Goolengook was the site of Australia's longest running forest blockade (1997–2002). Deep in the heart of the Victorian forests of East Gippsland (EG) walking into Goolengook instils a sense of primordial earth — home to what David Bellamy called ‘the most diverse range of temperate forest ecosystems on Earth’ (1) and featuring remnants of the ancient Gondwanan rainforest that once covered most of Australia. The blockade ‘Fort Goolengook’ became the symbolic last stand of environmentalists’ opposition to wood chipping (exports), the harvesting of old growth rainforest, timber industry subsidies, unsustainable and industrial clear felling, and the contentious Regional Forest Agreements.
Logging started in the Goolengook forest management block in 1976, then 9166ha and practically intact apart from damage from bushfires. Logging ceased during most of the 1980s for a flora and fauna survey. The survey report (2) deemed Goolengook’s flora and fauna values ‘exemplary’, its ‘combination of particular significant biological values unique in south-eastern Australia’, identified ecological sites of international, national and state significance, and recommended managing 5052ha of the block for flora and fauna values with special conservation measures to protect its threatened and vulnerable species.
These recommendations were not put into action, contributing to resignations, most significantly of the Head of the Flora and Fauna Unit of the responsible Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (3), and to the authors charging departmental foresters of ‘unprofessional behaviour’ for making changes to their reports (4). Controversies between scientists and foresters arose over the definitions of ‘rainforest’, ‘old growth’ (5) as well as on the ecological results of clear felling.
The biggest forest blockade up to 1989 took place in neighbouring forests of New South Wales, in response to the government licencing Daishowa to woodchip for another 15 years. In 1989, protests culminated with 1200 forest protesters arrested across Australia, over 215 of these in EG (6).
As the forest protests grew throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s they increasingly focused on the campaign to ban woodchip exports and in areas where clear felling in old growth and native forests was the most environmentally damaging.
To fight back against what they considered conservationists attempts to ‘lock up’ of forests, the timber industry formed the so-called Forest Protection Society and Forest Communities of EG.
By early 1990, in the Errinundra Plateau, just north of Goolengook, more than 100 were arrested, with hunger strikes and politician office sit-ins. Meanwhile industry created a 6km-long 3000 vehicle blockade outside Australia’s Timber Town Orbost, taking 100 trucks in convoy, leaving a bulldozer at Parliament House and threatening an investment strike (7). Environmentalists were accused of eco-sabotage, eco-vandalism and eco-terrorism (8, 9, 10, 11).
Loggers who started work in Goolengook just before World Environment Day on 5 June 1997 faced substantial protest action. The Age newspaper (9, 11, 13, 14 June 1997) reported road blockades, activists chaining themselves to machines, sitting on platforms up to 30 metres off the ground, ‘black wallabies’ (i.e. protesters trying to disconcert and disrupt logging by hiding and reappearing in the bush) — all leading to more than 100 arrests, including of Greens leader Bob Brown. Three police were injured using angle grinders to release protesters from their chains (Snowy River Mail 18 June 1997). At this time a contractor employed by the Department of Natural Resources & Environment at Goolengook claimed losing A$5,000 on account of such behaviour. Brigette Muir, the first Australian woman to scale Mt Everest lost her sponsor, Beaurepaires (the tyre company) after hoisting a banner reading ‘Let this Forest Forever Rest’ from a 300 year old tree at Goolengook in June 1997.
In August 1997, protesters at the Amcor Paper (company) Arts Awards at the Victorian Arts centre symbolically dropped woodchips in guest’s drinks to highlight the impact of clear felling on drinking water (The Age 20 August 1997). Disability activist Katie Ball daringly hoisted in a tripod from her wheelchair to attract media, was amongst those arrested and charged at Orbost Magistrates Court (Snowy River Mail 27 August 1997). In lieu of a A$1400 fine she served a jail sentence.
Charges against more than 100 protesters pending since 1997 were dropped in 1998 when logging in Goolengook was found to be unlawful under the Heritage Rivers Act. The state then amended the law to retrospectively protect loggers and introduced legislation criminalising entry of any person other than a state or private logger or police officer into certain Forest Operations Zones covering protest actions. Fines up to A$2000 applied.
In early 1999, the EG Regional Forest Agreement was amended but only to protect 45 per cent of Goolengook block — in the Goolengook Flora and Fauna Reserve and Errinundra National Park — to appease protesters and loggers, whose struggles had become particularly violent and entrenched. This insulted the environmental scientists responsible for the 1991 report who had gone public advocating its entire inclusion in a well-supported proposal for a national park — ‘we are appalled at the prospect of logging in this unique area’ (12).
Throughout the summer 1999–2000 an ECO-deck tree platform remained suspended in the forest canopy to prevent logging scheduled in Little Goolengook River. Later that year, in a letter to the Wilderness Society, the Executive Director of Forest Services ruled out including Goolengook in the Errinundra National Park because its timber was ‘considered to be high quality’ and ‘fetch in the order of [A]$1,200 per cubic meter at the mill gate’.
Mid-February 2000 activists locked themselves to the back tray of a logging truck that they flagged down on a highway near Orbost. In retaliation around 40 people attacked the Goolengook camp at night, smashing cars, assaulting protesters, which hospitalised three, resulting in 21 charges and even imprisonments (Potoroo Review, Autumn 2000). Later, in May 2002, ten men pleaded guilty and received suspended jail sentences (ABC News 2002). Around the same time, other protesters received compensation of A$50,000 for injuries caused by police pressure-point tactics — which can cut blood flow to the brain — in an action in the Department of Conservation and the Environment HQ (East Melbourne) (Davies 2000).
After Fort Goolengook was busted at 5am on 5 March 2002, a Total Exclusion Zone prohibited any movement around the area. Still the protesters pronounced: ‘Our dreaming is strong’. By early April four coupes of old growth forest were clear felled in the Goolengook block — some precious overlap forest, some in Special management Zones and another adjacent to the Flora and Fauna Reserve.
Government amended the applicable Heritage Rivers Act retrospectively, inviting more logging and criminalising entry into special Forest Operation Zones such as Goolengook. Subsequently, after years of resistance and legal charges, often successfully defended by environmentalists, and timber industry demonstrations and violence, the police and NRE busted Fort Goolengook 5am, 5 March 2002 to resume logging.
Yet, October 2002, a moratorium was placed on logging. In 2006 a new government promised to include Goolengook in a national park but delayed implementation (13).
Towards the end of the 2006 state election campaign, the Australian Labor Party released its Victoria’s National Parks and Biodiversity Policy with a commitment to ‘immediately protect the Goolengook Block and the last significant stands of Victoria’s old growth forests currently available for logging under the National Parks Act’. By 2009 this promise was had been stipulated in legislation. The primary damage since seems to have been the result of bushfires (TWS, VNPA & ACF 2009: 5). In March 2010, Goongerah Environment Centre (14) celebrated 13 years defending Goolengook, with its 300+ arrests.
(Refs: Sources and Materials)