One of the most interesting anomalies in Australian environmentalism is that the alumina industry is destroying the jarrah forest – and nobody seems to care. At least, nobody is complaining.
Open cut mining of State Forests in Western Australia by two alumina producers (Alcoa and Worseley) has been going on for about 40 years. Mining involves clean cutting of the forest (removal of all saleable timber, including woodchips), full agricultural clearing, blasting with explosives and then removal of the forest soil. This converts the jarrah forest into a patchwork of pits 8-10 metres deep and up to 40 hectares in size. In and around the pits the remnant forest is criss-crossed with haul roads, crusher sites, conveyor belts and power lines. The rate of forest clearance is about 1000 hectares a year. It is estimated that mining will proceed for at least another 50 years.
The mined-out pits are “rehabilitated” by smoothing the edges, ripping the pit floor (a white kaolinitic clay) with bulldozers and replacing a film of topsoil. Various tree and shrub species are then sown or planted. Pre-1988 the revegetation was basically a plantation of exotic species, mostly eucalypts indigenous to NSW; post 1988 the main tree species planted or sown is jarrah.
Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) is a tall long-lived tree noted for its superb timber, toughness and resilience. It grows in a relatively harsh environment of long dry summers, frequent fire, and infertile soils. Jarrah occurs only in a restricted area in the southwest of Western Australia. Most of the northern jarrah forest is also an important water resource area and protects the city and goldfields water supply catchments. It also provides important habitat to native species, a range of recreational activities and is famous for its springtime display of endemic wildflowers. Jarrah timber played an important role in the development of Western Australia. It was used almost exclusively in the construction of the State’s harbours, bridges and railways, for telephone and electricity distribution, for house and building construction, for fine furniture manufacture and domestic and industrial firewood. For many decades it was the State’s third most valuable export (after wheat and wool) and was regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful, as well as strongest and most durable timbers.
In a biogeographical and ecological sense, the jarrah forest is virtually an island. It falls within the Australian south-west botanical province, known as a biodiversity hotspot – most jarrah forest can carry 60 or more different species of plants in the understorey – and is home to a unique fauna. To the west of the forest belt is the coastal sandplain, these days increasingly becoming one large residential subdivision. To the north and east are the cleared agricultural regions and to the south the narrow strip of karri forest and the Southern Ocean. The forests were traditionally managed for water production, catchment protection, sustainable timber production, wildlife conservation and recreation. In more recent times the management priority has been designated simply as “conservation of biodiversity”, but as we shall see, this is subservient to minerals production. The jarrah timber industry scarcely now exists. This has been virtually extinguished over the last 5 years as logging became a politically unacceptable activity in the state’s forests. The few small timber production operations remaining are all based on regrowth forests, where they are under constant challenge from protest groups whose aim is the total elimination of the industry.
Jarrah forest soils are lateritic and contain bauxite. This is the ore from which alumina and ultimately aluminium is produced. In the 1960s, the State government issued leases for bauxite mining over 800,000 hectares of jarrah forest, and put in place State Agreement Acts which guaranteed easy access to the leaseholders. Mining commenced in the forest in the mid-1960s and expanded rapidly. At first there was a single mine near Jarrahdale. The ore was railed to a refinery at Kwinana. Before long a new refinery had been built near Pinjarra and new mines were opened up at Del Park and Huntly on the banks of the South Dandalup dam (part of Perth’s water supply). By the early 1980s there was a third refinery at Wagerup, a new mine in State Forests south of the Murray River, another mine at Mt Saddleback and a fourth refinery near Collie. As recently as 2006 the WA Environmental Protection Authority approved a further expansion of the rate of mining for the Wagerup refinery, and there are current moves by the State government to expand the rate of mining for the Worsely refinery, so that it is likely that the annual rate of forest destruction will soon exceed 1000 ha.
There was some initial opposition to the forest mining, mainly from foresters, including a campaign run by the Institute of Foresters in the 1960s. The Institute produced an excellent booklet, detailing the undesirable impacts of mining on the forest ecosystem. However, these protests were quickly snuffed out, the problem being that most foresters at that time were also public servants, and it was illegal for them to criticise government policy, even as members of their professional institute. The “conservation movement” showed an initial flicker of interest, but this died away almost immediately. At that time and ever since, the focus of environmentalists was on the timber industry, bushfire management and forestry. Over the last 40 years, there has not been a peep of protest from any green organisation in WA (government or NGO) about bauxite mining.
In this light, it is worth looking at the mining operation in more detail. Mining eliminates the entire forest ecosystem both above and below ground. Following clearing no native plant or animal survives. Following mining the forest soil itself is irreplaceably gone. The natural landscape is greatly altered, since the best bauxite deposits are on the gravely uplands, and these disappear, leading to a landscape with less topographical variation. The post-mining revegetation is sown into well-cultivated and fertilised topsoil and comes away rapidly. Visually it resembles even-aged regeneration after clearfelling or in the gaps created by selective logging (the latter being the normal silvicultural approach in jarrah forest).
There are many concerns however. No experienced forester would guarantee the long term viability of dense forest stands growing on a film of topsoil over highly impermeable clay and granite. Jarrah prefers deep friable gravels with excellent water-holding capacity. Where thin, heavy soils occur in the natural forest, jarrah tends to be replaced by wandoo and on shallow soils over granite it is more common to find sheoak. The oldest minesite rehabilitation is now about 40. Some of these stands have started to look very sick as the present period of below-average rainfall persists. Ecologically, the revegetation is very different from the original forest, and some obvious niches have been eliminated. For example no “habitat” trees are retained to provide for hollow-nesting bird species, as is the case in areas from which timber is cut. Some “old growth” elements, such as grass trees, will take centuries to re-establish, or may never regrow on the new substrate.
Apart from the loss of native forest, there has been a significant loss of run-off into streams and dams in the mined-over catchment areas. Pits have been designed to retain rather than shed rainfall, so run-off to forest streams is close to zero, and in many cases old mine pits cover nearly 50% of each sub-catchment. This has obvious impacts on water resources and aquatic ecosystems. The revegetated mine pits also represent a challenge to bushfire management. Although the young rehabilitation (up to about age 4) will generally not carry a fire, litter and flammable understorey soon begin to build up and the new plantations are extremely hazardous and vulnerable to fire over the next 10 years.
There are other environmental concerns. Alumina refineries produce toxic waste (soil contaminated with caustic soda) and both the refineries and aluminium smelters are significant consumers of electricity and emitters of greenhouse gasses. Bauxite miners are exempt from the requirements of both the State’s Wildlife Conservation Act and the Clearing Control Legislation. These Acts can severely constrain landowners who wish to carry out commercial timber production in their own native forest, or to undertake prescribed burning for bushfire remediation (which the government includes within the definition of “clearing”).
Given their fierce opposition to the comparatively benign and ephemeral impacts of timber cutting and prescribed burning, it might be expected that environmentalists and green bureaucrats would be dying in their boots to oppose and hamstring bauxite mining in the jarrah forest. This has not occurred. For over 30 years the alumina industry has enjoyed total freedom from green displeasure and support from conservation bodies – including the Environmental Protection Authority. None of the standard features of a protest campaign against logging, for example, have ever been seen. There are no protest camps in the bush. No students or yuppy celebrities are chained to trees. Mining equipment has not been vandalised, ore trains have not been derailed, haul roads blockaded or port facilities bombed (all features of the campaign against woodchipping). There are there no marches on parliament, no orchestrated campaigns of letters to the paper and call-ins to the talk-back stations. Senator Bob Brown does not appear to have voiced the merest concern. The WA Greens Party has no policy about bauxite mining in the jarrah forest. They seek to prohibit mining and exploration in national parks, wilderness areas and conservation reserves, but do not extend this policy to State Forests. Nor has Janet Woollard (who was elected to the WA Parliament representing a Save-the-Forests party) taken any position on bauxite mining in the jarrah forest. Even the ABC’s Four Corners has shown no interest. Normally they would find irresistible a story about destruction of Australian forests by big business, especially in an industry which is such a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and is American-owned. Instead they are down in Tasmania fulminating against timber production and plantations.
I am not anti-mining. However as a forester I wish the alumina industry would go elsewhere. Nor am I anti-Alcoa. I have always found them to be an efficient and clever organisation, and it is a pleasure to see the professional way in which they have approached their operational and research obligations. They have poured multi-millions of dollars into the WA community over the years, including generous donations to conservation groups, cash payments to government departments, grants to sporting bodies, sponsorship of the arts, dispensing free tree seedlings to farmers and funding academics in the universities.
The uncritical and universal acceptance of bauxite mining in the jarrah forest is disappointing, but not difficult to understand. The government clearly believes that the economic returns from bauxite mining and alumina refining justify the impact on the forest and other forest uses. The broader community has no understanding of what is going on, since the media is silent, and in any case there has never been any public affection for the jarrah forest in the way there has been for the more visually attractive karri forest.
There are two possible reasons why the environmentalists have chosen not to fight bauxite mining: (i) they have been bought off; or (ii) they have decided that it is a battle they cannot win. The latter is the most likely. The alumina industry well-established and prosperous, is fully supported by government agencies, and has a superb public relations machine. The environmentalists would be done over, and they know it. It would be different if 1000 ha of native forest each year were being destroyed for cattle grazing, timber plantations, or water resource development, all of which are easy targets – any protest campaign against them would attract strong media support, especially from the ABC.
Despite environmentalist and community apathy, my personal view is that there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when West Australians realise what has gone on, and the extent and cost of the ecological damage which has occurred. Then perhaps they will look back on the government, agency and NGO-supported destruction of the jarrah forest by bauxite mining as one of the greatest conservation blunders in our history.
Roger Underwood is a former General Manager of CALM in Western Australia, a regional and district manager, a research manager and bushfire specialist. Roger currently directs a consultancy practice with a focus on bushfire management. He lives in Perth, Western Australia.