Into the Trees

For a middle-aged expat Tasmanian who learned to drive on a winding country road behind endless log trucks headed for Triabunna, “The Destruction of the Triabunna Mill and the Fall of Tasmania’s Woodchip Industry” was electrifying reading.

I’d missed the news about the mill being bought by wealthy environmentalists: a brilliant tactical stroke. And I’d missed the news that Eric Abetz and Tony Abbott were angling to open it again, but it didn’t surprise me. I expected the story to continue in depressing detail about how they’d pulled it off and got the log trucks rolling again, so the section on Alec Marr’s monkey-wrenching read like something out of a thriller. I’m averse to vandalism, but when the choice is between letting loggers loose again on Southern old-growth forests, or dismantling a disused mill to prevent that from happening, I know what I’d choose.

A lot of Tasmanians would gnash their teeth and talk about lost jobs, but industrial forestry hasn’t been a jobs bonanza for decades. A century ago teams of loggers used to go into those forests and haul out one giant tree at a time for sawmilling. By the 1980s, a few men with heavy machinery could knock over whole hillsides of ancient trees in one hit, and ninety percent of it, ninety percent of it, ended up as woodchips to be turned into newspaper. Or, as Abetz puts it in this article, “the woodchips are made from the leftovers”. What kind of person thinks of ninety percent of any living thing as “the leftovers”? Poachers killing rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks? Poachers need jobs too, but where is it written that they have to be those jobs?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen a lot of the world, including similar landscapes of temperate natural beauty, but there’s something special about Tasmania. If more Tasmanians realised just how distinctive the place is, they wouldn’t have spent the past four decades, my entire lifetime, voting for people who want to rip it up and pave it and flood it and chop it down. They would have been putting everything they could into selling what makes the place special, not selling the pulverised remnants of what makes it special.

Forestry hasn’t been the only threat to Tasmania’s landscape. The flooding of Lake Pedder in the 1970s for hydroelectricity generation created an artificial lake as big as the Tasman Peninsula. The battle to save the Franklin River from a similar fate in the 1980s is remembered as a key conservation victory, but the Hydro-Electric Commission simply finished damming the Pieman instead a few years later, and then moved on to the King/Crotty Dam, which was completed in the 1990s. All of it driven by a mentality of “if you build more dams, heavy industry will come”.

Hydro power may be greener in relative terms than coal or nuclear, but overreaching hydro schemes have been intimately tied up with the history of the Tasmanian conservation struggle. Even if people aren’t talking much about it at the moment, scratch the surface of contemporary pro-forestry attitudes and you’ll find a lot of pro-dams thinking beneath. Until there’s a serious shift in collective mindset, I’m reluctant to think of the Franklin or any other Tasmanian river as being saved, only as being saved for now.

The one hope on the horizon is that the leaps and bounds in solar and wind technology that we’re seeing this decade will make any future hydro projects irrelevant, and that the Internet is making the market for newspaper similarly irrelevant. As the Monthly article above indicates, there are plenty of people in the state in denial about this, for understandable reasons—their livelihoods are at stake—but they have to start thinking about how to adapt to a non-hydro, non-logging future, because it’s coming.

I used to think that the dreams of restoring Lake Pedder were just that, dreams, and that I would never get to walk its white sand beaches as my father was lucky enough to do before it was dammed; but one day soon, Australians will be getting most of their domestic power from micro-generation, and the need for baseload will be much lower, and Pedder will be a big ol’ white elephant; so then, why not? And as the waters of the hydro dam make their way down the Huon again, I hope there’s something left around them by way of old-growth forest, and some of the oldest trees on earth still standing there, and that a few brief generations of Tasmanians haven’t clearfelled their grandkids’ future for the sake of their own transitory pay-cheques and a few corporate shareholders.

Adapted from comments at MetaFilter.

30 July 2014 · Politics