10 September, The Australian: A rising tide of green militancy in the nation’s forests has alarmed industry, which is calling for police and government intervention to fight sabotage, safety breaches and production delays caused by reckless protesting.
As the Gillard government threw its weight behind a sustainable forestry industry, business warned that new tactics by conservationists were dramatically raising the risks of injury and violence.
Mountain ranges in southeast Australia are at the centre of the latest environmental flashpoint, with bushfire devastation intensifying concern and activism among grassroots groups about how to deal with the remaining timber resource.
Victorian Association of Forest Industries chief executive Lisa Marty has warned that dawn raids by masked intruders and attempts to shut down 40-tonne equipment by stealth meant that the workplace was becoming perilous.
“Everyone has the right to protest, but this can be done without illegally entering another person’s workplace, and without creating conflict,” she said.
“The industry calls on environmental groups to oppose illegal and unsafe protest activity and engage with forest managers and industry on their concerns.”
About 45 cases of allegedly illegal entry and obstruction have been noted in Victoria in the past year, with dozens of arrests.
The worst areas in recent months have been in and around Black Saturday country, the mountain ranges near Kinglake and the Yarra Valley, about 60km east of Melbourne.
Scores of protesters have attempted to disrupt work in recent weeks and months, prompting ugly scuffles, arrests and safety breaches.
The latest trend has been to use new media, including YouTube and Facebook, to both record disputes and attack opponents.
Logging veteran Malcom Warnock told The Australian that the type of protesting had changed in the past year, with a growing number of naive protesters brazenly walking up to machinery to disrupt work or using intimidation to stop work before it began.
In recent weeks, he feared he could have killed protesters as he was unaware they were in his logging zone, while he was working in a giant machine used to fell trees.
“They were there for three minutes before I could actually see them, they were very lucky that they didn’t get injured,” Mr Warnock said.
“The legislation just isn’t strong enough. It needs more strength.”
The protests are also in danger of fracturing communities, with a rich history of logging mountain ash around the Toolangi area.
The protesting is largely futile. There is no sign that logging will stop any time soon, with federal Forestry Minister Joe Ludwig declaring that the forest agreements were locked in.
“Under the agreements, timber and wood products are supplied without compromising the ecology of forests into the long term,” he told The Australian.
“It’s important some public forest is available for harvesting. This supports jobs, is good for regional economies, and provides a range of quality wood products.”
The Wilderness Society’s Victorian forest campaigner, Amelia Young, said there had been rising concern in the local communities about the logging as well as “quite a bit of incitement to violence” by the industry.
She said a state MP had dismissed protesters as eco-terrorists even though they were merely concerned about the flora and fauna, particularly after the 2009 Black Saturday fires.
“We understand this is a very emotive issue,” she said.
Ms Young said that charges against 12 volunteer conservationists, for protesting in a contentious forest coupe, were withdrawn by the Baillieu government last week.
But concerns about the protests stretch beyond the mountains.
Australian Furniture Association chief executive Rohan Wright said that the ongoing threat to the supply of native timber was endangering many thousands of jobs.
“Because there is no plantation timber of any consequence in Australia that can replace native species within 20 years, these fringe groups are effectively campaigning for Australians to buy more imported furniture from China, placing over tens of thousands of Australian furniture manufacturing jobs at risk,” he said.
“The recent attacks on the forest and wood products industry in Victoria is a disgraceful and undemocratic attack on people’s jobs.”