Reportage

From big trees, more trees grow

The womb-like basin of Terania Creek, with its narrow cervix of an entrance, faces south. In its moist embrace lies a rainforest little changed for more than forty-five million years. But in August 1979, war broke out over this peaceful valley near Lismore in north-eastern New South Wales. It was the Rainforest War which spread to forests across the state – the unintended consequence of the Forestry Commission's plan to selectively harvest just seventy-seven hectares of forest in the basin of Terania Creek.

Today, forest protests are part of Australia's political landscape, but Terania Creek was the first – the first time that the presence of protesters stopped a logging operation and challenged a state organisation's authority over forests. No one wanted the war that ensued. Negotiations had been going on for five years – since Nan and Hugh Nicholson bought a rundown farm bordering the state forest and Terania Creek basin. Terania Native Forests Action Group (TNFAG), which the Nicholsons formed with their neighbours in the valley, turned around the Commission's initial plan: to clear-fell the forests of the basin and replant them with flooded gum seedlings. By 1979, the Commission had already agreed not to harvest the rainforest in the basin, and to selectively harvest only Brushbox trees from seventy-seven hectares of wet sclerophyll forest – no more clear-felling. But rejection of even this plan by TNFAG caused the Commission to cease negotiations with the local community. It bunkered down and determined to begin harvesting just as it had always done.

Both the Forestry Commission and the New South Wales Cabinet which supported its actions expected that the logging crew, aided by more than a hundred police reinforced from Sydney, would begin harvesting – the local protest would simply wilt under pressure. But the mostly young ‘alternatives' who camped out in the frost on the Nicholsons' property next to the forest – the Rainbow Army – blocked a Komatsu bulldozer from entering the forest, and made national headlines.

By Wednesday, August 22, 1979 the bulldozer, assisted by an incongruous police guard in the leech-infested rainforest, had opened up the old logging track into Terania Creek basin. Constant interference and mostly non-violent non-cooperation by the protesters had caused a day's work to take a week to accomplish. But the bush crew of marking foreman, faller, faller's mate and tractor operator, together with more than a hundred police to guard the operation, were ready to start harvesting.

Tall, weathered tree stumps from past logging operations stood around the log dump. They bore notches from a time when fallers used springboards to get above the swollen base of the trunks, when trees were felled with axes and two-man saws, and the short logs dragged out by bullock teams. But modern logging was power-assisted: many more and much bigger trees could be removed in a far shorter time than in the bullock-team days, and the bush crew normally felled enough trees to supply three truck loads of logs a day to the sawmill.

 

TERANIA CREEK WAS NOT NORMAL.

Ned Harvey was the faller. When I interviewed him in December 2003, he recalled: "Well there were people grabbing on to you, and pulling at you, and there was one chap there, I'd put the belly in one tree, and he was trying to grab the saw. And I said to 'im, 'Ave you got any brains or 'aven't you?' I said ‘Go on and grab it 'cos you won't be grabbing another one with that hand.'"

Peter Saulwick was the protester at the other end of the chainsaw that day. He had run out of patience with letter-writing and political action, so he went solo into the forest late on Wednesday afternoon when other protesters had left. There he found Ned Harvey about to start falling the first big Brush-box tree: "I decided enough was enough, and that was when I actually stopped the guy from logging the first tree. He started cutting it and I put my hand on his arm and I said ‘I don't think you should keep doing that', and of course he had to stop. It was very dramatic because when he cut into this tree, and it was a huge tree, it bled, it gushed."

Peter was arrested on the spot and carted off in a paddy wagon. He was an easy target on his own, but freelance cameraman Paul Tait caught the action and Peter's arrest went national. His cry of "You kneed me in the balls you bastard" when forced into the paddy wagon ensured that his testicles achieved independent fame and immortality on television news, ABC Radio's Science Show and in the film Give Trees a Chance. Nationally, they jostled for pride of place next to the analysis of Federal Treasurer John Howard's August 1979 budget. But locally, they had a very tough job competing with the excitement of the first day's trading of the Lismore Square shopping centre.

Ned brushed off the incident and, protected by a police cordon, went back to his task. He had chosen a thirteen horsepower Stihl 090 chainsaw with a thirty-inch cutter bar for the six foot-diameter Brushbox trunk. It was a heavy and powerful machine, had no chain brake or other safety features, and could throw an unwary man off his feet or break his arm. A fit, strong and experienced faller was needed to operate it. This was Ned's profession, a combination of bush craft and machine skills. He took pride in dropping a tree intact and on target.

Ned sized up the 300-year-old Brushbox tree, checked the direction of fall that had been blazed on the trunk by the marking foreman, and looked up at the crown to see whether lopsided branches would make it twist when it fell, or whether it was likely to hang up and buck lethally on the way down. He cleared an escape route through the surrounding scrub in case the tree did not fall as planned. Then he started the big Stihl 090, cleared his footing, dropped the mesh visor over his face, braced his back and legs, instinctively levelled the cutter bar and brought the spinning chain into contact with the tree.

The perfectly honed chisels on the chain sliced with precision through the thin bark and underlying moist phloem that conducted food from the leaves down to the roots. The engine barked as he fed power to the saw. It cut on through the vascular cambium where new cells of wood or bark were formed, then worked hard through the xylem that carried water and nutrients upwards to the mass of foliage. As the saw cut into the xylem it struck a "wind-shake", a natural fifty metre-tall thin crack in the stem into which rain had seeped.

When the chain of chisels cut the wind-shake the water column broke, gushing from the wound and cascading down the base of the tree. With the entire cutter bar buried in the tree, Ned increased power to penetrate deep into the darker impregnated cells of structural heartwood. As the saw sliced through the product of hundreds of years of cellular differentiation, a rooster-tail of perfect shavings showed the hallmark of a craftsman at work. Ned stopped the saw just under halfway through the stem and stepped across to the other side of the trunk to complete the horizontal cut. The cuts from either side were separated by the thickness of a cigarette paper. Moving quickly, Ned then drove the saw in a new downward incision to complete the belly cut at the front; the two cuts met precisely and a giant half-moon of wood fell out of the stem, leaving a smiling gash across the tree's belly. He stepped around to the back of the tree to make the cut that would get the trunk to fall on target. Taking care not to let the front and back cuts meet, Ned left a vertical strip of wood, called a hinge, which would fracture and split progressively, delaying and controlling the speed and direction of the trunk as it fell.

The hinge let out a crack like a rifle shot, and as it began to splinter he stepped back to safety and watched the tree fall with satisfying and controlled precision. The tree toppled and slid forward off the stump, splintered the surrounding bush, stripped branches from the smaller rainforest trees, smashed Bangalow palms in its path, and landed with a resonant thump on the forest floor. Momentum threw the tail of the severed tree up in the air before it again thumped back to earth. Small trees, swiped and shattered by the falling giant, rolled and bumped their way to earth in turn. The forest air was full of falling leaves and branches. No one moved until peace returned to the forest. Then someone called out "How many did we get?" – a macabre reference to the protesters scattered through the forest.

 

PROTESTERS DRAWN BY THE NOISE OF THE CHAINSAW screamed and wailed after the tree went down, giving voice to their grief and frustration. Many shed tears at the sight of the fallen Brushbox.

Ned carried his chainsaw down to where thick branches broke up the linear continuity of the cylindrical stem, and with little effort cut off the head of the Brushbox. Then, working back towards the fresh white disc of the stump, he cut the stem into lengths of log ready for Don Mackay's tractor.

His work finished, Ned stood in contemplation next to the stump with his police guards. First tree down, and what a battle to get there. The Northern Star newspaper staff left to submit copy for the next day: a front-page photo of three police carrying off a protester. "More arrests as trees fall ... victory for sawmillers after more than four years battling against a well organised conservation lobby."

Don Mackay "walked" the bulldozer back down the track to the camp, and Ned and his son Kevin packed up their chainsaws, fuel and oils and drove out of the bush with a convoy of police following. Relaxing in their camp, the bush crew were at a loss to see how they could keep going: 150 police were needed to get the trees down safely and, with all the interruptions, harvesting was so slow that Ned and Kevin were losing money on the job. As the sun went down, Ned cradled a small beer in his large axeman's hands and pondered the future.

In the now-quiet forest, in fading light under the dense canopy, sap oozed steadily up from the severed Brushbox stump. Tissue in the roots retained memory of their function and vainly attempted to link to the tree's crown, which had in turn fed them the products of photosynthesis for hundreds of years. Like the chainsaw operator, they strove to do the job they knew best.

In their camp, the protesters were disconsolate, defeated and outraged by the assault on the forest, and mourning for the fallen Brushbox they had failed to protect. No singing now. The consensus of non-violent action had been weakened.

That night, the threatening phone calls to sawmillers' families started. The target of invective moved from the group of loggers to individuals. John Macgregor Skinner, Production Manager of Standard Sawmilling Company, was one of the victims: "It was one o'clock in the morning. Telephone rang and ... a voice just said: ‘We know where your kids are, we know where your kids go to school; they're not going to come home tomorrow. We know where your wife is and she's going to get raped.' ... So we notified police and they then put us under police protection. We had other calls ... My wife answered one and they just said ‘We're going to burn your house.'"

Helen Withey, wife of the managing director of the Standard Sawmilling Company, was also targeted. When I interviewed her in 2004 she recalled: "I had two nasty phone calls. Very scary it was. And we had the police put a monitor on the phone, and I made sure that the school didn't let the kids out of the gate ... I told the teachers they weren't to go home until I was there to pick them up."

But Nan Nicholson at Terania Creek also received phone calls: "We got threatening phone calls too, of course ... it started early for us. But we sort of thought: what do you expect if you stick your neck out?"

Ned continued felling Brushbox trees for the next two days. Before a tree was felled for the sawmill, the Forestry Commission's marking foreman cut and numbered a ‘blaze' on the trunk with a marking axe, a tool that combined an axe and hammer head with raised numerals. Ron Gallard was the marking foreman for the Terania Creek operation. He was a giant of a man and a New Guinea war veteran. He had shot and been shot at, and survived the fighting, malaria and dysentery which killed almost half of his outfit at Aitape. Almost thirty-five years later, he was again fighting an enemy in the rainforest, but these rules of engagement dictated no physical conflict and no injuries: "Well, after we started falling we had to physically clear the area in front of the trees ... and there was one young bloke, he was sort of moving down, and like a sheep dog I hazed him out of the area, ... and when I was sure it was clear I sang out to Ned ... ‘Righto Ned, let 'er go, it's all clear.' And this young bastard, he was about sixteen I suppose, with no boots on, and he took off. And he's raced out shouting ‘I'm 'ere, I'm 'ere, I'm 'ere.' And I took off after 'im. I was carrying me marking axe ... We're going through the bloody scrub and he fell arse over 'ead, and he rolled over and I'm standing over 'im with the bloody axe up like this and lookin' at 'im. And 'e says ‘Don't kill me, don't kill me.' And I says, ‘I'm not trying to kill you, you bastard, I'm trying to save you. Get the buggery out of 'ere'. And you know, at that stage I could have literally sunk that into 'im. That's how it got to you."

 

THE CLOSE SHAVE SHOOK NED HARVEY, who was about to let the tree fall: "The problem was to make sure we didn't kill anyone, that's the main point that we all had. Sometimes you felt like it, very much, but then you'd think about it of a night-time, and especially that bloke who got in on the tail. I could have killed him. Not a very nice thought."

Protesters drove spikes into trees selected for harvesting, and marked some of them with a painted "S". The risk of injury was serious for both the fallers in the bush and the saw-bench operators in the mill. Both had high-speed saws that would break up if they hit a spike, with potentially fatal results. Ned Harvey had a close call: "Well I'd got a brand new chain on, and I laid in and started to cut the tree, well I got the belly in all right, and I went around to cut the back of it, and the next thing bang! ... There were seven-inch spikes in the tree."

Protesters could not climb the huge trees marked for logging, so they chose instead to climb trees in the path of the trees to be felled. The bush crew called them Sput-niks, ‘stupid pricks up trees'. Don Mackay chased them out with the bulldozer, and the police climbed up and dragged them from their perches, or sabotaged their food supply before it could be hauled up by the tree squatters. Barry Mudge, forestry foreman, recalled: "A fella got up a tree there and he wouldn't get down, right in front of the tractor ... And the copper took me marking axe off me and started chopping the tree down. And I'll tell you what, it was only about that round [twenty centimetres diameter], and he was right up the top of it, and when he hit the ground there was three coppers there, and not one of them put a hand on him he went that quick."

The local police knew the bush crew and jinker drivers, and also knew many of the protesters from the area between The Channon, Nimbin and Tuntable Falls. As locals themselves, they knew the depth of passions on both sides; they gained a reputation for being considerate and patient with the protesters, and they knew how to operate in the bush. They weren't put off by leeches – they soaked their socks in a salt solution to repel them, just as they did when on drug raids in the bush. In contrast, the Sydney coppers were constantly checking for leeches, couldn't move easily through the bush, and got lost in the dense rainforest. They were bored and invented diversions like sharpening vine ribs and placing them vertically in a paddymelon track. The game was then to shepherd unsuspecting and barefoot protesters down the track and watch their reaction as they trod on the spikes.

The first load of logs made it out of the forest almost two weeks after the first attempt to get the Komatsu into the forest. On Wednesday, August 29, three timber-jinkers assembled at the log dump in the bush to remove logs that had been salvaged from damage inflicted by protesters. But getting the logs out safely needed more than seventy police for each convoy and was painfully slow progress for the bush crew. Ray Brims, timber-jinker driver, described the situation: "There would be six police standing around the truck to prevent the tyres being spiked. When the next truck was loaded the first one would move forwards and more police would move up. Then the police would walk beside the truck all the way to the [police] camp. Then they would stick a police car in front and a police car behind. They would put a copper in the front seat and one on the running board on the driver's side ... It must have cost the Government millions of dollars of taxpayers' money." When the convoy was assembled, they fired up the trucks, paddy wagons and police cars, police boarded the trucks, and the whole circus moved slowly and deliberately down the road out of the forest, past the protesters' camp and on toward The Channon and Lismore.

Fifteen loads of logs were taken out in just two days of carting, but this was less than 4 per cent of the target log volume for Terania Creek. The extreme working conditions were taking their toll on the crew. Ned Harvey couldn't make a living at the snail's pace dictated by protesters and police. The Commission's marking foremen had their work cut out chasing protesters out of the way of falling trees, and were worried, tired and stressed. Nobody was sleeping well. The crew was anxious that someone was eventually going to get seriously hurt. So, on Friday, August 31, Standard Sawmilling decided to temporarily cease logging in Terania Creek and pull the crew and all their gear out of the bush for a rest. But, on Tuesday, September 4, New South Wales Premier Neville Wran dropped a bombshell. He called a formal halt to all logging in Terania Creek until State Cabinet could meet to discuss the issue, stating that "not only is there widespread backing for the conservationists, but [Terania Creek] has now become a symbol for their fight to preserve the rainforests of New South Wales".

 

IN JUST TWO SHORT WEEKS, THE PROTESTERS had succeeded in raising the profile of Terania Creek's forests to represent all rainforests of New South Wales.

The protest which stopped the New South Wales Forestry Commission and Standard Sawmilling from harvesting Terania Creek was the first of its kind in Australia – and likely the world. Protests grew over the ensuing three years of the Rainforest War, and included battles over forests in Grier's Scrub and Mt Nardi on the Nightcap Range, and forests in the Washpool and Upper Hastings. The consequences of these confrontations were wide and long-lasting. Protesters from Terania Creek went on to Tasmania's Franklin River, where they instructed others in non-violent non-cooperation, and from there to Victoria's Errinundra Plateau, Queensland's Daintree rainforest, and more confrontations in New South Wales by the Northeast Forest Alliance.

Neville Wran's Rainforest Decision of October 1982 halted conflicts – but the war never really ended. The Rainforest Decision removed 117,000 hectares of forests from timber production, and over the next twenty-four years almost a million hectares of native forest was removed from timber production – a third of the total area of New South Wales state forests. This was repeated across the country, leading to the gradual demise of the Australian native forest timber industry.

The Forestry Commission's insistence on proceeding with harvesting seventy-seven hectares in Terania Creek had consequences that were inconceivable when the bush crew assembled around the bulldozer for the start of a day's work in Terania Creek on August 16, 1979.  ♦

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