169 Trouble in Paradise

Geoff Strong, The Age (article), 6/2/99


Tempers rise as the trees fall.  Down in the Otway Ranges and along the nearby coast a battle is underway.

Just three fishing boats share Lorne pier with the strolling tourists now, a lonely remnant of the 20 or so that once fished there from the turbulent waters of Bass Strait. The area has been fished out of nearly everything but a few crays so the adjoining pier fish shop gets most of its supplies trucked in from elsewhere.

In the hills behind Lorne another industry is fighting to avoid similar extinction and, as Adrian Whitehead knows, the fight is already a bloody one. The brawl between Environmentalists and the timber industry over the future of native hardwood logging in The Otways has been rolling on for decades. But now there are divisions like never before; between the two municipalities that cover the region, between loggers and those opposed to them who would like to drive a wedge between the hardwood loggers and the softwood plantation industry.

The blood already shed by Whitehead has shocked many in the region and galvanised the anti-logging forces. But by any definition Whitehead is a man with a surprising mix of interests. A professional army lieutenant and part-time tour operator, he is also a trained biologist with a graduate diploma of environmental management who calls himself a full-time greenie.

On 1 December last year his head came into contact with a logger's axe handle. He was knocked unconscious and bleeding profusely, was taken to hospital where he needed five stitches.  Just before this incident he and a young companion were compiling a biological inventory of a logging coupe off a road called Garvey Track in the hills a few kilometres from Lorne.

According to the loggers, Whitehead's injuries were sustained when he tripped over a dog and hit his head on the axe handle. Whitehead and his companion have a different recollection. They remember the handle being in the hands of a logger when it first struck Whitehead on the leg, then again on the right side of his temple as he bent over. Police have been notified but no charges laid.

The, truth over this incident is just one of the many conflicts and complexities surrounding the territory adjoining Victoria's most spectacular and internationally recognised strip of coast.

There are few places in the world with such an accessible and intoxicating combination of scenery as the Otways and its shore. A relatively unpolluted sapphire ocean pounds against clean white beaches that run into hillsides with pockets of ancient rainforest and a network of waterfalls.  All is linked by a road that seems to surprise and tease the eye at every twist and turn.

Naturally this beauty attracts a large number of local and  international visitors. The estimated $300 million a year they pump into the local economy enables the region to employ about 2000 people in tourism-related industries.   More difficult to get is a realistic calculation on how much hardwood harvesting contributes to the area. Critics of logging see the passion to keep the industry alive as more than just job preservation. They argue it does damage to the region's tourist potential; which they say has the capacity to provide more jobs in the long term.

 Both sides agree that preserving logging is in part about preserving a lifestyle - a sort of sanctuary for the kind of hard-living men who are not big on the social skills that the interpersonal field of tourism would need. They are the kind of guys unlikely to be found serving in a restaurant but feel at home in the bush with big trucks and chainsaws.

 The main organised opponent of logging, the Otway Ranges Environment Network, has formed an alliance with the Surf Coast Shire, the municipality that covers Lorne and the coast eastwards Barwon Heads.  Both argue that hardwood logging across the whole region provides no more than 220 jobs, contributes about $20 million a year with 85 per cent of the timber being pulped for woodchips, and is effectively subsidised by more than $1 million annually by the State Government. They say this calculation comes from figures supplied by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment under Freedom of Information.

The group representing loggers, the Otway Forest Industies Informaion Group, disputes this but, Belinda Murnane was unable to provide direct figures for hardwood logging, declining to separate it from the softwood plantation industry.  Likewise, DNRE's regional forests manager, Greg Hayes, declined to provide the figures, saying they would be made available when the western Victorian Regional Forest Agreement was negotiated later this year.

There is also a feeling among coastal and tourism interests that the tourist potential of much of the area is being hidden by the policies of DNRE and questions are being asked about its role.

(Continued; for full article see www.lexicon.net/peterc/)

There is a widespread concern that the department deliberately tries to keep visitors out of forest areas where it wants to log in the future, to avoid an outcry about any damage done.  Even Glen Patterson, chief executive of the more pro-logging ColacOtway Shire, admits the role of the department is under question. "There is a feeling the DNRE closes off areas, because it doesn't want people in the forest."   But Hayes denies this, saying it has put in a walking track to the spectacular Triplet Falls near Laver's Hill and is establishing the Otway Waterfall Forest Drive in conjunction with Parks Victoria and the Colac Otway Shire.    "Of course, we don't want people in the forest during operations, for safety reasons, but we are up front about what we do and we encourage public involvement," Hayes said.

 While the Triplet Falls walk is in spectacular country, the department makes no secret of its use as a pro-logging propaganda tool. A sign at the beginning of the walk depicts horses pulling cut trees along a timber tramway. Other signs explain how well rainforest regenerates after logging.

Cyril Marriner, a wiry 68-year-old is a former grazier and the third generation of a family that has been involved in the Otways since last century. Originally pastoralists, they ran beef cattle in the area around Cape Otway. Cut off from civilisation by land, cattle were sent out and supplies brought in via an ocean jetty at nearby Blanket Bay. Gradually the land was sold. Then, 16 years ago, he decided to turn to tourism, keeping a remnant of the property as a camping and caravan ground which he called Bimbi Park.

A somewhat eccentric venture, it has a commando training course on one part and on another an outdoor cinema with a scrap metal screen on which he shows classic movies to his customers during the Christmas and Easter holidays.
 Then, a couple of years ago, another dramatic change took place. He and his wife, Pat, discovered they were a favourite on the international backpacker circuit and soon busloads of up to 40 - mainly Europeans and North Americans started arriving each day.

The visitors wanted cheap accommodation, so the Marriners erected army tents with rows of bunks and they charged each visitor $12 a night, including breakfast.   Backpackers are prepared to spend up on activities, and the Marriners found offering horse rides profitable. The most popular are through the forest, koala-spotting on the way, or across the sand dunes to the green treachery of the surf at Station Beach.

But Cyril also takes longer rides through the Otways and he has seen the reaction of foreign visitors when they witness the effect of clearfell timber harvesting on an area they are enjoying because of its worldclass beauty.  "With trail rides you get a real feel for the state of the place. The clearfelling they do is on too great a scale, the areas are too big for the wildlife to return and the seed to regenerate.  "You see the effect on the streams. The water runs muddy after any rain and the silt smothers stream life and even the ferns on the bank. The region has become drier as the forest has been logged. The less forest the less rainfall."

When he grew up there were little mills all over the area and while they were labor-intensive the damage was relatively small. "It is so intense now. I think the forest needs a rest now from this intensity.  "When I was a boy driving up Lavers Hill you could smell the scent of the satin box trees. It was a wonderful smell, but they used the trees for fence posts or, because of its straight grain, for school rulers. There is hardly any of it left now."

Belinda Murnane's family claims to be the longest continuously operating logging and milling operation in the area, going back to 1854.  Company headquarters is decrepit house on the site of an old drive-in movie theatre near Colac. The 1950s sign that used to announce the drive-in now gives the name of a joinery works. In the boardroom the centrepiece is a handcrafted table made out of the native timbers they cut, but surrounded by a motley collection of 196Os vinyl covered chairs. Murnane has been helping fight the rearguard action against the greenies.  Her side's most high profile success so far came to a head about two weeks ago when a group of loggers supported by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, blockaded a group of 12 environmentalists from the Otway Ranges Network, who were blockading a forestry coupe.

They refused to allow in reinforcements or food supplies to the environmentalists and the blockade collapsed about four days later. She emphasises now that the hardwood industry is no longer just about chopping down and ripping out, using terms like "value adding" and stressing the increasing proportion going into furniture and flooring production.

But the group she represents is alarmed that reports that the Government might be prepared to sacrifice hardwood logging in the Otways as a trade-off to get conservationists off their backs in other regions, particularly East Gippsland.  She says the group has reports of the trade-off and while initially dismissing them, believes there are grounds for concern.

"There have been reports that a deal has been done to sacrifice the Otways. We have heard it through industry and union groups. If it happens, the economic heart of the Colac region would be destroyed".  To push their case the group took out a four-page advertorial feature last week in the local paper, the Colac Herald.

Although it is not a direct player in the future of the industry, the position of the Colac Otway Shire is important psychologically. Officially, it has not taken a stand either way, although it does have members who are strongly pro-logging.

CEO Patterson said an announcement on the council's position be made on Wednesday, He said representatives of Otway Ranges Environment Network had made a presentation to the council setting out an economic future based on green tourism.

This option has proved attractive to  the neighbouring shire of Surf Coast. The mayor, Julie Hansen, said the council now favors the abolition of hardwood logging in the area. "The dynamics are changing. Hardwood logging really employs a relatively small number of people, but it does a lot of damage to the tourism potential of the area."

Clearly the loggers will not surrender easily, but at least one of the older mills has already been turned into tourist attraction. There is still lot of capital tied up in the industry and then there is the power of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, which some critics describe as a self-propelled bureaucracy determined to save its own position.

It might still be some time before the logging trucks thin down to the numbers of the Lorne fishing fleet.