large chipper mill in nearby Eden, New South Wales.

The idea that Australia's old-growth forest is being chipped and sent to Japan has lately struck a chord. A poll in February 1995 showed that 63 percent of Australians opposed logging in areas that had not been logged before.

That same month, 10,000 marchers in Melbourne protested a federal decision to renew 11 wood-chip export licenses. In a counter protest, more than 3,000 angry loggers drove their trucks to Parliament in Canberra and blockaded its entrances.

The issue was still smoldering in the run-up to last month's federal election, when former Prime Minister Paul Keating sought to mollify the green vote by promising to bar logging on 6 million hectares (15 million acres) of Australian forest. No logging was to be permitted in protected areas, known here as deferred forest areas, while the government negotiated permanent protected reserves with state governments.

But government policy is up in the air following the victory of Prime Minister John Howard's business-oriented conservatives. Many in Canberra, Australia's capital, say the former government's forest policy could be changed, a federal official told the Monitor.

"The pressure is on now to get those really valuable bits that are left into the reserve," says Peter Wright of the Australian Conservation Foundation, an environmental watchdog. "Over the next three years this issue is likely to be resolved one way or the other."

Certainly a more hands-off approach by government would be just fine with Colin Savory, an Orbost resident, who is logging the East Gippsland rain forest just as his father and grandfather did before him.

"It's about more than just losing jobs," he says, leaning against an enormous eucalyptus tree just felled on a mountainside near Goongerah. "Jobs mean survival for little towns like Orbost. Without logging people would move out. There's no other industry there."

Since sunrise Mr. Savory and two partners have been "clear felling" (clear cutting) this designated cutting site. One or two trees are left standing on each acre to aid reseeding and animal life, as required by law.

Only 21 percent of the East Gippsland Forest (900 square miles) is old growth. About half of that is already protected from logging. But environmentalists say - and Mr. Savory concedes - that the focus of cutting efforts is still on old-growth because that is what is most profitable.

Barely breaking even

Even logging old growth isn't all that profitable anymore because of a recent federal cap on wood-chip exports that reduced the demand for "waste" logs at chipper mills, Savory says.

Using two bulldozers, his crew by day's end will have cut and cleared about 2.5 acres, loading the best logs on three trucks. At the going rate paid by timber mills, his small contract operation will take in A$1,750 (US$1,350) for the day's work. Yet it will not make a profit because of wages, loan payments, and equipment repair costs.

In a year's time, the crew will clear about 500 acres. Savory estimates that 22 or 23 crews similar to his operate in the East Gippsland Forest area. About 27 square miles of East Gippsland forest a year are being cut, Ms. Redwood estimates.

Because of limits on wood-chip exports, crews like Savory's leave profitable "waste" chipping logs on the ground. They must move fast, cutting more forest than they otherwise might in the hunt for logs suitable for lumber.

"If we were permitted to take these to the chipper, we could turn a profit instantly," he says unhappily, pointing to the huge piles of twisted logs left lying on the ground that he says are no good for lumber.

"We leave more than 50 percent of what we cut on the ground. It's the most wasteful game on earth - and it's pretty disheartening for us," Savory says.

Another viewpoint

But Kevin Parker, director of the Wilderness Society, which has led the forest fight

nationally, says 9 out of 10 logs are headed for chip mills, not saw mills. What's left on the ground, he says, is material that the rather particular Japanese companies would refuse, since only the straightest logs are preferred for chipping.

"What's happening is that saw logs [lumber quality] are going to the wood chipper and being exported as rubbish overseas," Mr. Parker says. "We want to see all wood chipping stopped and the domestic saw log industry built up using already existing plantation forests."

Industry officials, however, say environmental groups are overreaching in their demands and can never be appeased.

"The level of logging is determined by forest managers using sustainable criteria," says Robert Bain, director of the National Association of Forest Industries.

"We don't think where wood goes matters from an environmental perspective. It would be better economically to process the wood here in Australia. But environmentalists want it both ways. They oppose wood-chip exports, but don't want pulp and paper mills here either," he says.

The A$8 billion (US$6 billion) forest-product industry employs around 60,000 people, Dr. Bain says. The current 5.25 million-ton government cap on chip exports "is having a very severe impact" on wood-chip exports that he calculates would be 8 million to 9 million tons annually without the cap. The result, he says, is that Japan and other customers are being forced to go to Chile, the United States, and elsewhere for their supplies.

At what price?

Increasingly, however, economists are questioning the wood-chip industry's contribution to Australian jobs and the economy.

In Victoria, for example, the state government spent A$91 million to provide raw logs to industry but received only A$41 million in royalties, according to Latrobe University economist Andrew Dragun. The cost to taxpayers, he writes in his January 1995 study, is A$2.25 for every A$1 received.

The wood-chipping portion of the forest industry utilizes 45 percent of native timber but employs just 2 percent of the work force, according to the 1992 federal Resource Assessment Commission report. Only 613 people were directly employed in wood chipping, the 1991 census reported.

Economists suggest that all of Australia's future construction lumber needs can be met through young eucalyptus trees grown on plantations.

Within five years Australia will have enough plantation timber to meet all its timber needs, says economist Judy Clarke.

The plantation industry already employs 30,000 workers and is growing fast, she says. If this were officially recognized, there would be no need to cut in potential World Heritage sites like East Gippsland and the Huon and Picton Valleys of Tasmania, environmentalists say.

Dismayed loggers

Although blaming "greenies" and the government for their difficulties, even conscientious loggers are dismayed by the massive forest destruction and the huge amount of waste under the current system.

"This is the most wasteful operation in the world - and no other country would stand for it," says Savory, who says his forebears logged "selectively" before the advent of the wood-chip industry.

"We, as logging people, shouldn't even be cutting this if it's not going to be utilized," he says, gesturing again to the large waste pile.

"That is going to be our downfall. It's criminal, actually," he says.

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