Saturday, January 30, 2016

Logging the Tarkine: Lapoinya, An Australia Day Special

Having honoured those inexplicable, rare people who do wonderful things without pay for the public good; we mostly follow through on the day with an orgy of self-congratulatory chauvinism, frog tupping and ferret racing.  In Bermagui a coffee shop owner put a sign in the window 'Open on National Dickhead Day' and many patriotic souls deluged him with threats of violence and death; as if eager to prove his point, yet he did a roaring trade nonetheless.   I stayed home and celebrated with some long- neglected work on a frog pond, organizing stones and relocated a smallish tiger snake my wife had inadvertently picked up in an armload of trash; my duty of care to her and the frogs.   Next day was also about unpaid work for the public good.   I joined the forest protest at Lapoinya; but no medals for standing between the task at hand and the rights of honest men to an honest living.

It must have been disappointing for the media with nothing like the old copy of hard-hatted bogans damaging cars with sledge hammers or cat-calling “Shree Minerals yes! Greenies No!” at creaky, earnest old pensioners like me.   Perhaps I might commission a commemorative t-shirt, just to remind people.  Send your orders in and enjoy at least some of the satisfaction you might have found sporting a genuine “Free Manson” one.

The police intercepted three of us on the road down into the coupe, probably the only cleanskins who by then hadn't yet received our warning and 90 day exclusion order and having failed to even approach the roadwork we could do little more than waste a few moments of their time.  Politely and professionally they read their script, took the obligatory names, rank and serial numbers, and recorded a short statement of our motives. At the mention of Ta Ann my interrogator explained that the logging was NOT specifically on their behalf and it would also produce eucalypt sawlogs and blackwood for Britton Brothers.   We were strolled off the premises; hardly a Cooke's Tour of the coupe but from what I saw I think he has been badly misled.

It's a regrowth forest that was logged sixty years ago and has a very beautiful mix of tall straight regrowth gums and worthless blackwood that may have grown up or previously escaped logging.  It's the sort of place to which Forestry Tasmania occasionally brought na├»ve visitors to prove their scorched earth policies had a happy ending.   A large landing has been cleared and there were five little eucalypt logs that had been set aside, the ends already opening up in the sun. In the walk up and back I saw only one possible Cat. 1 euc. sawlog, barely more than a butt.   The blackwood all looked like paddock trees or worse; contorted and filled with long-dead branches.  When I was salvaging timber I used to get a lot of good blackwood shorts and split timber because the crown millers were very fussy.   Many of these are probably reject trees from last time and if they had to mill this stuff, the Britton Brothers would puke.  So would I if I had to mill virtually ANY of it as salvage or otherwise– all the eucalypt is too young; small and hence unstable.

It is exactly the same stuff that the Forestry Tasmania brains trust in the 'nineties thought we country sawmillers could process successfully via their mad dream of twin sliding saws on a single shaft; cutting equal 1 or 2 inch flitches simultaneously from both sides of the log by which it might remain straight for the next pass.  Unfortunately eucalypt timber is normally cut on the quarter, with growth rings as close as possible to right angles to the plane of the board, which is towards the heart to impart stability as moisture levels change.  And that requires a bigger tree.   Although the log might have tended to remain straight, the useless boards would have come curling off like barrel staves,and cupped into the bargain as they dried.  

 Even then most of us understood the game was over.  There would soon be nothing and for a few years thereafter when the Hampshire satellite mill was in operation we were taunted by the passing truckloads of perfect young logs, just like these at Lapoinya; skinned and split for woodchips.   It would have taken another fifty or eighty years to become real timber and our overcommitted forest service couldn't wait. Woodchips are now and forever.   It's a global problem – you don't see truckloads of good logs anywhere now in the developed world nor do you see legal truckloads of good logs in the third world.  In western Canada they call them 'pecker poles'.   There are very few jobs in the industry there either.  Although conifers are relatively stable and perhaps as little as two or three 4x2 building studs or even small floor joists come out of a log in an automated mill, most of it is for chips.  The lumber contains the heart and is alright for home building for Joe Average, just not for schools or other government contracts.  And when the Burnie pulp shut down they continued to make paper for a while with better quality imported spruce pulp from all the way over there.   It came in looking like big stacks of watercolour paper, which didn't suggest we should have much confidence in the Howard government pulpwood plantation schemes.  And wonder of wonders those all fell over later in spite of massive subsidies by the public through taxes foregone.

The problem is that between clearing for agriculture and the age-old marriage of political influence and corporate greed we have been cutting our forests probably five or ten times faster than old growth could be replaced.   Selective logging was a necessity when it was being done with oxen but it wasn't good enough for corporate bottom lines and what the hell, there was all that waste that would otherwise be left on the forest floor and could be turned into a whole new pulp and paper industry that would bring new jobs and massive capital expenditure and wouldn't impact on existing...yada yada... But it turned out that woodchip producers had to compete too - customers didn't like the rot or charcoal or bark in defective logs or ANY of the crap from the forest floor.  And to maintain volumes it was necessary to shorten rotations to the high growth phase of a tree 'crop'; back from say 150 years to as little as 40 or 60 and down to 17 on our pulpwood farms. And with each rotation and subsequent burn the crap from the forest floor along with the soil structure and the topsoil itself is destroyed and 40 % of the necessary chemicals for fertility go up in smoke or run into the ocean with the winter rains.  Having been a farmer for a while I can guarantee that trees are NOT just another agricultural crop.   If you treated farmland the same way you would be walking off after three rotations and hunger would be our lot before the kids ever went off to school.   Our grandchildren may be out of the forest forever on a similar logic.

And so in the Lapoinya coupe there are virtually no desirable mill logs yet and there may never be.  Some might be stockpiled as such and FT can tot up the contribution to their legislated quota even while it breaks up and rots away unwanted on the landings and the brash know-nothing Paul Harriss can hold forth and probably replace the Forestry people who did know something and walked away in disgust.  Because there is the one option that it was all about anyway – these are great peeler logs.  It's a relatively new market and luckily we are paying an Asian timber company tens of millions of dollars a year to take them off our hands and process them with local labour. It is in that last we set ourselves apart from little third world nations like the Solomons or Vanu Atu where 'big men', crooked bureaucrats and politicians are simply paid off, the companies rip the heart out of their little islands and are gone.  And if they aren't transfer pricing any profits out of the country rather than pay tax; they are stupider and more upright than reputed, or than everyone else in business these days.

The operation here smacks of desperation.  Somehow the experts got their figures so wrong that we are having trouble finding half the peeler logs that were thought to be available and now we pay 'compensation'.  Have the people responsible lost their jobs or gone onto greater things?   Generally the latter which says a great deal about just who we all are. Or worse was the whole fiasco engineered for personal gain regardless of pending impairment to public finances.  

To dig down and make sense of it all is not easy – the FT annual report is available but detailed figures are simply not there. What is the domestic peeler log or any actual royalty for instance? The first at least seems to be protected by the old 'commercial in confidence' saw by which our leadership hides their secret malfeasances with industry on our behalf. However a 'back of the envelope' calculation for a perfect world might be 260 thousand tonnes maximum times maybe $40 per tonne equals about 10 million dollars. In fact we supply a miserable 147 thousand tonnes (a 100,000 tonne plus shortfall) and pay out at as 'compensation' at least double the maximum royalty revenue that might have been achieved in a perfect world!  Even if it was possible to follow the money trails to the bitter end without the authority of a Royal Commission there is a question of whether the criminal code would be adequate nor do we hang traitors from lamp-posts or put heads on spikes for the forest ravens.   It's just part of the deal; when the government is involved, moral hazard stands commercial logic on its head.   

When Gunns Ltd. gave me the flick along with dozens of other contractors, firewood cutters and other small business people there were no tears or compensation, we just had to move on. We just wouldn't be 'big men' in our village any more and better get used to it. That's how it used to be in the real world, but what rankled most was to see so many of our elected reps vying to be seen shaking hands with that pusillanimous little hillbilly who was going to acquire a 'world class pulpmill' for Tasmania.

Some of us had figured out early in the piece the unpalatable fact it could never happen. Something that large would have sucked up virtually all the Tasmanian forests could deliver via natural increase and in that particular place would be hamstrung by cartage costs which are calculated on a per tonne/kilometer basis. State royalties were already being used to subsidise distance to the processing point by which pulpwood royalties for the Burnie mill were reduced to peanuts from as far as the once magnificent Bulgobac coupes on the edge of the Tarkine.  Add wear and tear on transport infrastructure, the cost of financing a billion dollar plus loan, the ups and downs of the commodity cycle; and the pending glut of plantation wood on local and world markets, the state government was going to have to come to the party with unaffordable subsidies and loan guarantees.   And the frightening part of it is that the lemmings were busting to take us all over the fiscal cliff if only they personally got a job out of it and elected officials and their appointees were willing to string them along like fools.

It's good to remember how it was and everlastingly is on Australia day.  There is always that annual outpouring of patriotic republican fervour and a hope we might transcend our present limitations if only we were on our own.   But we are anyway.   Perhaps the monarchy is irrelevant to our supposedly modern nation and maybe some of them are dunderheads.  But the nice thing about them is that with a hereditary position they can endure their 'noblesse oblige'; they are beyond corruption and the petty power plays that are the preserve of liars, bounders, sociopaths and eager glad-handing little nobodies who lust after the limelight of public office; those who most need to be numbered amongst the winners will sink to whatever it takes.  Would a republic make any difference with coal miners lining up to carve into the Liverpool Plains or Galilee Basin or the gas frackers compromising water tables and geological strata the world over, losing on average 4-8% of production into the atmosphere (80 times worse than carbon dioxide) even as reports come in of the warming Arctic Ocean bubbling out methane like seltzer water in places? If true and trending we will blow through the 2 degree supposed limit in little more than a decade. Will the Trumpish fool of the president we are likely to elect serve us better than Howard, Abbott, Rudd, etc.? Recall we almost had Joh Bjelke Petersen by acclamation. I couldn't give a rat's in this context.

At .8 degrees and an 'unprecedented' el nino I thought much of the state would begin to burn this year and spent the spring putting mains water lines underground and standpipes about the yard and sheds, sold over half my sheep which had already eaten the place flat, put the rest onto the hopeless hay crop and installed a large water tank that can be hooked to the water system at a moment's notice. So my productive capacity for the year has been cut to less than half, and last 48 hours 3 inches of rain suddenly arrived to green my paddocks for a week and destroy the harvest of better situated cropping farmers nearby who have dams and irrigation to grow poppies and such which were on the verge of harvest.  Modern agriculture is unlikely to survive a 2 degree temperature increase, in which case neither will our civilization.  The world population will settle, fast or slow at fewer than the billion souls in a past, pristine world who nevertheless struggled violently against each other for a hundred centuries before fossil fuels, super phosphate and industrial fertility.  Or is there some miracle (definitely not the Paris Agreement) by which can we avoid the apocalypse?  Or maybe even hang onto a paternal government and tiny amounts of nature for it's moderating effect and genetic reserves in the face of our exponentially growing demands for more of everything and above all money at any cost?   Who can tell.

This timber thing gets in the blood - our whole species just can't stop - and if the logs and loggers and machinery are all gone not too long before my 90 day exclusion finishes I will go back to Lapoinya with a permit and poke around.   If someone else like me or the firewood cutters don't get in first I will chip the bark of each blackwood still lying wretchedly in the dust or mud and one or two out of a hundred might just be that ugly but special tree that Brittons couldn't be bothered with.   It's the treasure at the bottom of the garden.  If I find it I will cut it up on the spot and carry off flitches and blocks that are exactly right for people I still know – who make veneers, guitars, turnings, carvings, sideboards or the beer coasters that define us as a tourist destination- or even do something with it myself one day.


  1. What a pleasing surprise it is to be told of a bloke called George Smiley.
    A bloke that there are not enough real people in the mould of George Smiley who is possessed of a mind that keeps a sharp eye on so many factors and facets of the way the World is being destroyed by the political elites.
    I often find it difficult to comprehend how many people in our society that care not to know Jack Schitt of the international cut-throat corporate business thievery and of the World's financial woes, nor care to know of the casualties nor realities across our World.

    Persons with your genuinely achieved knowledge of matters across so many of life's exigencies are never chosen to the post of leader, being far too frank honest and realistic for the purposes of conspiring political ruthlessness, nor will bend the rules of doing whatever it takes to retain the seat of political
    indifference toward the populace of whichever State.

    Notable are the diverse interests you have so many of that enables your intelligent discourse, thereby to better describe just what the bloody hell goes on in our World.
    A man of rare esteemed propinquity.
    I enjoy your writings George they smack of honest reality.