Karri canopy

Forests for life: timber history in Western Australia.

Forestry is one of the oldest professions in Western Australia. Blessed with a bounteous supply of hardwood timber, the industry set the State on the road to prosperity. Now, in the twenty-first century, the environment is under pressure from declining rainfall and over-exploitation. Faced with a climate emergency and ecological collapse, the time has come to stop logging native forests.

Western Australia is home to some of the most biodiverse biospheres in the world. The red continent has been stable for aeons, and in the south-west evolution has continued uninterrupted for 270 million years. Time to evolve a diversity of ecosystems with thousands of species of flora and fauna endemic only to this tiny, lush corner of the continent.

Many species have direct links back to the forests of Gondwana. And even today there are dinosaurs in the forest. Lurching about, ripping down twenty tonne trees in seconds. Trampling the understory and tossing logs around like matchsticks. Not some wonder of ancient evolution but the ‘waratah,’ the modern machination of the forestry industry.

For over 50 000 years the forests have been home to the Noongar people, traditional custodians of the south-west.  In traditional culture trees were revered as the Elders of the landscape. Trees are an important resource, and all parts might be used, but the large trees were never felled.

Until colonisation. In 1826 a British Military camp was established at Albany on the south coast, followed in 1829 by the landing of private colonists at the Swan River. They came hungry for land, and hungry for fortunes. Britain itself had already been stripped of trees by centuries of intensive agriculture and war. Even today, the United Kingdom has one of the lowest percentages of forest cover in Europe. To immigrants in the nineteenth century the new colony appeared to have endless land, and infinite timber resources.

Colonists began clearing on a massive scale. Trees were seen as an impediment to agriculture: they were felled, grubbed out, and burnt. Timber companies were granted free access to vast areas of virgin forest in return for the provision of infrastructure. Trees were felled, hauled, and dissected. Laid in railways, roads, bridges and jetties. Men roamed the forests hunting for forest giants to measure and bragged about the quantity of timber they yielded. The size of the trees became a form of colonial advertising.

historic red train engine
‘Old Kate,’ Margaret River’s sole surviving logging engine, now residing at Rotary Park

By the 1880s, concerns about the stripping of the forests were being raised in State Parliament. The Government didn’t take action until 1904 when a Royal Commission was appointed, which returned the verdict ‘that no control of cutting was necessary.’ Thankfully, this directive wasn’t followed but no real steps towards conservation was taken until 1916, when Charles Lane-Poole was selected for the position of Conservator of Forests.

Lane-Poole bought European forest science to Australia. He had studied at the Paris School of Forestry and was horrified at the scale of deforestation in the colony. He became a voice for the trees, publicly describing the mills as ‘butcheries’ and warning that the current rate of cutting was unsustainable. His warnings were brushed aside. In 1921 he resigned in protest over Government corruption in the granting of monopoly licenses to the Millars Timber Company. In 1925 the West Australian quoted his report on the state of the forests:

          ” … it is impossible for a country to attain to a full development of her resources, or even to maintain her agricultural and industrial position if her lands have been so denuded of timber as to affect seriously the climate, the soil conditions, and water supply.”

This proved to be a prophetic statement.

The West Australian 1st May 1925 available at Trove

During the post war years, a new wave of immigration and industry resulted in vast areas of inland Western Australia being cleared for agriculture. Climate scientist Mike Andrich estimates that between 1960 and 1980, fifty percent of the vegetation cover in the south-west was cleared for wheat production. This was a major factor in the subsequent decline in rainfall.  In 2020, only 10 percent of the original vegetation cover remains, and what is left is mostly cut over. Much of it is suffering from forest diseases and, ironically, declining rainfall.

Today, there is growing pressure on the government to end the logging of native forests. In 1990, activists formed the West Australian Forest Alliance. They now co-ordinate action from a wide range of supporters including climate scientists, politicians and representatives from other industries. The cornerstone of their campaign is a policy document called ‘Forests for Life.’  It details the transition to a greener economy using plantation timber and tourism, and the restoration of our forests for ecology and climate.

In August 2020, Greens MP Diane Evers introduced a bill to State Parliament to wind down logging in native forests and commit to industry transition. Victoria has already legislated to pull timber extraction from native forests by 2030, but in WA the bill was blocked. The State Government and its Forest Products Commission continue to insist that the logging is sustainable. However, according to WAFA, forestry is now heavily subsidised and the FPC makes an annual loss. In other words, the logging of forests is paid for by taxpayers. Government and industry members continue to hang on to a dinosaur industry.

Meanwhile, the communities of the South-West are divided. Manjimup, a traditional logging town, still has a small number of people employed at some of the regions last working timber mills. Paul Omodei, Shire president and Minister of Forests when the FPC was formed in 2000, is a fierce defender of logging. Speaking to the ABC last August, he claimed that calls to end logging are absurd, regressive, and would result in the loss of hundreds of jobs. Having been a timber town for well over a century, Manjimup remains reluctant to close up the industry.

In contrast, the nearby town of Margaret River is a base for green politics. The Shire has declared itself logging free and has already made the transition to an economy based on tourism. The townsite grew up alongside the road to the Davies timber ‘empire’ at Karridale. However, the region was also home to the beginnings of tourism. At the dawn of the twentieth century, thousands of visitors per year were coming to visit spectacular limestone caves at Yallingup, Margaret River, and Augusta. The giant trees that travellers passed along the way were part of the attraction. Having a historical tradition of tourism has made the transition away from logging easier.

International visitors have marvelled at the spectacular forests since the early days of the colony, and the industry of tree appreciation is now booming. I have witnessed this myself, working as a cave guide in the iconic Boranup forest. People don’t come to Margaret River just for the food, wine and surf. They come for the trees.

Tourism WA states that in 2018-2019 there were over 13 000 people directly employed in tourism in the south-west, and total gross regional product was 12.4 percent of the economy. The benefits of tourism have far outstripped timber, and our tourists don’t want to see clearfelled forests.

But it’s hard to shift the habits of a post-colonial culture. Western Australia has a long and entrenched history of unsustainable forestry. The over-exploitation of forests was easy in a dispossessed landscape, where traditional owners were ignored and excluded. Colonists arrived with no knowledge of the complexities of local ecology and treated resources as theirs for the taking. But there have always been dissenters. Artists, scientists like Lane-Poole, tourists. Forest activists like the ‘Nannas for Native Forests,’ a group of Margaret River women prepared to stand in front of machinery for the sake of their grandchildren’s futures.

Western Australia has one of the worst rates of deforestation in the world, and our forestry regime is becoming an international embarrassment. With an election looming in 2021, the State Government will be under pressure to make a choice. Cling to an antiquated industry, or put an end to logging and begin the transition towards a more sustainable future.

Forests update

In late 2021, the McGowan State Government announced that logging in native forests would be banned from the end of 2023. Logging is now history!