Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Will Hodgman: Pulling the Renaissance Rabbit from Forestry's Black Hole

                                                                       Part One

So the great world heritage de-listing has fallen through.   Firstly just about all of those boys who led the charge are lawyers.   And if there is a word they all understand it is 'precedent'.  And if the committee had allowed one to be set by which any unconscionable liar who managed to worm his way momentarily  into public office could reverse the thing and throw some supposed treasure open for exploitation by his cronies and constituents then the whole process would be meaningless and nothing would or could be protected anywhere with any certainty in the long term.  If Messrs. Abbott and Hodgman really didn't understand this then they are sad naifs who should never have been entrusted with government.  If they did understand then it was nothing but an electoral stunt and 'liar' is not an unjust characterization.  Of course a lot more corroborating evidence has emerged since the federal election and the subsequent Abbott smile has withered with his ratings in the polls.

I had been struggling to place that smile for some time.  Where had I seen it?  Eventually I remembered.  I have seen this thing FROM  THE INSIDE.  Once I faked a personality profile at a mystery job interview which turned out to be selling Scott Fetzer vacuums door to door.  I refused their offer but they hounded me for weeks.  That was the Kirby, which  was an art deco-industrial design masterpiece and if I had room I would have one just to display on a plinth in my lounge room, but never would I so much as touch its fabulous cast aluminium sucking head to a floor.  But a stint selling encyclopaedias is pretty much the same thing.  And the trick is to get your foot in the door.  And when your knock is answered by the householder and his dog slips past him and is humping your leg that isn't going to happen if you give the little bastard the well- deserved  kick that will put him in his place for all time.  And so you force out a weak, apologetic mouth-only smile of a dead-set underdog; diplomatically pretending the ugly embarrassing subtext down below doesn't matter a wit because he is so cute.  But it does and the mark doesn't yet know you have the upper hand.   A truly great actor would do exactly the same; not a full smile of actual bonhomie or enjoyment but of strength and forbearance that masks the cold glitter of eyes that would otherwise be the windows of your soul which is cranking out the interminable rat -cunning calculations on which our jobs depend.  Our product will transform your life for the better one day, but first you have to sell them the pup.

So why did we need to open up tens of thousands of hectares of primary forest?   Simply because the sustainability of our 'working forests' is just one more lie.  Even on a Forestry Tasmania 80 year rotation the only thing that comes out of that is eucalypt pulpwood and some small blackwoods and second rate euc. sawlogs IF they are grown on high fertility/lower altitude ground which is unlikely because all that country has been cleared and is being used for agriculture.  Speaking as a craftsman and fine timber specialist I wouldn't give two bob for any of it except maybe exceptional silver wattle which is a poor man's blackwood.  Its a light, fast- growing  leguminous pioneer species that will do for interior decorative use like cabinetry or panelling.

So I have been salvaging, milling and retailing fine timbers here for years.  Ever since I was growing up in rural British Columbia I had a lot to do with the forest industry.  Beside cutting our winter firewood supply with a bucksaw and axe from a very early age there was our next-door neighbor who was a logging contractor.  He operated a bulldozer and was the only person in the area who had a 4 wheel drive; an old war- veteran Willys jeep he used at work; not like nowadays when every man and his dog has one of these brutes for shopping and tearing up the countryside on the weekends.  When he brought the 'Cat' home for maintenance, which was often;  he would be screaming his rage and laying into it with a sledgehammer.  Between him and some other kids in grade one I picked up a fairly complete vocabulary.  Everybody in the area worked in the bush from time to time.

We used to walk two miles home from school each day and when I was in Grade four of five we caught up with one of the local grandsons of Finland parked on the road with his girlfriend, struggling in the front seat.

 We chanted "I see ___ in a tree/ K- I- S- S- I -N- G."  They were getting married and they laughed and drove on.  But they couldn't keep their hands off each other and we caught up with them two more times on the way home.   God knows why they couldn't find a place to park off the main road.  I didn't see the guy again for a decade.  My brother and I were home with a gap between summer exploration jobs, going or coming from college and we were putting some time in doing graveyard shift on the green chain at the local softwood mill.  And he was there as always since he had become a family man, one of the three sawyers and a very different breed of cat by now with a metal plate in his head, one wall eye and thick glasses thanks to a flying insert from the headsaw, and separated from his wife and young family thanks to alcoholism and a more personable and sober young neighbor.

My job was tailing out on the next machine in the line, which was the bull edger.  This had several blades that slid back and forth along a shaft to cut the flitches into a selected range of boards and I had to reach over,   grab the wain edges on both sides as they came out and flip them over onto a chain to the burner.  On the second week there I stepped back for some reason, probably an unusually big piece of wood was coming out fast on the far side and the next thing I knew I was lying on my back watching my mangled foot going around in a huge sprocket that drove the 'camel back' chain on which the boards were sorted.   Even if there had been an emergency cord I couldn't have reached it, and the noise was such it was like being in space where no one can hear you scream.  Which I don't recall, just that these things don't hurt much at the time and I didn't have much choice but to wait patiently for the thing to come around and spit me out.  But the edger operator must have seen me disappear and by the time it released me everything had stopped.   I was wearing high-topped custom- made leather boots from my geological work and the one had been grabbed from behind and the entire heel and back of the boot was crushed flat.  It looked like one of those life- changing moments  and I took the thing off and found to my and the gathered onlookers surprise that I still had a foot.  It had been squeezed right out of the lower boot,  bursting the leather laces.  Although I couldn't walk on it for a week, I had earned a hundred and forty dollars already so there was no pressing reason to go back, not like if you have a family or a plate in your head.

So the forest industry is a family thing and according to my father we go  a lot farther back than my initial disaster:

"Back in the twenties my dad had  given up on his taxi service.  He must have made a convincing case at the bank and was able to make a down payment on a log truck.  I was only 5 years old but he took me with him on the second day on his job hauling poles off Mt. Rainier (in Washington State.)  We were coming down and the road gave way slowly beneath us.  Some guys up above on a donkey engine saw what was happening, ran down with a cable and secured the truck, but they couldn't pull it back up the bank loaded.  So they had to release the binders and let the logs go off down the hill.  When he got to the dispatcher's office at the bottom they gave him a bill for the logs.  He just tossed the ignition key on the desk and we walked away."
So my father never forgot his dad's advice; that 'the forest industry is a cheap industry and no place for anybody with half a brain or an ounce of ambition.'  And I had been told in my turn so it should be no surprise that I ended up there.  Ours is a contrary kind of family.  But I was a very good carpenter/joiner and had come to Tasmania with the ambition of building beautiful world-class furniture out of local timbers.  After we got rid of the milk cows I built an LP-powered mobile horizontal bandsaw.   There was nothing like it in the state then.    The only remotely similar operations were a few larger Forestmills which had a VW or similar size engine powering a twin bladed circular saw that ran back and forth on a frame and could be transported and set up in a semi-permanent situation.  But my machine could be operated indoors, driven away or set up in minutes, ran a 1.5 mm kerf, could cut big logs, burls, toothpicks or veneers.  Or do just about anything with nearly no sawdust.  Once I made a houselot of window sashes, without a thicknesser and even stacked up the styles and mullions and cut all the (open) perfect mortise and tenons on it.   But daily throughput was limited to one or three tonnes at most so it was only a proposition to cut high value minor species timber, most of which came from pulp logs from the North Forest's Surrey Hills freehold.  Even then salvage from crown land was too problematic and conditional to be worth pursuing.  Back in the 'nineties they were having trouble filling their legislated quotas with acceptable timber.  So the push was always on to move into previously untouched areas and lower the standards for sawlogs; thereby creating more of them, and trash a lot of country mostly for woodchips 'before the greenies could lock it up'. 
Occasionally they would cite people like me and the important industry we supplied which was boat-building, furniture and fine joinery but mainly craft timbers for old retirees to produce tourist knick -nacks.  The rest of the time we were treated like shit and hopefuls were coming and going in the industry all the time.  Because in fact the industry belongs to a few big monopolies -'crown' sawmillers and large corporations who have always worked hand in hand with state and federal governments to get what they want.  Which is not some idealized free-enterprise market where they have to compete with optimistic locals who work for whatever meager wages they pull out -with little cost for capital, nothing for shareholders,  executive salaries, or political and legal finagling.  And its even worse at the other end - in international markets they compete with crony capitalists from abroad who are even crookeder, more coddled and subsidized than they.

I and a lot of other bemused small sawmillers  attended a Forestry Tasmania seminar at a local hotel touting their 'young eucalypt program.'  Someone had designed a hypothetical system by which logs would be passed centrally between two parallel sawblades; (much like the bull edger of my youth), thereby balancing the easing of tensions simultaneously on both sides, they hoped the logs would remain straight enough to bring the blades closer together and cut inch boards off both sides on the next pass and so on.  Also the logs had to have the ends carefully waxed and fastened, nor could they be dropped on handling  lest they split and the halves curl away from each other like two bananas.  But even if someone managed to cut boards remotely uniform in thickness from one end to the other, it would still curl like a barrel stave and cup when it dried, and  markets and seasoning regimes were still in the experimental stage.  In other words country sawmillers faced certain extinction along with our primary forests.

And the woodchippers were competing for decent logs.  The industry that had come in on the basis of 'taking the rubbish that was left on the forest floor' was facing competition re both price and quality from abroad.  Charcoal or rot were unacceptable.  When the Burnie Timber sawmill/flitch mill closed;  forest contractors were then charged with reducing logs on the landings to fit straight into the chipper at Hampshire.  So they had extra duties then -to rub off the bark with their excavators and use their forks to split the bigger logs.  Unfortunately the rubbish didn't split very well either and you would see truckload after truckload of straight young logs, split in pieces, which should have been the sawlogs of the future.   I suspect they just had to carry most or all of that extra labour.  And North contractors were being used off the freehold by Forestry Tasmania to log on crown land partly under North Forests supervision.  After all they were the biggest customer in northern Tasmania.

The contractor's lot is not an easy one and although Forest Communities Australia and FIAT pretend there is some kind of brotherhood out there, sharp divisions exist.  A North Forests forester, let's call him Peter explained it to me one day when I was out cutting up myrtle stumps on the freehold, before they gave me and the other gleaners the boot.

"First we broke their association and had them bidding against each other for coups, sometimes brother against brother."

I am not sure how long that went on until they went on rates and were pressured to upgrade to excavators and quality gear.  Some smart older operators like the Sweeneys took the opportunity to get out but nearly everyone went or was already deeply into the bank for millions on the strength of the 'thirty day rule'.  Which meant that if they didn't like you they could tell you to finish up within a month.

"Then we cut their rates by 15%.  There wasn't a peep out of them.  So we cut their rates by another 15% and then they started to squeal and we knew we had it right."

He thought this was quite funny.  So the united public face of the forest industry is one more lie; there is a social divide between salaried staff and hourly employees and finally contractors who are at the bottom of the food chain.  Being deeply into the bank they just have to take whatever crap comes their way,  and occasionally the independently- minded would be told to finish up at which point the bank moved in on them, an object lesson to the others.  The just-plain-mouthy ones walk a tightrope.  They will either finish up or get a position on staff.  As the old saw goes; 'The working class/ can kiss my ass/ I've got the foreman's job at last.'

So in this fractured house the environmental movement is the glue that holds it all together. "The greenies are after your jobs, boys!"  snarled Michael O'Connor of the CFMEU.  And the rabble is suddenly at one, from executive to every dumbfuck on the green chain.  But when a contractor folds, an obsolete plant closes its doors or a resource peters out they go like lambs.  Whether something else turns up or not, glad-handing liars have done and will forever do their best to hop aboard the dream and ride it to electoral victory.




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