A Chipmill and the Beginning of the Forest Wars

John Blay, writer and naturalist

Like it or not the enormous pile of woodchips across the Twofold Bay from Eden casts a darker shadow over the south east region today than it did in 1969 when the mill commenced operations.

The sad fact is that by the early 1960s more than half the region remained vacant Crown Land, and during the rosy days of the post-WW2 prosperity, we found the means to exploit nature on levels that had never happened before. The minister responsible for forests, Jack Beale, allowed increasing yields to be taken from the State Forests so that they were no longer sustainable, but provided a greater revenue inflow over the short term. On 14th November 1967 the Premier, Robin Askin, announced that Harris-Daishowa (Australia) Pty Ltd would begin logging the region for woodchips and construct a mill and wharf across Twofold Bay from Eden.  The new mill came into operation without any proper assessment of what it would mean. They simply rolled out the heavy machinery and started to clear everything heading southwards.

Allan Fox, wildlife officer with the Fauna Panel and then with the National Parks and Wildlife Service when it started in 1968, says the way the country was divided between Forests and Parks was unsatisfactory. There was no effective voice to speak for natural values of the crown lands during negotiations with the Forestry Commission. ‘The few bits saved as nature reserves and parks, at Nungatta, Nalbaugh, Mt Imlay, Egan Peaks, Ben Boyd and Bournda, couldn’t have been logged anyway, they were too steep.’[1]

Later in 1968, the newly established NPWS Scientific Committee recommended the establishment of a 220,000 hectare National Park, including the entire Coolangubra area, to be designated as the Great Escarpment National Park, but before it could be put into effect Harris-Daishowa was awarded Australia’s first woodchip export licence on the basis of purchasing surplus timber from private property. The issue of the vast areas of vacant crown land was looked at again and in July 1970 Conservation Minister Beale and Lands Minister Lewis jointly announced that ninety percent of it would go to Forestry for integrated forestry operations, to meet requirements of the wood chip industry. A ministerial statement said, ‘extensive areas of land at present non-productive would be brought into production.’ In deciding the future use of remaining Crown land along the coast, priority would be given to national park reservations ‘in those areas where scenic features dictated it…’[2] So there it was, the ministers of the time believed the main functions of national parks were scenic. A hundred kilometres of coastline from Cape Howe to Toalla Point near Pambula would be included in the park system. Wildlife, scientific and cultural values didn’t figure.

Those forest decisions made without any effective evaluation would be far-reaching and lead the south-east into conflict and the forest wars. To overturn the new status quo, however inappropriate, would be difficult. In December 1970 the first boatload of woodchips left Eden for Japan.

In 1975 an Australian Conservation Foundation workshop, attended by leading conservationists of the day including Milo Dunphy, Geoff Mosley and numerous others, held in Eden examined the damage caused by woodchipping.  Assisted by numerous scientists, soil erosion experts and ecologists, its report, a long way ahead of its time and now proven, was prominently featured in major newspapers. It pointed out that ‘Australia’s forests deserve the strictest protection’ despite appearances, because ‘only 5 percent of Australia is forested’. The devastation of the first 30,000 hectares woodchipped at Eden proved their concerns. They upheld the diverse values of forests and how

Forests produce about 55,490 x 106 metric tons of oxygen per year, about 17 tonnes per hec­tare – which amounts to a con­siderable proportion of our planet’s atmosphere – and have complex effects on rainfall. At a time when climatologists predict dire consequences from atmospheric pollution, especially by carbon-dioxide released by burning fossil fuels, which is normally reclaimed by plant action it may well be hazardous to risk destroying any more of our forests. [3]

Their report would simply be regarded as common sense today, although the very same arguments continue. Have we learned nothing in the past fifty years?

Conservationists searched for unanimity of scientific opinion. Their hopes were dashed when the results of preliminary studies on the effects of logging on wildlife initiated in the Eden district in co-operation with the Forestry Commission of NSW and Harris-Daishowa Pty Ltd. by eminent ecologist, Dr Harry Recher, were announced. In his opinion, reports stated, it was clear the entire forest ecosystem would survive clear-felling, like regeneration after fire. His interim report, The effects of woodchipping on wildlife at Eden, was breathlessly reported in local newspapers under the header: EDEN FORESTS NOT DESTROYED BY PULPWOOD LOGGING. Much would be made of these statements that formed the basis of a now-longstanding myth. [4]

The attacks on natural values then were in many ways similar to what’s happening today across the state’s national parks, in regard to feral animals and putting money-making amusement park values above conservation. It’s as if all that matters are views.

In 1972 it wasn’t just men with axes and bullock teams any more, now there were huge chainsaws and D9 bulldozers. But nothing prepared me for what was to come when I first journeyed into the forests behind Eden and Twofold Bay. The images I found there, like the shocking news from Vietnam warzones, changed the course of my life. I was so moved to come upon such ugliness, kilometre after kilometre of what seemed total devastation I had to write it all down, which became an ugly little poem, first published in 1973. And nothing’s so very different today now they’re completing the first rotation of the clear-felled areas. The practise is somewhat more sensitive but mechanisation means many fewer people are employed. With a wry smile I now forward it as my birthday card to the chipmill.

So much for the maps[5]

We drive beside the river

Towards Eden to

Enter the battlefield

The bush is cratered

(we pass to and fro

through the lens

of the evening newsreel)

trees torn and blasted

gulleys ripped clean

topsoil bulldozed

into roads

(Fire leaves only

charred corpses

the chipmill would reject)

Can this be Garden?

Forests go to another country

In shreds (is the fauna

Really dead) My

Teeth tear off

Too large a chunk of apple

To swallow

My cheeks swell


Dust hangs over the road

Like a mosquito net

As we drive towards Eden

Should’ve taken the highway

This is an edited extract from a new book called Wild Nature Trails to be published by NewSouth in 2020.

[1] Allan Fox  pers comm. 2004

[2] 700717 The Voice

[3] Canberra Times 27th Dec 1975, Australian Forests or Japanese woodchips? The case against selling 5pc of beautiful Australia

[4]  30th September 1976 Imlay Magnet; also The Effects of Woodchipping on Wildlife at Harry F Recher, Eden, Department of Environmental Studies, The Australian Museum, Sydney August 18, 1976 at p 30 also at https://media.australianmuseum.net.au/media/dd/Uploads/Documents/26909/AMS112_1975-1976_lowres_web.58b8673.pdf viewed 24th Sep 2019

[5] Blay, John, So much for the maps, The Australian, March 1973

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