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The battle to save WA’s remaining old-growth forests required activists to mobilise public opinion and pressure the government to see the financial, climate and biodiversity benefits of leaving those forests intact. By Jesse Noakes.

How the fight to save WA’s native forests was finally won

Jarrah forest in Western Australia.
Credit: Ray Swarts

There is a scene in Cry of the Forests, a recent documentary about Western Australia’s native forests, in which a camouflaged man holding a GoPro camera dances around the massive mechanical arm of a logging rig that is demolishing and stripping trees. The loggers in their cabins remain apparently oblivious. At one point the film switches to the GoPro footage as a nearby tree is flipped over, the camera whipping smartly behind an adjacent trunk just as the canopy crashes around it.

“We were just trying to keep exposure on what’s happening in the forest,” says Ray Swarts, a builder and environmentalist from Margaret River, as he describes “playing wallaby” with the foresters.

“When I saw these trees and I could see the machines and the destruction, I said, ‘Look, I’ve got to get a camera on this. People have got to see this. As people see what’s happening, they’ll do something about it.’ ”

On September 8, Premier Mark McGowan announced that by 2024 WA will become the first state in Australia to end the logging of native forests. The decision will mean about 400,000 hectares of karri, jarrah and marri trees will be securely protected, and brings the total conservation estate in the state’s south-west to more than two million hectares.

The following day’s state budget included a $50 million “Just Transition” fund to support affected forestry workers and $350 million over four years to expand WA’s softwood timber plantations.

Dr Wayne Webb, a Pibulmun Wadandi Yungunjarli Elder, applauded the McGowan government for their decision. “Of course, I don’t think we are changing quick enough or that this goes far enough, but we can celebrate this small win,” he told The Saturday Paper.

“In my culture, everything has a voice, a right to exist, and it’s time we stood and really listened because without water nothing survives, without oxygen nothing survives, and without our biodiversity working together our planet, our Earth, our culture and our people cannot live.”

The announcement has been called a “bombshell” by its critics. “There was no consultation with industry prior to this announcement,” according to Melissa Haslam, executive director of the Forest Industries Federation of WA. “The way it was announced was disrespectful and showed a real lack of consideration for the people and communities impacted.”

Haslam says the native forestry industry contributes $220 million to the WA economy each year and claims the transition funding is inadequate.

“This is a political decision based on polling not science,” says the WA shadow Forestry minister, Steve Martin. Certainly, in the only state in Australia with rising emissions and no concrete emissions reduction target, this decision may help to offset criticism of inaction elsewhere.

For the WA Forest Alliance, however, the decision is “massive, historic and marvellous”.

Its convenor, Jess Beckerling, has been campaigning to protect WA’s native forests for more than half her life, since she joined a south-west forest blockade as a first-year university student. She spent the next three years living in the forest, in the run-up to the 2001 decision by the Gallop Labor government to ban old-growth logging.

“But the way that the definition of old-growth was written meant that the win wasn’t as extensive as we expected it to be,” Beckerling says, while acknowledging the decision permanently conserved 230,000 hectares of forest. “By the time we got around to that review process, the wind was completely gone out of the sails of the campaign.”

Beckerling moved back to her home on WA’s south coast and focused on fire and water issues. The WA Forest Alliance lay dormant for a decade but gradually re-emerged with a goal to end all logging in native forests.

“I remember us making a strategic decision that we needed to have a bold, ambitious target to mobilise people around,” Beckerling recalls.

A key pivot came in 2016 with the launch of “Forests for Life”, a transition strategy for timber and workers. “We felt that we could socially and economically justify that argument because we’re also articulating a solution.”

Beckerling says that the campaign consolidated during McGowan’s first term, when it became apparent that the government was likely to be re-elected with a substantial majority. “We needed to find ways to convince government that this was something that could be of benefit to them.”

To emphasise the climate and biodiversity benefits of retaining native trees, traditional direct action restarted in logging coupes across the south-west.

“Climate change has had such a huge impact on these forests, and logging has taken a massive toll,” says Peta Goodwin, the co-founder of Nannas for Native Forests. After a rally in Margaret River in August 2020, the group emerged quickly to challenge the stereotypes about forest campaigners. “ ‘Tree huggers and greenies’ – there’s a lot of people who are quite frightened of that, especially people our age.”

Seven “forest grannies” joining their first blockade in early September became 53 women aged up to their 90s using cars to block logging tracks in Helms Forest later that month.

“They were really fierce, but they were totally accessible and they came along at the perfect moment,” says Jess Beckerling. “It’s a powerful story from start to finish.”

A piece about the women aired on The Project. Independent filmmaker Jane Hammond also began making Cry of the Forests, which premiered in Perth in November 2020 and was shown at more than 40 public screenings, with an “action kit” attached as part of the campaign.

“This is a social impact documentary,” says Hammond. “I made it specifically for November, for the [WA state] election in March – we needed the impact now, bugger the film festivals.”

Hammond says Labor politicians had previously told campaigners there wasn’t enough public noise to force their hand on this issue. “So the idea was to screen the film and then get people to make a noise and I wasn’t thinking rallies, it’s knocking on the doors of the politicians ... signing the postcards, plus doing the actions online. So you have a step-through process of where people can go, but whether that was going to work was another thing.”

Campaigners say that the final consideration was public opinion. Following their wipeout election win in March, the McGowan government issued a community survey on native forests, which received 17,000 responses between June and August 2021. All but 5 per cent of respondents said more should be done to protect forests – and more than 70 per cent supported a total ban on logging.

The state government confirmed to The Saturday Paper that the survey was the only consultation made with industry prior to the announcement but said the timing was dictated by the current 10-year Forest Management Plan (FMP) expiring in 2023. “The decision to end native logging in WA’s south-west forests establishes the policy framework for the next FMP,” a state government spokesperson said. “The policy framework needed to be decided before development of the next FMP could begin.”

The economic sustainability of the timber produced from native forests has also been steadily declining. A 2016 report from The Australia Institute found that the yield from higher value first- and second-grade sawlogs dropped from more than half of all native forest production in 2002 to a quarter in 2015.

“Not only has native forest output declined; so has the quality of that output,” the report states. “Greater areas of forest must now be logged to recover the same volume of timber.”

The report also found a 30 per cent drop in WA forestry employment in the five years to 2016. A separate 2017 report by University of Canberra researchers found that WA’s native forest industry directly employs about 500 people, the majority in the south-west region of the state.

The WA government acknowledged both the climate and biodiversity importance of the forests and the declining yields of native timber in making their decision. “ ‘Business as usual’ logging is simply not sustainable,” a spokesperson said.

Jess Beckerling emphasises that the damage to native forests must be minimised over the remaining two years of logging. “The fact that the McGowan government now says that native forests are worth more for climate and biodiversity and future generations than for timber means that we have made a significant breakthrough, not only in terms of policy but in terms of culture.”

She also highlights concerns around ongoing bauxite mining and the involvement of First Nations custodians and knowledge in fire management as crucial to the strength of the next Forest Management Plan, starting in 2024.

“It’s intuitive, it’s connected, it’s emotionally intelligent and rich, and it’s connected to the ground” is how Beckerling characterises the decades-long campaign to end native logging. “Not just in the grassroots campaigning sense, but also seeing the forest as the key ally in the work that you’re doing.”

“I put my energy into this because... the images made it very visible,” says Swarts, whose advice to activists is as blunt as the logging practices he documented with his GoPro: “Pick one that’s potentially winnable. Because you’re up against it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "Seeing the forest for the trees".

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Jesse Noakes is a writer and campaigner from Western Australia.