Locked into supply contracts with the producer of Reflex paper, the Andrews government continues to prop up the logging industry in the state’s last remaining forests. By Katherine Wilson.

After fires, loggers move into Toolangi forest

NAIDOC chairperson Stacie Piper at the Toolangi protest site.
NAIDOC chairperson Stacie Piper at the Toolangi protest site.
Credit: Karena Goldfinch

To locals, it’s the Valley of the Giants. Traditional owners call it kalatha and toolangi, words describing the forest’s towering trees, among the biggest in the world. During the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, this heart of Victoria’s central highlands was called “the hole in the doughnut”. A pitiless firestorm surrounded the region, spanning Kinglake to Marysville, but spared Toolangi, the most carbon-dense forest on the planet.

Then this week, the Victorian government’s position on protecting Toolangi’s rainforest shifted dramatically, a decision that “is senseless”, according to Black Saturday survivor Steve Meacher. “It’s beyond bizarre that VicForests would now decide to commence destruction to this area.”

“It’s unfathomable,” says NAIDOC chairperson Stacie Piper. “Especially while the Treaty process is under way.”

On Monday, the Andrews government closed off the rainforest’s Black Saturday commemorative site along the Kalatha Giant Tree Walk – a tourist mecca steeped in Taungurung and Wurundjeri knowledge. The week prior, Toolangi locals learnt that VicForests, the state-owned logging company, had downgraded the site’s erosion status from “high” to “low”, and named it “Zinger”, ostensibly after the KFC burger.

Zinger sits below “Big Kahuna”, another coupe, already logged to provide wood pulp to Australian Paper, the manufacturer of Reflex. A 1996 agreement with the Victorian government guarantees hardwood pulp supply for Reflex and obligates the company to buy it from the government. But the paper giant’s use of “high conservation value” forest is controversial, and more than 2200 organisations have signed the Ethical Paper Pledge not to use its copy paper.

The “Big Kahuna” site is regenerating, but without its former biodiversity, and such young regrowth forests present the highest fire severity, according to recent studies from the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University and the University of Wollongong. Those researchers also found logging native forests destroys ecosystems, decreases the state’s water supply and increases bushfire risk. Parts of Toolangi are prized as bushfire “refugia” – undisturbed areas that provide a “Noah’s ark” to recover surrounding disturbed or burnt habitat.

This week, as the Herald Sun reported a $200 million “secret deal” between the Andrews government and the Australian Paper mill in Maryvale, the Zinger and Big Kahuna sites became the focus of Protect the Unburnt, a First Nations campaign to decelerate species extinction in the wake of the recent bushfires that killed more than a billion animals and millions of habitat hectares. Conservationists deemed the Victorian government’s pledge to end native logging by 2030 “greenwashing”, as forests will by then be too depleted to further harvest anyway.

On Tuesday, Stacie Piper took her infant daughter to see the Kalatha Giant within the 6.8-hectare Zinger site, one of the few remaining habitats of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum. Piper’s Wurundjeri grandmother was born under a tree in nearby Coranderrk.

But what she encountered in Toolangi was a battlefield.

It began on Monday about 12.30am, when a protester going by the nickname “Possum” climbed a sky-high eucalypt and unfurled an Aboriginal flag. When a bulldozer entered at dawn, Possum locked on to the tree, preventing the contractor from forging logging tracks.

The Saturday Paper put questions to VicForests and ministries but responses weren’t received by deadline. The government maintains that harvesting old growth has ceased in Victoria. But official definitions of “old growth” have changed.

Some trees within the Zinger logging coupe predate European contact, explained Steve Meacher, who heads Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum. “When Captain Cook landed,” he said, “these trees were already around 80 metres tall.” Studies have documented 2000-year-old tree ferns in the Toolangi forest.

On Tuesday, four game officers tried to stop locals entering Kalatha Road. Four armed police joined them. When Piper arrived, they blocked her entry.

“This is my Country,” she told them. “I feel a little bit of aggression from you and it’s quite confronting…” The police ordered her to turn around.

Indigenous leaders say police are being deployed to protect a state-owned cartel that is destroying habitat, increasing bushfire risk and killing cultural knowledge. Taunwurrung elder Uncle Larry Walsh has called for a ban on logging until impacts of recent bushfires are fully assessed.

“The more VicForests destroy Country, the fewer stories remain,” says Uncle Larry, who spent his childhood among the Kalatha giants. “With lost stories, we lose our moral way.”

VicForests continues to log against recommendations by Victoria’s flora and fauna scientific advisory committee, and its guaranteed supply deal with Australian Paper makes things tough for sustainable plantation industries.

A 2017 parliamentary inquiry recommended a switch to plantation estates, which have higher yields and lower emissions. But the government has given VicForests 1.8 million hectares of forest, about 8 per cent of Victoria. Last year, the ABC reported the state logging company has issued plans to log outside its allocations, raising concerns about the safety of old-growth forests in Victoria.

On Wednesday, Victorian Resources Minister Jaclyn Symes told parliament “claims that we are logging old-growth forest are completely false”.

But the term “old growth” is currently being reviewed by the Office of the Conservation Regulator.

“The minister’s comments are ill-informed,” said Professor David Lindenmayer, who specialises in forest ecology and fire management at the Australian National University. “VicForests has redefined what old growth is to make it much harder to find old-growth forest. This is a piece of policy bastardry.

“All the evidence shows the large old trees need to be protected with a large buffer of undisturbed forest around them, or they’re very prone to be blown over. These trees are the most important keystone structures in those forests.”

VicForests website states: “To be selected for single tree selection harvesting, trees need to be aged between 60 and 120 years.”

Lindenmayer says the disturbed soil impacts of industrial logging “last 80 years, maybe longer”.

Nor does the minister’s statement appear to consider “slash” spoils, averaging at 62 per cent of the logging, said Lindenmayer. “This is biomass, tree heads, lateral branches, understorey that gets burnt. Half is volatilised into air pollution; the other half is left on forest floor and adds to bushfire fuel.

“We just did a big analysis and reanalysis. The evidence is overwhelming that logging makes native forests more prone to fire. Toolangi residents are right to be concerned.

“If you lose those big trees, you’re going to have big problems. If you want to make decisions to drive the greater glider and possum to extinction, this is exactly what you do,” said Lindenmayer.

Despite its access to a free resource, successive VicForests annual reports record either losses or no dividends to the state. The grants, subsidies and costs of court battles and enforcement aren’t tallied. While the CFMMEU is pressuring the government to support timber jobs, a 2016 PwC audit found each native forest industry job costs Victorians more than $5 million and brings at best 14 cents’ return for every dollar invested.

Since East Gippsland’s forests scorched, the government has “thrown Toolangi under a bus”, says local resident Sarah Rees, who has challenged VicForests in courtrooms and parliamentary chambers.

Two years ago, the government shut down the popular Forest Discovery Centre, whose board members independently campaigned against logging. A succession of businesses consequently closed. The local mill is closed – all logged timber is trucked elsewhere. Last month, the town’s last remaining shopfront business, Toolangi Tavern, closed; its pastoral and forest views now include logged coupes.

But a court decision has given residents hope. On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld an injunction against VicForests, stopping logging in coupes across the central highlands. The application, lodged by the volunteer organisation Wildlife of the Central Highlands, didn’t include Zinger, but The Saturday Paper understands the coupe is expected to be added.

An alliance of traditional owners who wrote to all government ministries in November accused VicForests of “unlawfully [being] given 24 per cent of Gunaikurnai Country, 19 per cent of Taungurung Country and 7 per cent of Wurundjeri Country.” Current logging practices are “outrageous and offensive to us. We demand an immediate stop on logging our Country.”

On Twitter, Gunnai-Gunditjmara leader Lidia Thorpe asked VicForests chief executive Monique Dawson: “What consent do you have from Gunnai, Wurundjeri and Tungeroung clans to continue logging our country?” Dawson replied: “Authority for our operations stems from the Parliament of Victoria.”

This is the problem, says Uncle Larry. “We’ve been denied any involvement. We’ve never been asked to the table.

“If the Country is logged, it’s the end of me as a storyteller. The connections I teach the young, the plants, the animals – the minute we lose those we lose their stories. The inheritance I was able to give my children, grandchildren, all that cultural heritage – gone.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 7, 2020 as "After fires, loggers move into Toolangi forest".

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