Western Australia's Treetop Balancing Act

Conservationists are challenging the state's effort to increase tourism in the Valley of Giants, an ancient forest

Walking through this enchanting, lush forest misted with a gently falling rain conjures up the sensation that one has been swept away into an Alice in Wonderland fantasy.

Wide, tall trees loom overhead in the still forest, called the Valley of the Giants, and their lumpy, gnarled trunks appear like a bizarre collection of cartoon-like faces, which might instantly spring to life.

In this lonely southwest pocket of arid Western Australia - filled with unusual flora and fauna bearing exotic names - the imagination runs wild.

But the serenity of the forest belies the ferocity of an environmental debate over its future. State managers of the Valley of the Giants say that a new steel bridge weaving through tops of the trees will turn the forest into a leading tourist attraction.

But environmental groups have attacked the tourism venture, fearing that the forest will become ruined by commercialization and overdevelopment.

The forest's ancient eucalyptus trees, called tingles, are cloaked in brown, rough bark and crowned with dense, dark green leaves. They measure up to 20 meters (65.5 feet) in circumference, and are some of Australia's most massive trees.

Relics of an era more than 50 million years ago - when Australia was joined to Antarctica, India, Africa, and South America to form a supercontinent that has been called Gondwana, the tingles now exist only in this remote part of Western Australia. They cover only about 35,000 hectares (about 86,500 acres) in the world.

Interspersed with the tingles are karri trees, a graceful limbed, smooth, pale-colored eucalyptus. The mature karris in this region, which can grow to 80 meters (262 feet), are the third-tallest in the world, after the redwoods in northern California and the blue gums in Tasmania. The tallest redwood officially recorded is over 365 feet.

Listening to the deep, musical croaking of hidden frogs, tourists huddle under brightly colored umbrellas and carefully avoid puddles to follow a winding, newly created boardwalk, which leads to the tingle bases.

Some of the tree trunks have been consumed by fire and hollowed out into deep caverns, big enough to fit a car or several awe-struck visitors. The tourists might catch sight of small Australian marsupials, like bandicoots and possums, or captivating native birds.

"People have traditionally come to visit these trees since the early 1920s, but that was mainly by locals," says Valley of the Giants manager Christine Wrench, who works for the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM).

However, since August last year, about 140,000 people from around the world have traveled to the forest for the new treetop walking experience

A steel, curved walkway - which derives its shape from the spiky tassel flowers decorating the area - glides upward from the forest floor to 60 meters (197 feet) in height. People are given a heady, close glimpse into the thick tree canopy.

Ms. Wrench believes the treetop walk is "probably unique." Unlike swing bridges, predominantly found in rainforests, the walkway is stable, bolted to the ground, and not attached to trees. Wrench says it is also longer than most other elevated structures, at 600 meters (about 1,970 feet).

The forest debate reached a crescendo on Feb. 19, when a protest by local environmentalists interrupted the filming of a Valley of the Giants commercial for overseas markets, featuring Australian model Elle Macpherson. The commercial was part of a $1 million deal struck between the state and Ms. Macpherson to lift the international profile of Western Australia.

The area is a key support base for the state's Greens Party. Local environmentalists not only are critical of CALM's tourism ventures in the forest, but have also attacked the government agency's logging of nearby karri and jarrah forests.

Thirty-five protesters told Macpherson that the state national parks, which she was promoting, were endangered because CALM was allowing too many trees to be cut down for the woodchipping industry.

"By promoting both tourism and massive woodchipping, CALM is cutting off the branch that they're sitting on," claims Paul Llewellyn, the protesters' spokesman.

A former national parks planner for CALM who ran as a Greens candidate in last year's state election, Mr. Llewellyn believes the treetop walk is out of place in the forest.

"In spite of the impressive engineering, is this the right kind of facility for the Valley of the Giants?" he asks. "Is it the role of a national park agency to put up these 'gymnasiums' in the forest?"

Llewellyn fears the anticipated boom in tourist numbers will lead to the commercialization of the Valley of the Giants and damage the small site.

Battling to find ways to make money after declining government funding, CALM has floated the possibility of opening a restaurant or canteen in the forest. But so far, the "commercialism" has been confined to T-shirt sales and a $5 entry fee for adults.

CALM maintains that the treetop walk is preserving the thick buttress roots of the tingles from human contact while still allowing people to visit the forest.

Wrench says before the board and treetop walkways were created, "the trees were suffering quite badly from the impact of visitation."

The bark on some tingle bases had become polished by human hands because people were wandering away from the designated dirt track to touch the trees. Also, the leaf litter on the floor, providing vital nourishment to the trees, was disappearing.

By helicopter, CALM found another location in the tingle forest to build the walkways, which neighbored the original site with the dirt track.

"Although this is a modern site with modern features, we're making sure people are informed about the significance of the forest," Wrench says. Leaf-shaped signs with haiku poetry challenge visitors to "use their senses and be aware of what's around them."

"It's lovely," exclaims Barbara Fang, a tourist from the state's capital city, Perth, who pauses on the treetop walk to take in the view. "You really get an awareness of the trees. And the rain is making this something really special."

After his walk through the ancient treetops Mrs. Fang's husband, Changsha, says, "Now this is awesome!" he cries, enthusiastically spreading his arms out to indicate the magnitude of a tingle trunk.

On the 50-kilometer drive (31 miles) from the forest to the small town of Denmark are spectacular views of low eucalyptus trees winding through sweeping green valleys and farmland, dotted with sheep and cows. One is struck by the beauty and isolation of the area, remarkably untouched by modernity.

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