Bauxite Mining in Jarrah Forests: A Note from Roger Underwood

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.

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17 Responses to Bauxite Mining in Jarrah Forests: A Note from Roger Underwood

  1. rog August 8, 2007 at 6:27 pm #

    Unfortunately there is much of a market for jarrah, a while ago two shearers bought some woolsheds made of jarrah and converted them to furniture – beautiful stuff but expensive and not to everybodies liking.

  2. rog August 8, 2007 at 6:28 pm #

    Should read “..there is NOT much of a market for jarrah..”

  3. Ann Novek August 8, 2007 at 7:37 pm #

    Rog,

    Garden furniture made from teak and jarrah are in Sweden the most sold ones. However, don’t know if it’s FSC-certified. Some say it’s an good environmental choice, personnaly I have no clue.

    Some say as well that it might not be suitable with garden furniture made of jarrah in wet climates.

  4. siltstone August 8, 2007 at 8:01 pm #

    A thought provoking article. Alcoa’s has continuously improved its rehabilitation through professionally conducted research and achieved 100% species return (see link). They have made themselves a hard target. Nearly every pupil in Perth has visited one of their mines at some stage and seen the regrowth. To their credit Alcoa do not claim they are achieving a net positive impact on biodiversity like one other large mining company does. But Roger Underwood has hit the nail on the head – can this artificial ecosystem function sustainably? Why do conservationists prefer this outcome to sustainable logging?
    http://www.alcoa.com/australia/en/pdf/Community/Rehab_Bro_2.pdf

  5. Boxer August 8, 2007 at 10:53 pm #

    I once discussed this, one to one, during a long and cordial conversation with WA’s most prominent hater of commercial forestry. We have a mutual friend. I asked her why she and her colleagues were silent about bauxite mining. Her mouth clamped shut and she would not speak. An odd experience, a bit like a 15 second silence during a phone conversation. The subject had to be changed to start things up again.

    I suspect many of Alcoa’s professional staff are members of the Campaign to Save Native Forests or whatever they are called. This places the NGO in a complicated position.

    I’ve been on the receiving end of a stern lecture from an Alcoa environmental scientist about how mining might be disruptive, but “it is very restricted in the area of its impact. Whereas logging covers ALL the forest”.

    We had met at one of Alcoa’s drill rigs in a catchment that was proposed to be mined. I responded that his point was true, but observed that the slope upon which we were standing had recently been selectively logged according to standard practices, and perhaps a modest impact over the whole forest was not necessarily worse than an intense impact over a modest proportion of the forest. I had noticed the log landings as I drove to the area and I thought it had probably been cut over about a decade before. There was regrowth which partly obscured the heaps of reject log butts at each landing.

    The look on his face was priceless as he quickly glanced around the surrounding bush. It was quite obvious that he had not even realised he was in cut-over bush. Any forester can give you several anecdotes along these lines.

    Now that the forests debate has been lost on political grounds, I’m afraid foresters sometimes resort to laughing at the politically correct majority. Now the morally superior are starting to wring their hands about the increase of wood imports from SE Asia. The level of ignorance is so great it’s almost comical, so humour is all that’s left.

  6. gavin August 9, 2007 at 11:00 am #

    Seems like you are having a bit of a slash there Boxer

  7. Davey Gam Esq. August 9, 2007 at 6:00 pm #

    Spot on Boxer,
    If my efforts on this blog are sometimes a little flippant, it is because, as you say, all that remains on forest, and some other issues is humour, or even farce. Perhaps Gavin does not know the real state of play in Western Australia. I need another cuppa Earl Grey.

  8. gavin August 9, 2007 at 8:12 pm #

    Dave: How many time do you put your cuppa in the zapper before you remember to drink the stuff?

    Truth is I’ve never been to WA, but one of my chief advisors lived in Perth for quite a while. One of his hobbies was forest rallies and their org. Another advisor also went to uni there.

    My only association was trying to instantly visualise all the comms towers region by region during the early 90’s with and without forests.

  9. Boxer August 9, 2007 at 9:39 pm #

    It’s possible that you have missed the point Gavin. Most of the jarrah forest, and virtually all of the forest that is subjected to bauxite mining, is regrowth. Much of it was essentially clear-felled early in the 20th century. It is the result of commercial forestry. It always puzzles me why people get into such a state of anxiety about logging a forest that is itself the result of logging at an earlier time.

    One of the most common misconceptions is that logging leads to cleared land and hence to open paddocks. But farmland is actually the result of clearing, which is an agricultural practice, or as described by Roger, a precursor to mining. “Clearing” and “clear-felling” have nothing in common, despite the occurrence of the word “clear” in both terms.

  10. Davey Gam Esq. August 10, 2007 at 1:37 pm #

    Gavin,
    If your adviser attended forest rallies then I get a certain picture. Some forest protesters that I have met would not know a jarrah from a djiridji. Hey…like…duh…pass the bong, man. On the other hand, perhaps your adviser was an expert on forests, such as an eminent dressmaker or heart surgeon, or had a PhD in French poetry. How lucky we are in WA.

  11. gavin August 10, 2007 at 5:40 pm #

    Dave: My source followed the fortunes of Bond, Bates, Bourne and a few others inbetween

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Rally_Championship

  12. Davey Gam Esq. August 10, 2007 at 6:27 pm #

    Gavin,
    Those motor rallies coat the bush in dust for about 100 metres each side of the track. A kangaroo would have no chance, except that the scream of engines drives them well away. Hardly good conservation. Not to mention the fumes.

  13. gavin August 10, 2007 at 7:04 pm #

    Dave: I wore the SES orange in Tas and the ACT for several national championship rounds. I bet the ACT has the worst case for dust anytime. Finding sponsors these days is more difficult than it was.

    That leaves us asking questions about motor sport in general and continued use of state forests in particular for this kind of recreation. Cropping areas have been easy targets in the past. Governments must be seen to accommodate various preferences in our use of public resources.

  14. claudia nestromat September 24, 2007 at 10:38 pm #

    well on my personal experienses the jarrah forrest is a blessing from god and the ecotechnical enviromentoligests can go shuv the gold up there behind if they want to detplorise the enviromentalic substantal acconomyiee, just for there own substantalic pockentigest needs. i think that this idea of “mining” is a load of crastolpicc and the editorinimr can go slatemasticly desprotalic them selves for all i care!!!

  15. Tuinmeubelen March 29, 2009 at 8:35 pm #

    Nice and thanks for sharing this! It Seems to me that like you are having a bit of a slash there Boxer

  16. Jasmine June 11, 2010 at 1:56 pm #

    I am currently doing my honours project on public views and preferences of the rehabilitation process carried out by Alcoa in the SW jarrah forest. Many of the publications related to the topic were written to only support what Alcoa has been doing and justifying all their action. I have found it difficult to find sources where bauxite mining in the state forest was opposed.

    My study involves surveying random public members on whether they think the rehabilitation programs are enough + royalties on behalf of bauxite mining companies to compensate the state for clearing large areas of the state forest. I am in the process of collecting and analysing the results of the survey. If there is no further investigation after my paper then at least it will raise awareness and make public members ponder, what is really more important?

  17. Mark October 5, 2010 at 10:47 pm #

    I am also having trouble finding publications that are opposed to bauxite mining or at least show the short falls of current restoration processes but ill be dammed if i use this bitter rant. Roger the foresters were kicked out of calm because they couldn’t put the states interests before there own. 1000ha a year that’s nothing.

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