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Taking a Stand

by PATRICK O'KEEFE

Miranda Gibson is a 31 year old teacher, who has spent the past year engaged in a remarkably courageous act. Miranda has been living on a platform which sits 60 meters above the floor of an ancient Tasmanian forest. The tree that she has called home since December 14, 2011, stands at 70 meters in height. If Miranda had not acted, this tree may have been cut down long ago – along with the surrounding forest. Miranda explains the drive behind her remarkable act, simply stating that “I wanted to do something that would show the world how significant these forests are.”

Tasmania has been the center of a bitter feud, which dates back to the early 1970s, when woodchipping of forests first commenced in the smallest Australian state. The debate has polarized the community, with peace rarely, if ever, achieved between those who support the timber industry and those who want to see Tasmania’s ancient forests protected.

‘The Observer Tree’, as Miranda has named her action, has now been in operation for one year. Miranda has maintained a blog, through which she has documented her experience, and developed connections with thousands of people across the world.

“Every day there are comments on my website, people discovering these forests for the first time, or reconnecting with them through my blog,” says Miranda.

Given the bitter cold of a harsh Tasmanian winter, many would have excused Miranda for climbing down when things got tough. However, Miranda is a fiercely determined woman. “The moment I saw the contrast between a lifeless clear fell and an old growth forest – I knew that something needed to be done to protect these unique ecosystems.”

Former leader of the Australian Greens, Dr Bob Brown, describes Miranda as an “environmental hero.” As Dr Brown explains, Miranda approached him with the idea of The Observer Tree, for which he was “Very Supportive.”

“Miranda is an intelligent, well centered, strong minded young woman – who is committed to saving those forests,” said Dr Brown.

As Miranda keeps watch from her platform in the forest canopy, representatives from the timber industry and environment groups have been locked in negotiations about the future of these forests. At the end of two years of negotiations, which often teetered on the brink of collapse, the parties finally came to an agreement.

The agreement, which is currently waiting approval from Tasmania’s Legislative Council, will see the immediate protection of 395,199 hectares of forest, with a further 108,813 hectares to be protected by 2015. A further 20,183 hectares have been earmarked as a “once-off log, restore and reserve area,” while 1,228 hectares are classified as a “log-of-last-resort” zone. According to the agreement, the cap on saw logs to be taken from native forest is down to 137,000 cubic meters annually, representing a drop from 348,000 cubic meters. The agreement promises to ensure the protection of iconic forests, such as the Styx Valley, Upper Florentine and Weld Valley.

The parties emerged from the talks, speaking triumphantly about what had been achieved. And with good reason. An agreement such as this was considered an impossibility, with the parties so opposed and unwilling to give ground.

Miranda could be forgiven for thinking that her work had been done, once the agreement was announced. Miranda is not so convinced, citing numerous concerns that she has with the agreement. “Firstly, the lack of clear time frames for protection could see logging continue in those areas earmarked for reserves. In addition, there are clauses that could prevent those reserves from every being secured.” Miranda is critical of the renewed commitment to woodchipping, apparent within the agreement; which Miranda argues “is not a positive step forward for Tasmania environmentally, socially or economically.”

Lamenting the decline in direct action as a method adopted by environmental activists globally, Dr Brown refers to the importance of conducting environmental action within the natural setting. “The strength of campaigning is being in a forest, on a sea shore, out at sea with the whales, up on the Murray Darling. The direct relationship with nature has always been a key in galvanising support,” says Dr Brown.

It is the relationship with nature that motivates Miranda to continue. “I am inspired to keep going every single day that I am up here. I look out across a spectacular valley, across the upper canopy of the forest. There are constant reminders for me about why I am doing this and why I must continue – whether it’s a wedge-tailed eagle soaring in the skies above, the beauty of snow falling on the tree tops or sound of a masked owl calling through the moonlit trees. Being in this tree every day for almost a year has strengthened my determination to continue, because I witness first hand the significant values of this incredible forested landscape.”

It is apparent that Miranda is not going anywhere in a hurry. “Until there is a guarantee that these forests will be protected, I am committed to staying in this tree.”

Patrick O’Keefe is a writer living in Australia.

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