STANDING in damp moss on the fringes of an ancient Tasmanian forest, Greg Sargent stares up at a 300-foot towering hulk. ``Eucalyptus regnans,'' he declares. ``The tallest flowering plant on Earth. The pinnacle of Australian eucalypt evolution. That tree's 400 years old. But unfortunately, it's going to end up as the next edition of the Sydney Morning Herald unless the federal government nominates it for World Heritage listing and protects it.''
The fate of Tasmania's western rain forests - some 284,000 hectares (701,480 acres) of the tallest trees in the Southern Hemisphere - is the most contentious issue now facing Prime Minister Bob Hawke's government.
But after two years and seven inquiries - and a flurry of recent heated, Cabinet-level meetings - a compromise solution may finally be reached in tomorrow's ``final'' Cabinet session on the issue.
On one level, it's a classic power struggle between conservationists and the timber industry.
Conservationists argue these last vast tracts of Australian wilderness are obviously of World Heritage status. The World Heritage Convention, adopted by UNESCO in 1972 and ratified by 100 nations, provides for the preservation of sites that are of extraordinary historical, cultural, or scenic value. The 288 sites worldwide range from the Taj Mahal in India to Yellowstone National Park in Montana.
The forests contain species of eucalypts unique to Tasmania and second only to California's redwoods in size. Several known animal species may face extinction, if logging goes ahead, the conservationists say. The relatively unexplored region could contain undiscovered flora and fauna. And, archeologists say the forests house ancient Aboriginal cave paintings that may predate similar paintings in Europe.
If the forests were on the World Heritage list, they would be off limits to loggers.
Timber industry officials point to Australia's $1.6 billion (Australian; US $1.2 billion) trade deficit in forestry and paper products and high unemployment in Tasmania as reason for exploiting the forests. Plans for a $1 billion (Australian; US $801 million) pulp mill, expansion of a paper mill, and a new wood-chip mill are all on hold. Access to this prime timber is essential to the industry, they say. Also, they say they're quite willing to work around archeological sites and do sectional clearing, followed by replanting to minimize risk to animal habitats.
Hawke's Australian Labor Party (ALP) government is in the throes of deciding ``who's going to hurt us more electorally: the Greenies or the timber industry?'' says Mr. Sargent, who is a member of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society.
And the Labor Party can't afford to alienate either side. It lost a string of local elections, including control of Australia's most populous state earlier this year, amid complaints that the ALP is losing touch with the ``ordinary bloke'' - traditional blue collar supporters. On the other hand, Hawke's pro-conservation stands figured prominently in his election in 1983 and his reelection last year.
On another level, the Tasmanian forest debate is part of a simmering federal versus state power struggle that has the potential for embarrassing the Hawke government in an international forum.
Nominating the forests for World Heritage listing would occur over the objections of the Tasmanian state government which supports the timber industry. Last year, the state of Queensland lost a dogged fight to prevent the Hawke government from protecting northern rain forests under World Heritage listing.
But since the states manage the forests, Queensland is threatening to disregard the World Heritage boundries. And the Hawke government risks being unable to put forth a credible management plan to the World Heritage Bureau in November if the Queensland government (and potentially Tasmania) won't cooperate.
At the moment, Hawke is trying to reach a compromise over how much of the western Tasmanian forests should be nominated for World Heritage listing. One faction reportedly wants to reserve only 15 percent of the region under consideration for listing (284,000 hectares). Another wants to see 50 to 80 percent of that area protected. Conservationists want all the region under consideration - and then some. The 284,000 hectares represents 10 to 15 percent of Tasmania's forests.
The solution isn't to close down the timber industry, according to Bob Brown, Tasmanian assembly member and founder of Australia's green political movement. ``Of the seven million tons of trees cut annually, two million is left to rot or burn. If they cut out that waste, the industry could do very well on 80 percent of Tasmania's forests, and we could protect the other 20 percent [which includes all of the area under consideration for World Heritage listing],'' he says.
The industry doesn't dispute that it could survive on those percentages of forest. Or that it ``used to be'' wasteful. But Brown's suggestion exludes the most profitable timber, say loggers, and means forgoing expansion and employment.
Timber officials argue it's a waste of key resources to preserve all of the giant trees. ``A World Heritage listing has to be something of world significance, such as Grand Canyon, Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Egypt, or the Great Barrier Reef,'' says Raoul Dixon of the Forest Industries Association. ``The Eucalyptus regnans are magnificent trees but it's inappropriate to classify all of them as world heritage because it's a living organism that eventually dies. What have you got then?''
Dixon suggests a few 100- to 200-hectare tracts of young and old towering eucalypts would be a sufficient ongoing monument for tourists.
``That's like cutting out the best part of DaVinci's Mona Lisa - the smile - and saying its worthy of World Heritage,'' replies Sargent. ``You've ruined the painting. The whole forest, a complete ecosystem, must be nominated. If it's not worthy, why don't we let the World Heritage Bureau decide that?''
And Brown sees the battle in broader terms. ``This is a joust between materialism and a long term view of other values which are essential if human beings are going to exist on this planet.
``In Brazil, Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere in the world we're seeing almost a football field of trees being cut down every second and not replaced. It's a horrendous equation. They're our breathing partners on this planet. They breath out oxygen, we breath out carbon dioxide.''
Australian Logging Council chairman Andrew Padgett agrees it's a travesty to cut down tropical rain forests and not replace the trees. But the 42-year logging veteran and avid bushwalker says Tasmanian forests are a well-managed, renewable resource. They are reseeded after harvesting so they can be harvested again in another 80 to 100 years.
``What's so great about a 400-year-old tree?'' he asks. ``An old tree is going rotten [in the core] faster than he's growing. The rotting process produces carbon dioxide. And they don't produce much oxygen because their leaves are nearly all gone.''
Both sides expect to be dissatisfied by a compromise solution. And conservationists vow to continue their crusade. ``Ultimately, we have to intervene when forests are invaded,'' says Brown, who has had success with such tactics as tree-sitting, picketing, and lying in front of bulldozers. And since Japan is a major buyer of Australian forest products, Brown is making plans to take the conservation message to consumers there.