The word was out: a section of the unburnt forest on the edge of the scorched Errinundra plateau was set to be logged and the small nearby community of Goongerah in Gippsland’s far east were on alert.
Goongerah is nestled on the edge of the plateau. The ‘green’ town has a history of conservation and many of its residents settled there in the early 80s to blockade against the fast train that was set to pass through the region. Thanks to their efforts, the train line didn’t go ahead.
Now a handful of people have come together under tarps and banners to form another blockade. Last year they were devastated as they watched the old growth forests they’d fought to protect for decades turn to ash. They’ve returned to fight for the remaining pockets of green. Each has their own reasons but all are determined to save the forest.
At 27, Hayley quit her job as a chef in Brisbane, packed up her car and headed out to the Leard forest Maules Creek blockade in March 2014. “It was all in a leap of faith. I felt a deep sense of responsibility. I made a pledge for my future children and grandchildren that, in my lifetime, I did everything in my power to stop it getting as bad as it could have been.”
Now she’s a veteran of numerous protests and her son Maleluka comes to every blockade. “I am raising him to be resilient to see what’s happening,” she explains. “I want him to be tough enough to cope with what’s coming because I’m really scared about the future.”
Many of 23-year-old Indigo York’s earliest childhood memories are of sleeping in the back seat of the car, out in the bush in Goongerah, while her dad set up radios for forest blockades. “Blockades were always in the backdrop,” she says. “I think being around blockading instilled a real sense of how important community and grassroots-based change is.”
She is in the final year of her law degree at Monash University. It’s something she started studying in order to defend blockaders and protectforests via the courts. “Growing up here, I remember walking the plateau and I know how beautiful it is. I want other people to experience it, the lyrebirds, the possums, the flora, the fauna. Others might not get to experience this and it’s a shame,” she says.
“Between bushfires and logging, many species won’t return, like the owls we saw the other night. They rely on hollows that you only get in the old trees. There are less and less patches of suitable forest left and the idea that they [will be] logged is devastating.”
Anita Davis has spent over a decade blockading in East Gippsland forests. “We definitely made a difference. The additions we got to Errinundra, Goolengook and the Snowy – none of that would’ve happened without blockading,” she says.
“I spent all my 20s and half of my 30s trying to protect these forests and now to see many may be gone forever – it’s heartbreaking,” she says. “We’d just won the extension to protect the Kuark forest in 2018 from the Victorian government, and now it’s all gone, it’s hard to put that loss into words. I am devastated about how much we’ve lost.
“I shouldn’t be shocked, but it’s still shocking,” she adds. “East Gippsland lost up to 80% of all of its forest and 50% of its national park forests and they’re still logging. It’s not strictly about old growth forests anymore. It’s now just trying to keep any forest we have left.”
When Owen Hanson was eight years old, he pulled his first crayfish from the water catchment at his Martin Creek property in New South Wales. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He dropped the spindly creature back into the creek and ran as fast as his legs could carry him. “We got lobsters,” he remembers screaming in delight. Back then, he didn’t know the difference between a crayfish and a lobster. He also didn’t know he’d still be fighting for their protection a decade and a half later.
In 2009, the loggers cleared much of the forest around his family’s Goongerah property and water catchment: “It was a hell of an intro into the nitty gritty of forestry,” he says. “They flogged my backyard with that whole concept of ‘she’ll-be-right-mate’. [They clearfelled] what was a nice damp forest. Five years later, in 2014, a bushfire tore through and then, in 2020, it was up in smoke again.” He says his backyard now looks like a wasteland: “That’s one shitty legacy to leave behind, it’s never gonna get the chance to turn into a forest.”
Tiffany Tarrant remembers seeing people protesting on the TV when she was a child. “I turned to my mum and said ‘I’m going do that when I’m older’,” she says. After attending a citizen science camp in the depths of Victoria’s Kuark forest, she knew she had to move to East Gippsland.
Being a self-proclaimed “plant nerd”, she loved being able to walk through the big trees, taking in their quiet beauty, while looking out for threatened species. “The forest has had a really hard time of it,” she says. “The older trees, they’re surviving a lot better than the ones planted 30 years ago – they’re struggling to keep up. I’m worried about the younger regrowth and the likelihood of repeated fires.”
She hopes that places like the plateau survive. “I’d hate to be here when there’s nothing left. The forest represents what it was like before colonisation. We’re witnessing the last of the large trees and that’s quite depressing.”