A young boy in gumboots stands transfixed by a small cluster of caterpillars wriggling on the ground. By the side of the road a woman in a beanie asks a man about a seedling they are both inspecting. Someone pulls a salad sandwich out of their backpack. After a grey, wet start to the day, the sun is out and shining through the sparse canopy in the Wombat State Forest. There are about 50 people out surveying flora and fauna and it’s slightly jarring to remember most of them are currently breaking the law, risking jail time and fines of up to $21,000.
The disparate group mostly don’t know each other. There are polite introductions and a buddy system is implemented. Trail mix is passed around. A woman looks up the caterpillars on her phone. She explains to the boy in gumboots that the grubs are congregating together to appear bigger, there’s strength in numbers.
Some attending the day are seasoned conservationists, ecologists, activists and Victorian Greens politicians. Others just live near the forest, about an hour out of Melbourne. All of them have come together to oppose the Victorian government’s new anti-protest logging laws, which came into effect last week.
Under the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Act, fines for people conducting citizen science or protesting within a timber harvesting safety zone have increased threefold. Authorised officers have greater powers to search and seize items, issue banning notices and arrest people. Members of the public who are found in a timber harvesting safety zone while in possession of newly prohibited items such as PVC piping or a carabiner could face up to a year in jail.
So far, no officers have arrived to disband the survey taking place. The group are instructed to use a shared, anonymous login to document their findings on the CSIRO-endorsed iNaturalist app. In the past, authorities have used individuals’ environmental survey data to retroactively issue fines.
Sensor-activated cameras are pointed out so people can try to avoid them. An older woman in a bright blue scarf that matches her glasses stands directly in front of one of the cameras. Her name is Jane Morton and she is a 70-year-old clinical psychologist. She says she isn’t very nimble these days and didn’t think she’d have much success when she first began environmental surveying. The first time she spotted an endangered greater glider on a survey was “such a thrill”.
Morton says she’s willing to risk arrest in the Wombat State Forest because she’s so against the new laws. “I’m very strongly of the belief that you’ve just got to challenge it straight away,” she says.
A few years ago, Morton went into semi-retirement to focus her energies on the climate emergency. Since then, she’s been arrested six times. “I don’t get arrested for absolutely anything,” she clarifies, “I think it has to be worthwhile … But the science is saying we’ve got very little time to avoid runaway warming, and so it’s natural that people up their protest. We cannot afford to back off.”
Environmental surveying didn’t only occur in Wombat State Forest last week. Across Victoria, in five forests, groups conducted surveys in and around timber harvesting safety zones in defiance of the new laws. The groups say they spotted endangered greater gliders, koalas and a critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum, and endangered tree geebungs.
Three days after the statewide protest, the citizen scientists received some welcome news: the Victorian government, which had previously pledged to end logging only by the end of the decade, announced plans to cease native forest logging by the start of 2024. The news is celebrated as a win by many in the environmental movement, although there is concern native logging could continue under another framework, such as disaster logging.
According to the government, the industry is no longer viable due to “ongoing litigation and severe bushfires”. In the past year, several court cases, supported by evidence from citizen scientists, found VicForests in breach of its environmental and legal obligations.
The Saturday Paper put questions to the state government asking if its current plan included ending salvage logging by 2024. A government spokesperson did not directly respond to the question, saying: “The government’s current focus is on supporting impacted native timber workers and industry.”
“We know that disaster logging is a frontier for the industry, and that those logs are being used commercially,” says Tuffy Morwitzer of the Goongerah Environment Centre. “So while this is a huge win, and absolutely, we need to celebrate it, we want to see them disband the Wood Pulp Agreement so that logging is not going to continue under any other name.”
David Lindenmayer, a leading ecologist and biologist specialising in forest ecology, argues salvage logging is in fact the most damaging form of logging. “It actually makes forests more prone to higher-severity fire. It’s bad for the forest. It employs very few people and significantly impairs the recovery process. It should never happen.”
If disaster logging continues to be supported by the state, the protests will continue.
The Victorian government introduced the anti-protest logging laws into parliament last year, citing workers’ safety. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews told reporters logging sites were very dangerous places: “They need to be regulated, they need to be safe.”
Legal groups, unions and environmental groups criticised the laws as heavy-handed. The human rights organisation Liberty Victoria said the government had presented no evidence to back up the claim there was a threat to workers’ safety.
“There’s this false dichotomy of workplace safety versus the environment that is presented in this piece of legislation,” says Godfrey Moase, the director of United Workers Union. He notes climate change is also a workplace safety issue: “We know that these precedents always end up being used against workers time and time again.”
Last month, activists ran training sessions deep in the forest in remote eastern Victoria. The annual Easter camp is run by the Goongerah Environment Centre, a small but active group, known for running the longest forest blockade in Australian history.
The camp hosted nature walks, educational talks, tree-climbing training and screenings. There was a particular focus on how to continue to campaign and build the movement in light of the crackdown by state governments on protesters.
An activist who ran a non-violent direct-action workshop at the camp tells me how authorities have become more efficient and skilled in dealing with protesters, particularly when it comes to ending a tree-sit. They said that, in the past, it would sometimes be up to a week before game management officers or police would even come. “Then it seemed like it became more of a priority and they’d get down sits in the past that might have been considered too tricky for them.”
The Game Management Authority, which is contracted by the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action to manage forest protests, confirmed its officers were receiving additional training to help implement their new powers.
Under the amended act, an entirely new power has been given to police and the authority. As well as broadening search and seizure powers, authorised officers, who carry batons, spray and handcuffs, are now able to issue on-the-spot banning notices, stopping people from returning to or going near a logging coupe for a period of up to 28 days. Officers essentially have the power to ban public oversight and bearing witness.
Across the country, state governments have introduced sweeping legislation to crack down on climate and environment protesters.
In Tasmania last year, the government passed laws aimed to stop mining or logging blockades, substantially increasing penalties for protesters and organisations. On May 18, the South Australian parliament rushed through extraordinary legislation after climate protesters blocked traffic during an oil and gas conference in Adelaide. Anyone who “intentionally or recklessly engages in conduct that obstructs the free passage of a public place” could face up to three months in jail or a fine of up to $50,000. The NSW government is currently in court over anti-protest laws it introduced last year.
By the campfire in the Wombat State Forest, new people are arriving to join the night survey, pulling on head torches and extra layers. In between toasting marshmallows, local activist Amy Calton says even before these laws came into effect authorities were heavy-handed.
“They are very, very keen to keep us out of areas to the point where they’ll push us back past the point we should legally be able to protest.”
She says this year she was arrested and fined for holding a small vigil in a public area near a salvage logging coupe. The fine has since been revoked.
“It’s ridiculous,” she says. “We’re facing a climate crisis, threatening extinction and we’ve got governments making laws that tie us up from being able to even speak about this issue.
“These aren’t laws to govern us and keep us safe and keep us happy … These laws are in place to protect corporate interests.”
She looks around at the people by the campfire, breaking the law just by their presence. “People should be frightened by now,” she says. “But I’ve also got a huge amount of faith.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2023 as "A day in the forest".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription