Watching over our Sisters

GALLERY HERE

A STEEP, rocky path guides the way up to the South Sister, a volcanic outcrop that sits behind St Marys providing extraordinary views of Tasmania's East Coast.

Three humans climb up its edges.

Their exertion and the sounds of the wind replace the stillness of the surrounding bushland but breathlessness quickly gives way to awe when a 360 degree panoramic view reveals itself at the top, 831 metres above sea level.

Guide and local resident Arthur Progly excitedly points out the visible landmarks; its North Sister, Flinders Island, St Helens, Scamander, Freycinet, the Fingal Valley, Mathinna Plains, the neighbouring Dublin and German Town, and the North-East mountains.

The artist lives under the shadows of the South and North Sisters.

He has built his home in the bush.

Arthur Progly takes in the view from the top of South Sister. Picture: Geoff Robson.

Arthur Progly takes in the view from the top of South Sister. Picture: Geoff Robson.

The area is a source of inspiration for his art and a base from which to hike and discover the delights of the lower echelons of the Nicholas Range.

Progly said he had found a rare "fairy lantern" orchid on the slopes above his home, along with a myriad of fungi, lichen and plant species.

There are also the hidden caves and crevices near Struggle Gully, the unearthed historic rock tools from the previous indigenous occupants of the land, and the wedge-tailed eagles he has seen in the area, teaching their fledglings to fly.

Progly said the area was both mystical and eerie, with the South Sister reminding him of scenes in the haunting 1975 Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

He was one of many residents opposed to Forestry Tasmania logging the 108 hectares of forests that surround the vicinity of the Sisters.

The logging coupe was planned for selective logging, reported to be worth $800,000, gained from 800 cubic metres of high and low-quality sawlogs and 7000 tonnes of pulpwood.

Progly said the minimal monetary gain hardly seemed worth the effort and could never have measured up to what would have been lost.

He said it would have devastated residents' choice to live close to the bush.

"We were concerned about the stability of the hillside above our homes and the water quality in the creek," Progly said.

"A number of people use the water from the creek as domestic water supply and the logging coupe would have contaminated those supplies.

"We also always felt that this lookout was something that we could utilise for tourists and Tasmanian visitors. Looking out over a logged coupe, well aesthetically that would look pretty ugly.

"We wanted to save the big trees, the threatened plant species, the homes of so many birds and animals, like the spotted-tail and eastern quolls and the devils. And have you heard of the blind velvet worm? It lives up here."

Anti-logging group Save Our Sister was formed in 2004 to strategically fight Forestry Tasmania from logging the area, with North-East Tasmania Land Trust president Andrew Lohrey one of 20 residents behind the movement.

Dr Lohrey said the group met last month to celebrate the decade that had passed since SOS was formed.

The meeting also provided an opportunity to discuss the impact that the cancellation of the Tasmanian Forests Agreement would have on the area.

The Liberals Rebuilding the Forest Industry legislation is due to be voted on by the lower house this month and could open up 400,000 hectares of protected forests in six years time if successful.

The Sisters had temporary protection under the TFA.

Resources Minister Paul Harriss said that this coupe was unavailable for logging.

Under the government's bill it would not be available for native forest harvesting before 2020, and then only if it were to be reclassified as "permanent timber production zone" and only in accordance with Forestry Tasmania's forest management certification.

Dr Lohrey said ongoing protection of the area was now in limbo.

"According to Liberal policy nothing is going to happen for six years," Dr Lohrey said.

"[But] it is really a situation of waiting and seeing. As far as we were concerned the TFA was a wonderful thing and we are still hopeful we can live in peace but whether that is the case we don't know. To a large extent that depends on what happens with the Legislative Council.

"We will look with interest to see whether they will pass the legislation or amend it, and if they do amend it how they will do so and what that will mean for us."

At the height of the protesting, about 2005, Save Our Sisters began undertaking its own research and environmental assessments of the area, eventually mounting legal action with the Resource Planning and Appeal Tribunal against the coupe.

It argued that the forest practices plan for South Sister had failed to properly assess erosion and landslide risks, gather sufficient information about its environmental and cultural values, provide for the management of the recorded threatened species, or for the protection of biodiversity.

Ultimately, logging would damage the environmental values of the area.

Assessments found seven species of fauna in the region, including the swift parrot, grey goshawk, wedge-tailed eagle and blind and giant velvet worm, 15 species of endangered or vulnerable or rare flora, 90 species of moth and 178 species of lichen.

Looking towards Scamander. Picture: Geoff Robson.

Looking towards Scamander. Picture: Geoff Robson.

An entomology report undertaken by University of Tasmania environmental lecturer Peter McQuillan revealed the area to be a place of ecological importance.

"The area is part of a continuum of natural habitats from the summit of South Sister to the coast, allowing animals and plants to migrate along the full altitudinal range in search of food, and enabling ecological communities of plants and animals to adjust their range in response to climate change," he wrote.

Dr Lohrey said a long chain of events helped to eventually prevent the area being logged.

"The case that we brought against Forestry Tasmania prevented anything from happening for about 18 months. They were prevented from logging during winter, which helped us, and then in 2006 a devastating bushfire went through the area that prevented any logging from taking place for at least two or three years.

"After that the cultural climate changed ... discussions began between industry and conservation groups, the nature of the forest industries turned, and Gunns were going down the gurgler so that situation stopped any possibility of it being logged."

Dr Lohrey said he hoped that more people would continue to visit the South Sister lookout, to appreciate the iconic landmark and surrounding areas.

"Business and locals in St Marys often tell people to go up there. We would like to see the [government] services spend a little bit of money upgrading the tracks, but of course resources are low."

One business in the area that would have been dramatically impacted by the coupe was Frank Giles and Julia Weston's Seaview Farm, that grows organic blueberries for markets in Sydney and offers tourist accommodation.

Ms Weston said logging the Sisters would have damaged the area's long-term future.

"For a short-term gain it would of destroyed tourism - with no financial gain for this community," she said.

"For the sake of a few woodchips it was all very crazy, to destroy our lifestyle ... and threaten the special biodiversity of this place.

"We have a rare gem here. It just didn't make sense. It isn't a constructive way of dealing with the wonderful treasures that we have in Tasmania."

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