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The Leard Forest slaughter: Whitehaven bulldozes and rips while the animals kip

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The green expanse to the right of the mine is the threatened expanse of Leard Forest (Image by Ros Druce)

The environmental plan for Maules Creek coal mine was no winter clearing so no hibernating animals would be damaged — so why are Whitehaven bulldozing the Leard Forest now? Lachlan Barker reports.

[Read Part One]

THINGS ARE HOTTING UP out in the state’s west, as both sides of the Leard Forest/Maules Creek debate dig in.

Leard Forest is a state forest in central northern NSW due west of Armidale, approximately seven hours drive north-west of Sydney.

It is an area of great beauty and contains the largest area of Grassy White Box Gum Woodland critically endangered ecological community on the Liverpool Plains.

Whitehaven Coal has opened a mine within the borders of the forest, Maules Creek, and the clearing of Leard to allow for mine expansion is the bone of contention.

The original article can be read here, but here is a brief summary.

The controversy over Maules Creek coal mine is to do with its offset. If you wish to clear a bit of land containing a certain eco-system, you are required under the offsetting law to find another piece of the same ecosystem and preserve that.

However, local ecologists have serious doubts as to the veracity of the offset chosen for Maules Creek.

When the last article finished, the offset was being verified by an independent ecologist working for a Lismore company called Greenloaning Biostudies.

Greenloaning were employed by the mine, but approved by the Federal environment department, which is now called the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (SEWPaC).  

This process is now complete, so I asked the Federal department how the new offset had fared.

Their response:

‘The Department has considered the review and subsequent verification report and considers the conclusions of each to be sound. The Department is continuing to work with Whitehaven to ensure they comply with the requirements of all conditions of the approval.’

But once again, local ecologist Phil Spark has reservations about the integrity of the new round of offsetting done for Maules Creek — saying the new offsetting is “not sound”.

But the cause of the immediate protest at Maules Creek mine is to do with the timing of the land clearing currently happening. One of the stipulations of the environmental management plan laid down for Whitehaven Coal was that no clearing would be done in winter. This was done to ensure that no hibernating animal would be caught asleep with no ability to relocate before the oncoming bulldozer blasted their tree hollow to smithereens.

But due to Whitehaven’s haste to keep the project proceeding along carefully choreographed timelines, they were granted some sort of loophole to do some clearing in winter.

So, out at Leard at the moment the protesters are arriving in numbers.

I spoke with Helen War, a protest organiser, who ‒ despite her name ‒ is a strong advocate of peaceful protest. Helen is keen to make sure that her group has not truck with any sort of violence, or even aggression.

I asked Helen what was the focus of the protest.

She replied:

“We are using non-violent, grassroots activism to stop this forest being cleared.

“We are particularly focussed now as it’s winter and the animals that are hibernating have no chance to relocate.”

“Murdered in their beds?”  I asked.

“Yes, pretty much,” she replied.

She went on:

“I really wish we weren’t here at all, but governments are not listening to any voice but the coal industry and so we have no choice but to undertake this non-violent action to save Leard Forest.

“Gandhi and Martin Luther-King did this too, and so we are now involving ourselves in the process to stop the mine and save Leard Forest.”

I asked how many protesters were there at the moment.

She replied:

“Approximately fifty as we speak, but the numbers ebb and flow.”

I put another common criticism to her:

Are the protesters just rent-a-crowd?People who just travel around making trouble?”

Helen replied:

“Not at all, we have a cross-section of all types, there are locals among us, farmers, doctors, stay-at-home child carers, you name it, there all here expressing their democratic rights.”

I asked: has there been any friction between your group and the mine workers?

“No, we recognise that the mine workers are doing their jobs, they have houses and mortgages to pay.

“Likewise, there has been no friction, or nasty name calling with the police either, they are in the middle of this, and are likewise doing their jobs.”

For the record, since January, 160 arrests of protesters have been made, all for alleged offences under s201(d) of the NSW Crimes Act 1900:

‘… hinder[ing] the working of equipment belonging to a mine.’

No arrest has been made for damaging mine equipment, or any violent offence.

So where to now for the Maules Creek furore?

This week, members of the protest group, led by Phil Laird ‒ whose family the Forest is named after ‒ are hoping to meet with NSW Planning Minister Pru Goward and Environment Minister Rob Stokes.

The purpose of the meeting is to attempt to stop the immediate winter clearing of Leard Forest, however the overarching issue of Whitehaven’s dubious and controversial offset will also be discussed.

Things are complicated here, though, and I am still trying to sort out who has jurisdiction for what.

The overarching control of the Maules Creek/Leard Forest issue lies with Federal Environment minister Greg Hunt.

However, NSW environment and heritage, planning, and trade and industry departments are also all involved.

One would think with all these departments in the mix, the mine would immensely overregulated — groaning under the weight of red tape and getting nothing done.

However, the reverse is paradoxically true; who, or whatever, is supposed to be controlling Maules Creek is exerting little or no control at all and the Whitehaven land clearing equipment is running largely free from any government interference.

Rob Stokes’ press secretary told me that Minister Stokes is planning to meet with the protesters, but indicated he would only be able to listen to the protesters concerns.

The press secretary was clear that the meeting would be purely a PR snow job:

“The decision to clear has already been made and Minister Stokes can’t change that, as this decision was made in other departments.”

Under threat — the mine site sits amid the beauty of thousands of years of ecology, much of it could go under the blades of Whitehaven’s bulldozers (Image via Ros Druce)

Mind you, in my exchange with this press secretary, we did have this wry-humoured exchange.

Him:

“Minister Stokes is planning to meet with the protest group, but he can only listen to concerns, the decision to allow clearing has already been made.”

Me:

“Well John, I think it was Bud Fox in Wall Street who said: ‘you can always renegotiate.’”

[Note: I was wrong, it was actually the musician Prince who said, talking of recording contracts, “you can always negotiate”.]

John and I did have a small chuckle over this, despite the seriousness of the issue.

However, the sentiment remains accurate: even at this late stage, the land clearing at Maules Creek can still be renegotiated.

So, then I contacted Pru Goward’s office and they were unable to confirm if the minister would meet with the protesters and, if she did, whether a halt to the clearing would be discussed.

The protest group however, have some hopes that the clearing of Leard Forest may he halted for this winter, or better yet, for good.

Yet the history of this project has been every time that Whitehaven hits a snag, they seem to be able to find some rubber in the lines of the law or find a way lean on the executive to allow them to continue.

So, in the end, it is down to the protesters — the true voice of democracy in this life and death struggle.

If the animals sleeping in their woody tree hollows have any hope of surviving the winter, then it is the people in trees in nets, going to the toilet in buckets who will save them.

Whitehaven need to find a valid offset for Leard Forest — but as I wrote in my first article, this cannot be done.

Less than 0.1% of the original range of good order White Box Gum Grassy Woodland still exists on this planet.

And Leard Forest is it.

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