In north west Tasmania, Scott Jordan has been protecting old growth native forests from logging for the last 15 years. While it’s easy to take the vast native forests in Tasmania for granted, Jordan has been at the helm of many battles to ensure their survival.
Deep in Tasmania’s wilderness, the Tarkine region – known by its First Nation’s name takayna – contains Gondwana rainforests, pristine coastlines, endangered wildlife and significant First Nation’s artefacts that largely go unrecognised, despite meeting many criteria for World Heritage listing. It is being protected by a handful of environmental activists who are holding the front line against old growth native forest logging that is taking place in the area.
Wearing a Metallica shirt, the goateed Scott Jordan doesn’t look all too dissimilar from the stereotypical logging contractor that ‘forest defenders’ often come up against. Softly spoken and articulate, his calm manner holds behind it a wealth of knowledge and empathy for the forest, activists and loggers alike. He was happy to share some of this knowledge as he showed me around the Sumac Defenders camp, named after the ancient Sumac forest it guards. The blockade has been in place for the last two years in various manifestations, ranging from a few tents and tarps to a fully fledged solar-powered camp headquarters, where volunteers meet, plan, eat and sleep in swags or tents.
The camp is built on an unsealed logging road and the area was last logged thirteen years ago. Young eucalyptus reaching two or three meters high have grown scattered amongst the massive fallen logs that are shockingly wide in girth, a reminder of the grand forest that once stood.
The camp’s border is guarded by an immobile pink Commodore, named the ‘Sumac Cadillac’, spray-painted in gold along its side. Other humorous and playful objects are scattered around the camp, a testament to the activists’ abilities and often necessity to remain positive.
“If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry,” remarks one of the volunteers.
Suspended above it is a banner, reading ‘Protect takayna/Tarkine’. takayna is the name for the region in palawa kani, the restored indigenous Tasmanian language. One of the overall goals of the campaign is return the land to First Nations ownership. “The original custodians of this ancient land tended to it for over 40,000 years before white settlement and the destruction of this island began. I can’t think of anyone better to manage it, than those people who have got such a strong connection with this country,” Jordan explains.
takayna hosts the largest cool-temperate rainforest in Australia, and as Jordan points out, has some of “the most carbon dense forest on the planet”. This includes populations of the slow growing Myrtle beech, which stand close to the logging road at over 600 years old, and fossils from this region show it was part of the ancient Gondwana supercontinent. Millennia of trees and vegetation remains are decomposed into the soil, which contains about half of the carbon in the forest, as opposed to a warmer tropical forest where decaying matter is released into the atmosphere. Once logged, debris-clearing fires and erosion release huge amounts of that carbon bank into the atmosphere, as well as solid soil and ash that flow into the river systems, destroying habitat for wildlife. Bright blue giant Tasmanian freshwater crayfish, endemic to the Tarkine and now endangered, still survive in the Frankland river but have disappeared in surrounding areas whose rivers have been silted and degraded due to logging practices. Jordan illustrates his philosophy, saying “they’ve got just as much right to exist, as we do, as any other animals do.”
Sitting on a gigantic mossy log in the venerable rainforest, our feet just scraping the ground, Jordan tells me about how he ended up at the forefront of the campaign working with the Bob Brown Foundation. Born in a mining town south of the Tarkine, Jordan spent 15 years in youth and community work before becoming actively involved in environmental advocacy. At a Greens fundraiser for the Tarkine, during a video presentation he saw a possum that was dying from 1080 poisoning, where a dead joey was pulled from the mother’s pouch. “It just broke me. I got angry, got involved,” Jordan says.
While volunteering at a gallery space raising awareness of the Tarkine, he studied psychology, sociology, and economics at university. Jordan explains, “If I wanted to make serious change, I needed to understand where the money went… when you’re fighting off mining companies and logging companies, the ability to chase the money and understand how it works, and where they’re vulnerable… has become really important.” He found himself as the accidental Tarkine campaigner when the gallery organisers ran out of steam. Further studies in Public Policy broadened his understanding of the complex issues surrounding employment, political motivations and government policy surrounding resource extraction.
As we wander through the glowing forest, the bush thickens, the air becomes cooler and wetter, and species diversify. Across the damp track, a colossal 350 year old Eucalyptus obliqua stands seemingly imperturbable. It’s these enormous trees that logging companies are after, and enshrouded by the magic atmosphere of the rainforest, these giants stand only every hundred meters or so. Logging contracts specify that a certain amount of large logs be obtained, however most of the trees don’t fit the required profile, and rainforest that stands in their way is trashed or sold off for cheaper than the cost of logging it.
Jordan explains, “it’s madness…85% goes to the woodchip mill, 10% will go to the veneer mill, for Ta Ann, and 5% will end up at the saw mill. That saw mill will get a 40% recovery on each log, so you’re already talking a tiny amount of timber that actually ends up as a sawn timber product.”
After the logs are harvested, forest remains are burnt to prevent native rainforest species recovering, and the area is aerial seeded with a single tree species. What was once pristine, carbon dense rainforest is now a chaotic mix of large log wreckage and regrowth, lying on charred soft orange earth.
Fifty-six threatened and endangered species, as well as hundreds of others – birds, frogs, mammals and reptiles, insects, fish and crustaceans – find habitat in takayna. Varying and irregular birds calls flit in and out through our conversation as camp volunteers pass slowly, absorbing the beauty of the Sumac. Moist shiny leaves and light spitting rain has a slightly metallic musk.
He explains that government subsidies sustain the native forest logging industry for political gain, and that timber barons are “laughing at the fact they’re getting timber at less than the cost of it being cut down, and they get to make the profits, while the taxpayer wears the losses”.
According to Jordan, huge losses to the tune of 75 million dollars are concealed as Sustainable Timbers Tasmania “hide it in their books, they use a bunch of accounting tricks to try and portray what they do as profit making.” Forestry Tasmania, now called Sustainable Timbers Tasmania, sold off parts of the company that were profitable, the plantation sectors, claiming the sales as income, and identified increased government grants as profits.
“So it’s obscene stuff, but they, unfortunately, in the mainstream media, have been able to get away with it, because the way they present the numbers requires some forensic accounting to pull it apart, and to effectively get to the figure of how much did it cost to cut them down, and what did you get when you sold them. And when you get down to those basic numbers, it’s been loss after loss after loss.” Another Malaysian logging company, Shin Yang, with ‘an even worse [human rights] record’, is ready to move into the north east of Tasmania. The same story is applicable, where vast forests will be logged yet only a small amount of timber will be harvested.
One of the biggest points of contention surrounding logging of the Tarkine is employment. While polls from 2018 show that the majority of Tasmanians want the Tarkine protected as a National Park and World Heritage area, there are towns which are reliant on the native forestry logging sector. The town of Smithton, for example, has two native forest mills and no plantation mill, where up to twenty percent of the workforce are employed in the native forest logging industry. Other towns have transitioned to plantation or alternative industries, but as Jordan remarks “they can’t see it being any different, so it’s very easy to scare those towns that conservation outcomes are going to leave them all jobless and destitute. And, you know, if you’re raising a family, and you’ve got a mortgage to pay, that’s pretty scary stuff.”
Fear of unemployment is used tactfully by political parties to sway voters. In these small communities, a few hundred extra votes in a key marginal seat can define who is in government. To keep the industry afloat, huge subsidies are being paid by governments who want to be voted in, subsidies which are larger than the wages received by employees. Alternative options could be found in conservation solutions, in what Jordan sees as a challenge but also an opportunity, “we could give [workers] a pay rise, and a new job restoring these forests, the taxpayer will save money, and the planet will be better off.”
At the blockade, training for non-violent, peaceful protesting takes place which keeps everyone safe, on either side of the campaign. In contrast to ‘clicktivism’ or ‘armchair activism’, Jordan explains that “protests are where you test your support, and your resolve.” Non-violent direct action and civil disobedience has long been at the forefront of successful human and environmental rights campaigns, such as the famous Franklin blockade in 1982-3 led by Bob Brown. The main purpose of non-violent direct actions such as occupying a space, camping up in trees or locking on to logging machinery is to physically stop logging in its tracks. It also buys valuable time for other crucial behind the scenes campaign work, such as strategising with lawyers or and challenging government or companies on their approval processes, or identifying where they have not followed legal obligations.
On the front line, Jordan sums up their methodology, “it’s about persistence. Its about being willing to do it day after day after day, and going back in multiple times, when people have been moved out, and just making it really clear that we will be there, longer than you’ll be prepared to be there.” By distributing the message on social and other media, the actions become worthwhile by drawing attention to things government and industry would rather keep hidden. Community events, such as an annual bioblitz, the takayna Ultra marathon and takayna-based art residencies allows various unrelated communities to experience first hand the areas needing protection, and extend the campaign’s message of the wilderness at stake. Jordan has seen the results for himself, “I don’t think you can deny that it’s certainly been effective where we are, and been the experience around the world. The Franklin river runs free, the forests of the Frankland River and the Sumac area are still standing after four years of protest, stopped the logging in the coups in the Rapid River, logging in the Pieman River stopped. There’s sufficient evidence… from our own activities, to say that protest action does work.” However, various forests still remain on the logging schedule, hence the need for secure protection. “You’re not going to win every campaign that you protest on, but there’s very few campaigns that’ll win without a protest.”
Jordan calls out to an activist high in a tree – there’s some artists and media on the way, photo – and videographers have organised a project based on the Tarkine. The message of the importance of this region and this campaign is being spread internationally both by the Bob Brown Foundation and their partners, such as B-Corp Patagonia. Jordan has referred to volunteers at camp as the United Nations Treekeeping Force, where seven or eight countries are represented, “people that live here don’t always understand just how special it is, and people from around the world are coming here to remind us that it is precious, and to help defend it,” he says.
Another of the campaign’s aims is to turn the region into the Tarkine National Park: it ticks UNESCO’s criteria for World Heritage listing, as it’s one of the world’s “outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals.” Plans to develop tourism in the region would utilise the surrounding towns as visitor hubs, where the tourists can visit the Tarkine as the destination, for day trips, multi day hikes, and other experiences. By keeping commercial infrastructure in surrounding towns on the outside, the Tarkine as a National Park can be kept pure and pristine, a destination people want to return to. Instead of a mega resort infiltrating the wilderness, this would keep the economic activity in local communities, and conservation values of takayna can be upheld and supported. Employment in these regions could be steered toward tourism and conservation, instead of ecological destruction. Jordan affirms that “it’s a really positive vision for the area, and it’s been backed in by the local tourism bodies, and the local tourism operators.”
Jordan has lived in Burnie for the last 25 years, just around the corner from Sustainable Timbers Tasmania headquarters. Milk bottles and a cot populate the lounge room, yet the only babies in the house are injured wildlife being cared for by himself and wife Lynn. He’s nonchalant as their latest patient crawls tightly around his forearm onto his side and up his torso, a dark brown brush tailed possum named ‘Toodles’. Over the last six years, they have raised about 280 orphaned animals, mainly marsupials, usually from roadkill or dog attacks. Jordan gestures humbly, “I guess its another part of my environmentalism; when we’re not out fighting for the habitat, we’re tending to the ones that we’d like to get back into that habitat.”
They’ve fostered pademelons, Bennett’s wallabies, ringtail and brush-tail possums, pygmy possums, wombats and bandicoots. The animals are released back into the wild at varying stages. In the wild, wombats leave their mother at two years, so they’re usually kept in care for up to 20 months, “long enough for you to get pretty good mates, and sort of, miss them when they’re gone,” he laughs. And Toodles? “He’s doing really well, and we expect, 9 months from now, he’ll be back in the forest, and living as a wild possum. But in the meantime, we’ll be pretty good mates.”
The unmistakable and vulnerable cry of the huge yellow-tailed black cockatoos echoes over the Sumac camp as they disappear into the lush, species-rich rainforest. Time is ticking as the Tasmanian government supports companies that continue to log these increasingly rare old growth forests. Locals are after job security, political parties want to secure seats, First Nation’s peoples want management of their land, activists want climate stability and resilient ecosystems while wildlife need habitat, the irony is that we all value the same thing – security on a rapidly warming planet.
Effective solutions are available now which fulfil ecological, financial and employment requirements, only old thought and behavioural patterns need to change. Going forward, this may prove to be the most difficult barrier to overcome. Until the government sees the financial and ecological service value in conserving these regions and steps in to protect them, Jordan reaffirms that “we’ll be here, one more day than them.”
With a background in Sustainable Development, Al Bloom photographs, films and writes to explore and expose the relationship between societal and environmental issues. He aims to share this understanding with the general public, and encourage their rights to determine the fate of these beautiful and ecologically important regions.
All images in this post except those attributed otherwise are courtesy of the author, Al Bloom.
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