Chipping Away at Australia's Old-Growth Forests A Daring Woman Fights to Save Centuries-Old Trees from Being Turned into Paper Cups for Japan. but a New Administration May Thwart Her Efforts

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FROM her tiny cabin nestled in the once-quiet heart of an ancient Australian rain forest, Jill Redwood is battling to save her neighbors - towering 500 to 1,000 year-old eucalyptus trees.

Chain saws whine in the distance now, and Ms. Redwood has for several years organized protests against the export of wood chips, which fuels demand for fresh timber. Such activities have hardly endeared her to the nearby logging community of Orbost.

Every day scores of Orbost-bound trucks, each carrying up to 40 tons of timber from nearby cutting sites, rumble past her 20-acre homestead. Some blast their horns. Others, on occasion, knock down her mailbox. There have been even less pleasant warnings left in the mailbox. "I keep a rifle behind the door now," Redwood says, sipping a glass of apple juice at her kitchen table. "I think a lot of people are sympathetic to what I do. But they have kids in school who could get beat up, and jobs in town that are at risk, if they get identified as a 'greenie,' she says." But if Redwood is ostracized in Orbost, she is less alone today than she used to be. Her fight to save the East Gippsland Forest, a 4,400-square-mile chunk (5 percent) of Victoria, a state in southeast Australia, has become part of a larger national crusade by environmentalists to save what remains of Australia's untouched forest lands. Dwindling forests Before European settlers came to Australia, about 12 percent of this mostly dry continent was forested. Today less than half the original forest cover, and just 25 percent of coastal rain forests, remains intact, according to a 1992 federal report. As Australia's old-growth forest becomes increasingly a patchwork of logged and unlogged land, shy animals like the tiny long-footed potoroo, the powerful owl (Australia's political version of the US Northwest's spotted owl), and the tiger quoll are becoming endangered. Australian environmental groups contend that their country's forest heritage is being systematically ground up into wood chips and loaded onto ships, mostly bound for Japan. There, the chips are made into paper, packaging, cups, and fiberboard by companies like Harris-Daishowa (Aust.) Pty. Limited, a majority Japanese-owned company that runs a large chipper mill in nearby Eden, New South Wales. The idea that Australia's old-growth forest is being chipped and sent to Japan has lately struck a chord. A poll in February 1995 showed that 63 percent of Australians opposed logging in areas that had not been logged before. That same month, 10,000 marchers in Melbourne protested a federal decision to renew 11 wood-chip export licenses. In a counter protest, more than 3,000 angry loggers drove their trucks to Parliament in Canberra and blockaded its entrances. The issue was still smoldering in the run-up to last month's federal election, when former Prime Minister Paul Keating sought to mollify the green vote by promising to bar logging on 6 million hectares (15 million acres) of Australian forest. No logging was to be permitted in protected areas, known here as deferred forest areas, while the government negotiated permanent protected reserves with state governments. But government policy is up in the air following the victory of Prime Minister John Howard's business-oriented conservatives. Many in Canberra, Australia's capital, say the former government's forest policy could be changed, a federal official told the Monitor. "The pressure is on now to get those really valuable bits that are left into the reserve," says Peter Wright of the Australian Conservation Foundation, an environmental watchdog. "Over the next three years this issue is likely to be resolved one way or the other." Certainly a more hands-off approach by government would be just fine with Colin Savory, an Orbost resident, who is logging the East Gippsland rain forest just as his father and grandfather did before him. "It's about more than just losing jobs," he says, leaning against an enormous eucalyptus tree just felled on a mountainside near Goongerah. …