Navigations: Last Stand in Tasmania

Mount Field National Park, Tasmania; Photograph by Bill Hatcher, National Geographic

Mount Field National Park, Tasmania; Photograph by Bill Hatcher, National Geographic

Read Mark Jenkins’s previous “Navigations” essays.

I’m crawling on my hands and knees through a labyrinth of limbs when it occurs to me that a hundred years ago, this was the haunt of the Tasmanian tiger. The striped, doglike, carnivorous marsupial would have slipped easily through this criss-crossed deadfall of myrtle, sassafras, and musk. Six feet from nose to tail, two feet high at the shoulders, 75 pounds of muscle, it would have crouched motionless beneath the 20-foot fronds of a tree fern, eyes glued on a doomed wallaby. The Tasmanian tiger was cunning and shy, with a keen sense of smell and astounding stamina, often pursuing its prey until the quarry was exhausted.

I’m hunting, too. I’ve come to the inconceivably dense north slope of the Styx River Valley, in the heart of the heart-shaped island of Tasmania, to find the tallest hardwood tree in the world, the Eucalyptus regnans, or swamp gum. The mightiest swamp gum so far discovered is 321 feet tall, just shy of the California redwoods, which top out at about 375 feet.

“We’ll have to take off our packs to go any further,” says Matt Dalziel, my fleet-footed Aussie partner. It’s the first day of our four-day trek through the valley, and already the undergrowth is so thick we can barely squeeze through. Matt disappears into the sylvan maze.

We’re not on a trail. There is no trail. Beyond the thicket we come upon what we’ve taken to calling a “gangplank”-a downed tree so enormous it creates an elevated walkway through the forest. We clamber atop the behemoth and step carefully along its moss-slick back.

“Check ‘er out mate,” exclaims Matt, pointing to a tree exploding into the sky. “Now that’s a rippah!” Finding a tree of such magnificent proportions is like catching sight of a dinosaur-a primordial creature that somehow survived here on the edge of the earth. At the end of the gangplank we jump back down into the ocean of verdure; waves of foliage close over our heads as we half walk, half swim toward the giant.

“Who knows what you’ll find out there!” Geoff Law, campaign coordinator for Tasmania’s Wilderness Society, had exclaimed as he spread out the maps in his Hobart office three days earlier. Law, 47, a dogged, inexhaustible environmentalist, has been fighting full-time for 20 years to protect Tasmania’s wildlands. In the process, he’s hiked more of the Styx than anyone. “To my knowledge, no human has actually done what you intend to do: cross end-to-end through one of the last contiguous stands of giant old growth regnans.” His voice caught. “Now’s the time to go: it could soon be gone forever.”

When I find Matt, he’s standing beside a fin-like buttress root taller than he is. It would take six people holding hands to circle the base of the trunk. I crane my head back and stare. The mammoth, ancient tree, the tallest flowering plant alive, shoots up and up and up, disappearing into the sky like Jack’s beanstalk.

Tasmania, the smallest of Australia’s seven states, lies 150 miles south of Melbourne across the Bass Strait. Aboriginals had lived on the West Virginia-size island for 20,000 years before Dutch seafarer Able Tasman arrived in 1642. Like the rest of Australia, Tasmania was first settled by British convicts. In 1803 a penal colony was established on the southeast coast near present-day Hobart and within one lifetime all full-blooded aboriginals were extinct.

Tasmania’s economy was originally based on sheep ranching, agriculture, and extractive industries like mining and logging. But this frontier mentality was openly challenged in 1979 when the Labor-led state government announced plans to dam the Franklin River, one of the island’s last large, free-flowing rivers. This galvanized a small cadre of proto-environmentalists, who in 1976 formed the Wilderness Society, Australia’s first high-profile environmental organization. In 1981 their Franklin River Campaign stopped the dam project, a watershed victory for Australia’s nascent environmental movement. In 1983 the Franklin River, along with several other wilderness areas in Tasmania, were listed as a World Heritage site by the United Nations. Through one battle after another, over the next two decades, the Wilderness Society secured environmental protection for almost 25 percent of the island.

One-tenth of the Styx catchment became part of a national park, but the rest was left in the hands of Forestry Tasmania, a for-profit, state corporation charged with managing all of Tasmania’s forests outside the parks and World Heritage regions. Many of the tallest hardwood trees on earth, 400-year-old Eucalyptus regnans, lie in the Valley of the Giants, a proposed national park composed largely of an unprotected section of the middle Styx Valley. Roughly one-third of entire Styx Valley has already been clear-cut.

“It’s goddamn heartbreaking,” said Richard Flanagan, internationally acclaimed novelist, author of Death of a River Guide (1994), The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), and most recently, Gould’s Book of Fish (2001). “To be here, and from here, and watch your own country being systematically destroyed. The soul of the land sold for nothing, clearfelled, napalmed, poisoned.”

Flanagan lowered his close-shaved, bouldery head, studied me with unwavering eyes, then took a swallow from his pint. It was my first night on the island, and I’d gone to Knobwood’s, a notorious harbor pub in old Hobart, where Flanagan and his pals-all accomplished kayakers-hang out. He introduced me to his friends: Matt Newton, landscape photographer; Craig “Swarz” Chivers, fireman; and Matt Dalziel, four-time Australian Wildwater kayaking champ and marketing director for Sea to Summit, an Australian outdoor equipment company.

On this island drenched by storms and surrounded by seas, all of these men had done first descents or first crossings: when Flanagan was 16, he became the first to kayak the 25-mile Class III-IV Styx River. They know water and weather, tides and trees-and politics. It was here, in 1972, that the world’s first political Green party was formed. Bushwalkers and boaters, environmentalists and literati coalesced into a single, vocal force. In the last state election, some 51,000 Tasmanians—18 percent of the island’s population—voted Green. Forestry, fishing, farming and mining today represent just 7% of the economy; tourism now employs twice as many people as logging. Tasmania is poised to become the next New Zealand, luring adventure travelers with its rugged shores and giant trees—if they’re still standing.

“Industrial logging is ugly business,” Flanagan continued. “Tasmania’s natural heritage—our last giants that exist nowhere else on earth—are logged and sold to Japan as wood chips. It’s obscene. People are wiping their asses with paper made from Tasmania’s 400 year old trees.”

Flanagan is known as an outspoken advocate for Tasmania’s wildlands. In December 2003, the Australian magazine The Bulletin published his lengthy exposé “The Rape of Tasmania,” which carefully documented fifteen years of corrupt connections between big forestry and big government in Tasmania. Although vilified by Tasmanian politicians, Flanagan went on to publish two international articles on the subject in 2004, one in the Guardian, the other in The New York Times Magazine. With the help of Flanagan’s campaign and thousands of volunteers, the Wilderness Society made saving Tasmania’s old-growth forests a major issue in Australia’s 2004 elections. Prime Minister Howard declared that, if reelected, he would protect an additional 425,000 acres of Tasmania’s forests; Howard’s conservative-coalition administration has yet to make good on this promise.
Flanagan hunched his thick shoulders and looked at me hard. “But the only way you’ll really understand what’s going on, is to go out there and have a look for yourself.”
It was my shout. When I brought back a round of pints, Matt Dalziel, 34, the smallest and quietest of the men, with high cheekbones, a strong nose and penetrating blue eyes, offered to go with me.

“I could use the exercise,” he said, and the table cracked up.

Two days earlier, Dalziel—a classical scholar and father of a baby son—had won the Cradle Run, an 53-mile mountain race that takes hikers four days to complete. As Tasmania’s mountain running champion, he’d run it in eight hours, 20 minutes. Ten days from now, he planned to run the length of the Western Arthurs, another 50-mile mountain run.
“A wee bit of bushbashing is just what I need,” Dalziel said.

“Bush bashing?” I’d never heard the term.

“Tasmanian specialty,” he replied.

I’ve hiked all over the world—from the slide alder of British Columbia to the bamboo jungles of Burma to the rainforests of West Africa-but I had no idea what I was in for.

Balancing on my belly like an uncoordinated possum atop a trapeze of branches ten feet above the ground, my pack suddenly slips over my head and I plunge forward. Midfall, my ankles miraculously hook between the slingshot-shaped crook of a leatherwood limb. I swing upside down for a few seconds, snared, before the bough breaks and I drop onto my head.

Success! I have circumvented a nasty patch of stinging nettles. I get to my feet and continue pushing through the fray.

This 10,000-year-old woodland is nothing like a typical rainforest, with its lush, sunlight-blocking canopy, luxuriant understory and a permanently shaded, relatively open forest floor. Here the dominant trees, mature regnans, stand 50 yards apart and rise as smooth and straight and pale as the Washington monument. The forest floor receives abundant sunshine and rain and thus supports a healthy plant community, including 25-foot-deep briar patches.

“Over here!” Matt shouts. I follow his voice, zigzagging inside a matrix of biodiversity so dense I can never take more than three steps in one direction.

He’s standing near the base of another enormous eucalyptus. Beside it, he looks like a Lilliputian leaning on the foot of a one-legged giant: Its buttress roots grip the soil like prehensile toes; its leg, blistered with burls the size of bathtubs, rises 20 stories into the sky before molding into a slim torso. Another 10 to 15 stories higher, small limbs with twisted elbows sprout out.

“A noble creature, eh,” yells Matt joyously. “How tall you reckon she is?”

“Taller than Gandalf’s Staff.”

“Think?”

Matt and I drove into the Styx Valley (only a couple hours from Hobart, the capitol) two days ago and spent our first night at the Global Rescue Station, a volunteer eco-commune. In late 2003, determined to stop the destruction of ancient trees, the Wilderness Society and Greenpeace erected a base camp beside a fresh old-growth clear-cut. Choosing Gandalf’s Staff, a 279-foot regnans as their mascot, they suspended three platforms from the tree, 200 feet above the ground. For five months, volunteers living in these precarious nests beamed out SOS messages via satellite, an act of courage that eventually saved Gandalf’s Staff from chainsaws.

There were a dozen volunteers at base camp the night we arrived: Bell-bottomed Japanese college escapees, dreadlocked Aussies, gorgeous granola girls with nose rings. Penniless but passionate, they were clearing foliage and building trails to the colossal trees.

“The forest is so dodgy and dense and slick, we’re putting in tracks to give ordinary people a chance to get close to the big trees,” said camp coordinator Peter “Peck” Firth, 20, a blond ponytailed grape grower from Western Australia who’s been working in the Styx for 14 months, without pay, to save what’s left. “We want people to come here and feel their beauty and presence and sacredness. When you’ve been in this forest and stood beside these trees, they change you.”

What changed me more was the macabre graveyards of the clear-cuts. To reach the start of our bushwalk, Peck drove us through an on-going, apocalyptic clear-cut: Charred logs lay like corpses across a battlefield; blackened stumps sat among funeral pyres of unmarketable trees.

Clear-cut logging in the Styx Valley is a four-step process. After all trees in a selected area are felled, the straightest and most easily transported are removed. Everything else—millions of board feet of lumber—is left as waste. Eucalyptus seedlings require fire for regeneration, so logging contractors spray jellied petroleum (also known as napalm) from the air, igniting the debris and creating plumes of air pollution. Next, the area is sown with regnans and other native hardwood seeds and any animals—wallabies, kangaroos, wombats, possums, bandicoots, sugar gliders, quolls—that might eat the seedlings are fenced out, trapped or shot. (Until recently, the despicable practice of scattering poisoned carrots was used to kill animals.) This new tree farm is regularly sprayed with herbicides and pesticides (poisoning streams with atrazine) and harvested after 80 years, two centuries before the trees reach maturity.

Matt and I had started our bushwalk in another clear-cut, this one beside Diogenes Creek, a small tributary of the Styx. Diogenes was a 4th century B.C. Greek cynic who eschewed material wealth and rejected government, reputation, and convention, focusing instead on moral self-mastery. He was nicknamed “the Dog” by Aristotle and is said to have walked in vain across Greece searching for an honest man.

We spent that first day picking our way through an unspoiled swath of forest on the north side of the Styx. At natural openings we could see cadaverous clearcuts across the river. We made five miles in seven hours before deciding to camp. The forest floor was far to overgrown for a tent, so we waded out to a rocky island in the middle of the Styx and pitched up there. South of the river it was all clear-cuts, north, the last stands of old-growth eucalyptus. In Greek mythology, the River Styx is the boundary that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead.

In the morning, we continued our tour of the wildest forest I’d ever explored. We were climbing as often as walking. It was a literal jungle-gym. At one point, while pulling himself up onto a ten-foot thick gangplank, Matt looked over his shoulder and proudly said, “Now this is true bush! It’s not made for man.”

Often the going was so slow we covered less than 500 yards an hour. But we were among the titans, and that was all that mattered. We had no way of measuring the trees, but we guessed that some of them were larger than anything yet discovered in Tasmania.

“They’re the whales of the forest,” said Matt. “Cutting them down is like whaling. It’s the same mentality.”

By the morning of the third day we’d passed back into the land of clearcuts.

“Let me first say that there are no plans to clear-fell any more of the north side of the Styx,” Steve Whiteley, a district manager for Forestry Tasmania, tells me in their offices a week after our hike.

“We’re also not going to clearfell where the Wilderness Society set up its Global Rescue Station,” Whiteley said.

(This is news to the Wilderness Society. When I relay it to Geoff Law later that day, he leaps up and gives me a hug. “They’ve never said that before!” It’s a small victory for the activists, but no guarantee for the rest of the Styx.)

“But we will keep harvesting approximately 300 hectares [740 acres] of forest from the Styx per year,” Whiteley continues. “The Tasmanian parliament has set a quota of 300,000 cubic meters of quality Eucalypt sawlogs and veneer for Tasmania. Our approach is to have a relatively small level of activity over a larger area. The last thing we want to do is to put undue pressure on any particular area.”

At this rate of harvesting, essentially all of the Styx giant trees, the largest on earth, will be gone in 15 years. (In the U.S. 96% of all redwoods forests are now gone.)

According to Whiteley, Forestry Tasmania is trying to balance industry needs with conservation. Consequently, it has decided that any tree over 279 feet tall will be spared. Yet a survey published in the December 2000 issue of Tasforests found that the vast majority of Tasmania’s giants have a height just below this figure.

So what percentage of harvested old-growth forest is turned into sawlogs?

“Twenty percent,” says Whiteley. “The rest is just residue and is wood-chipped.”

Weeks after the interview, after considerable Diogenes-like searching, I learn three profound facts. First, in 2003-4, Forestry Tasmania harvested 357,088 cubic meters of quality eucalypt sawlogs and veneer, 20 percent above the mandated quota. Second, the Styx provided only 27,862 cubic meters of this wood; so if the quota was exceeded, why was the Styx logged at all! Finally, the quota itself was set in 1920, and the logging industry has managed to keep it unchanged for 85 years.

Back in 1920, the Tasmanian tiger was still alive.

On the last day of our bushwalk, Matt and I decide to climb 4,085-foot Mount Mueller at the head of the Styx Valley. After tramping one depressing logging road after another, we need an overview of the landscape. But as we rise above the clear-cuts, the section of unmolested old-growth that we first passed through looks small and imperiled.

We thrash up to the rocky crest of Mueller and for our effort are rewarded with an expansive view northwest into the Florentine valley. Like the Styx, only the upper Florentine is still blanketed with old-growth forest; the rest was clear-cut over the last 50 years. But there aren’t enough volunteers to erect a global rescue station to let the world know about the majestic singularity of the upper Florentine—and Forestry Tasmania knows this. Like bulldozing the Parthenon to make tract homes with the stones, logging is scheduled to begin on the upper Florentine this summer.

After an hour on the summit, sitting, watching, wondering, we head back down. Just below the rocks, hidden in a pocket of heath, we discover a small silvery pool—the source of the Styx. Matt and I cup our hands and drink from the fountainhead. In Greek mythology, the Styx was said to be poisonous.

I imagine the Tasmanian tiger stopping here en route from one primeval forest valley to the other. Lowering its head to lap up the cool water, it would have seen its own doomed reflection. In 1888 parliament placed a bounty on the Tasmanian tiger, and by 1936, it was extinct.