Confessions of a Tree Hugger

tree-hugger
Bob the Tree Hugger, somewhere in Queensland

The derogatory label ‘tree hugger’ is worn with pride by environmental guerrillas, the ones who chain themselves to trees in a bid to prevent them being chopped down.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines tree hugger as ‘someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats’. Yes, well, that’s objective.

Although chaining yourself to a tree as a form of conservation protest is more often associated with North America, you’ll find many such tree hugger examples in Australia. In Tasmania’s Tarkine forest, conservationists protested logging by direct action. Suburban tree hugger types arc up when councils decide to fell established trees for public liability or other specious reasons.

Trees, as the occasional crossword question will remind us, are the largest plants in the world. They not only provide animals and humans with shade and shelter, they pump out oxygen, suck up carbon, stabilise the soil and provide homes for native birds and animals. Trees are great for children to climb and big ones often support tree houses and swings. And as anyone who lives in a timber house could attest, once removed from the landscape, trees make permanent shelters for humans. Moreover, generations of young lovers have carved their initials in tree trunks. The latter is not world’s best practice, though, as damaging a tree’s skin (bark) can start a deterioration of the plant’s health.

tree-hugger-ooline
Tree hugger paradise – ancient Ooline forest

On our six-week outback trip last month we visited one of the few remaining stands of Ooline forest in Tregole National Park, which only achieved that status in 1995. Tregole’s Ooline forest survives in semi-arid, south-western Queensland, between two of the State’s natural regions, the Brigalow belt and the Mulga lands. As the National Parks website tells us, “the park protects a small but pure stand of ooline Cadellia pentastylis, an attractive dry rainforest tree dating back to the Ice Age”.

Ooline has been extensively cleared and is now uncommon and considered vulnerable to extinction.

In Queensland, a very large northern state of Australia, trees have been under siege and remain endangered by forestry activities and by clearing for agriculture or mining. Only 9% of Queensland is forested, compared to 16% of Australia overall.

​The ABC did a fact checking exercise during the last state election, to verify the claim that Queensland was clearing more timber than Brazil.

Some 395,000 hectares of regrowth and old growth vegetation was cleared in 2015-16, a 33% increase over the previous year. Queensland accounts for more than half of Australia’s total losses of native forests. This dire statistic generated critical editorials in international media.

The ABC fact checkers vindicated the claim by the Queensland Greens that more than one million hectares of native bush and forest was cleared in Queensland over four years.

“Land clearing in Queensland is now on par with Brazil,” the Greens said.

Unhappily, the rate of land clearing tends to increase under the management of conservative governments (voted in primarily by farmers, miners and the businesses that profit from agricultural and mining commerce).  One of the infamous innovations of land clearing was the ‘ball and chain’ method, involving two bulldozers, a giant steel ball and a ship’s anchor chain. The chain was secured between two bulldozers (with a third bulldozer often following on behind to add weight to dislodge larger trees).

The felled trees were swept up into a giant pile and left to dry for up to a year before being torched (in itself an ecological disaster).

Although the use of a five-tonne steel ball has largely been discontinued, many landowners still engage contractors to use the dozer and chain method to clear light scrub and forest. A good contractor can clear 40 hectares a day.

Fortunately, Labor governments tend to block or reverse the worst of the land clearing excesses. Queensland’s Palaszczuk government passed new legislation in May limiting broad scale land clearing. Farmers demonstrated outside Queensland parliament as the bill was being debated.

Meanwhile, the deforestation of Indonesia, South America and other continents and countries continues unabated. The World Resources Institute says that more than 80% of the Earth’s natural forests already have been destroyed, with clearing continuing at the rate of 20,000 hectares per day.

Tane Mahuta and the risk of dieback

If you have visited New Zealand and saw the country’s oldest and largest Kauri, Tane Mahuta, you were indeed fortunate. Two thousand year old Tane Mahuta, held sacred by the Maori, is at risk of infection from Kauri dieback, a disease which has already picked off many old Kauris in the surrounding forest in Northland and elsewhere in NZ.

New Zealand’s once massive Kauri forests were plundered over the centuries for ships’ masts, houses and other buildings and simply to clear the land for agriculture. In the 1700s, Kauri covered 1.2 billion hectares. Today the coverage is less than 4,000 hectares.

Meanwhile in Maleny, Australia, we ‘small c’ conservationists nurture the native trees on our half acre block, which remains well wooded. We rid the bottom of the block of every bad weed known to man or woman, circa 2002, planted several natives and allowed the area to regenerate as native forest.

The downside is a straggly line of giant camphor laurel trees which straddle the boundary between our block and a neighbour. We felled the biggest and oldest camphor as it was too close to the house, its root system undermining the driveway, massive limbs swaying about during storms. We felt bad about hiring someone to remove that huge old weed tree, imagining its psychic pain as chainsaws did their fatal work.

Did you know the term ‘tree hugger’ can also mean someone who physically hugs a tree to become more at one with nature?

“Good morning, tree.”

“Morning, Elspeth, coffee smells good. Ahem, I don’t suppose I could have a glass of water?”

BBC culture writer Lindsay Baker found that the recent emergence of ‘tree literature’ is no new thing, quoting the likes of William Wordsworth (It Was An April Morn), John Clare (The Fallen Elm) and German poet and philosopher Herman Hesse (Trees: Reflections and Poems).

“Trees are sanctuaries,” wrote Hesse. “When we have learned to listen to trees… that is home.”

New age and literary tree-isms aside, ‘small c’ conservationists can do their bit to save trees without necessarily chaining themselves to bulldozers or a Wollemi Pine (critically endangered, according to the Canberra Arboretum, which hosts 31 endangered species).

In 2014, we set ourselves a carbon-neutral cap after towing a caravan 15,000 kms around Australia. Our carbon footprint for this epic journey was 4.77 tonnes of CO2, based on driving 15,000 kms at an average 14.5 litres per 100 kilometres. This translated to $24.15 per tonne or $115.95. We donated this amount to Barung Landcare, where we often purchase trees, plants and ferns from their native nursery.

Our 2018 outback trip (6,000 kms), which ended on Monday, should cost us around $50 as our version of the ‘carbon tax’. Or we could just wander around the block, hugging trees (hose in hand).

Recommended reading: The Bush – Don Watson, Barkskins – Annie Proulx, The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben.

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Private interests and national parks

Obi Obi Gorge
Obi Obi Gorge – photo by Bob Wilson

Let’s just imagine going for a bush walk in a national park, say five or ten years from now. As you set off on foot with your smart phone, selfie stick and water bottle, a tribe of kids and adults whiz past on mountain bikes. In the distance, you can hear the throaty buzz of trail bikes traversing the circuit reserved for them on the other side of the mountain. A kilometre or so down the track a herd of cattle cross the path to continue grazing along the stock route reserved for times of drought. Down in the gorge there’s a family of prospectors, panning for gold, while above, zip line riders scoot from tree to tree on overhead wires. There are kids swimming in the rock pool; they yell and wave to the 12 people riding horses while their guide (who once had a gig at the Sistine Chapel), holds a gaudy umbrella aloft so his charges do not stray. As you climb back up, a gondola glides silently overhead, taking punters on a cable car ride to a pricey restaurant and lookout at the summit. Back at the picnic ground, a dozen people are being given archery lessons while others queue for the hot air balloon tour.
Some of that sounds OK. Fun, even. But in a national park?

State governments are increasingly looking at new ways of increasing visitor numbers to the national parks and reserves under their control. In the pursuit of this goal they have embraced “ecotourism” which in its purest sense means: “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”.
People who frequently visit national parks to walk in the forest, birdwatch and just enjoy the peaceful seclusion had concerns about the Queensland Government’s decision to call for expressions of interest (EOI) for commercial projects in national parks.

In Queensland, then Environment Minister Kate Jones raised the idea in 2008 and it was further advanced by the Newman government, which made changes to the Nature Conservation Act.
It is clear the current Labor government is continuing along this path, although it has promised a review of the legislative changes to the Act made by the Newman government.
National Parks Association of Queensland executive director Paul Donatiu says the key to the review is to ensure the cardinal principle for managing national parks is maintained. This means to provide, to the greatest possible extent, for the permanent preservation of the area’s natural condition and the protection of the area’s cultural resources and values (natural condition meaning protection from human interference).

A spokesman for Queensland’s Parks and Wildlife Service said the previous government expanded management principles to include reference to education and recreation activities and ecotourism.
“The cardinal principle itself remains unchanged and is still the primary principle to be considered in the management of a national park.”
We understand that 12 expressions of interest remain on the table, from more than 40 submitted, although only three are under active investigation. The spokesman confirmed that a zipline in the Obi Obi Gorge at Kondalilla National Park (pictured above) in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, was one of the projects identified by the government. The other is Green Mountains campground in Lamington National Park. The latter includes a campground, a three-bedroom house and a barracks building. The government is continuing to work with the proponent on this proposal.
Details of other EOI proposals are “commercial-in-confidence” because they were initiated by the proponents.

Paul Donatiu says the NPAQ is concerned about the precedent that would arise from allowing private use of public land. The NPAQ does not support commercial activities and says all of these proposals have the capacity to alter how we perceive national parks. Donatiu is particularly anxious about the zipline proposal because of the potential for interference with the forest canopy.
Zipline Australia says its proposal minimises physical contact within the national park. Tour participants would enter the park on a suspension bridge from land outside the park then use cables and tree platforms to complete the journey. The tour infrastructure would be based in Montville, with participants bussed to the starting point.

The Sunshine Coast Environment Council (SCEC) says it is “inappropriate and unnecessary” to locate a commercial, adrenaline- based development within a national park. SCEC spokesperson Narelle McCarthy said the group was concerned because of the high conservation and scenic values of the Kondalilla National Park.
The Parks and Wildlife Services spokesman said the government is committed to partnering with the tourism industry to develop best-practice ecotourism experiences on national parks.
“The proposal for the Obi Obi zipline does raise concerns for government, specifically whether ziplines are appropriate in national parks. The government is considering this proposal in light of these concerns.”

There is nothing wrong with thrill-based tours like ziplines, rock-climbing, canyoning, abseiling or underground caving. These activities already occur in forest park environments all over the world. Not all tourists have the time or physical energy to take on a day hike to exotic locations, so they are happy to pay a premium to be transported, be it by tour coach (pick your destination), four-wheel drive (Fraser Island) helicopter (Fox Glacier, Grand Canyon) or cableway (Kuranda, Queenstown).
Not everyone wants to visit a national park just to walk four kilometres, admire the view then walk back again. Many want another reason and that is what the ecotourism push is all about.

In New South Wales, a task force was set up in 2008 to examine what kinds of things people wanted out of national parks. The good news is the report rebuffed large scale developments such as major resorts and hotels, theme parks, cinemas and golf courses. It also believed a total ban on all accommodation options was ‘‘too absolute’’, but supported conservation values:
“The national park ‘brand’ has marketing value for the tourism industry, but the essence of that ‘brand’ is naturalness and beauty and therefore it will only have currency if the conservation values of parks and reserves are secured and enhanced.”
Or as Joni Mitchell put it: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

The NSW Taskforce said competitors in other states and overseas had developed high quality nature tourism facilities and experiences in outstanding locations, many of which are in national parks and have multi-day walking activities with accommodation facilities.
The Tasmanian government, for one, wants tourism operators to take advantage of development opportunities inside national parks and World Heritage Areas. In December 2014, 37 proposals were lodged, including one to build permanent, hut-style accommodation along the South Coast Track bushwalking route.
The ABC’s 7.30 Report said the proponent believes numbers walking the track can be increased by up to 1,500 per year.

An article in The Conversation a while ago put up an argument that national parks need visitors to survive. It quoted data from Australia, Canada, the US and Japan to show that national park visitor numbers were declining on a per capita basis. As Susan Moore and others wrote, if you are passionate about biodiversity and conservation, you need to convince more people to become advocates for national parks and conservation – to become frequent visitors.
If you don’t, the interests that support utilitarian activities such as grazing, hunting and logging, may just get the upper hand.