‘Rising like castles in the morning mist’

In this time of extremes, describing something as special can come out as a cliché. Applied to Huon pine it’s an understatement.

In the cooler, wetter parts of Tasmania, the tree’s natural habitat, it doesn’t stand out. But it lives for thousands of years, it is the sole species of its genus in a rare family of Gondwana conifers, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries its marvellous timber saw it cut to near-extinction.

In the 1960s the wilderness explorer Olegas Truchanas was astonished to find a stand of large trees hidden in a river valley not far from where the Gordon Dam was being built. The Denison stand was long thought to be the sole surviving example of mature Huon forest, but a small stand in the Pieman catchment has since been given reserve protection. 

But photographer Rob Blakers and plant biologist James Worth have now investigated and recorded other unprotected communities in northern tributaries of the Pieman River. Veteran environmentalist Bob Brown described “Huon pines rising like castles above the rest of the rainforest in the morning mist… a paradise that has escaped modern civilisation.”

There is a catch to this. Mineral exploration licences held by a Western Australian company, Venture Minerals, cover most of the area occupied by these stands, which also lie within a regional reserve in which the trees may be logged as specialty timber, a tempting prospect if ever there was one.

Venture Minerals is keen to develop what it says is “one of the world’s largest tin deposits”, along with millions of tonnes of tungsten. It told The Australian’s Matthew Denholm it was seeking federal approval of “the world’s premiere new tin mine” in 2024.

In a world going electric, tin has been fetching record prices. Arguing that it’s central to a decarbonised economy, the company’s managing director, Andrew Radonjic, said shifting to underground mining instead of open-cut recognised “environmental sensitivities”.

The “Big Wilson” tin deposits, large by Tasmanian standards but tiny as a proportion of global reserves, were discovered by means of drill holes put down less than 150 metres from the Wilson River stand of mature Huon pines. Underground or not, it is inconceivable that a mine here will not impact that stand. 

Other important values must be taken into account. Natural forests are vital repositories of carbon and producers of oxygen for an ailing planet, a scientific fact acknowledged in the Rio and Kyoto agreements – and presumably by the politicians who signed and ratified them and by all those who claim to abide by them, including premier Peter Gutwein and resources minister Guy Barnett.

But there is far more to this than carbon storage, to do with how ecosystems endure or fail. Understanding this was the life’s work of the great American biologist Edward O Wilson, who died aged 92 in December. 

In 1989 he calculated that clearing of rainforest, where species diversity is at its greatest, was increasing extinction rates by 10,000 times. The solution he came up with was leaving all old growth forests untouched. In 2016 he concluded that the only way to maintain an acceptable level of biodiversity was to set aside half of the planet’s land area in “inviolable reserves”.

Wilson’s conclusions, based on a lifetime of rigorous field studies and analysis – science at the highest level – call for us to see natural forest as sacrosanct, abandoning the notion that it is unproductive land, and to raise dramatically the level of protection we apply to it.

Setting aside half Australia’s land as national park would be a big political call, though not impossible. But in Tasmania it would be much less of a stretch. Already, half the island is reserved land. Raising that reserve status to national park would meet Wilson’s standard and close the book on mining and logging in the northern Pieman catchment.

Never a political activist, Wilson based his conclusions on impeccable science. Yet when propositions like his are raised in Tasmania’s parliament, invariably by the Greens, they are met with outright rejection and noises about the radical green-left. 

Is it too much to ask of those who back further depletion of our forest estate – those captains of industry and “sustainable” timber barons and kings in glass castles – to think beyond the balance sheet and the next election?

Politicians learned quickly that they needed expert advice to deal with Covid, yet they continue to regard nature conservation, recognised by science as critical to our future, as ideology. This is one of the great policy missteps of our time, and the price to be paid is rising daily.

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