The plight of the old growth forest of Tasmania’s Upper Florentine Valley was given some attention yesterday when 22 protesters were arrested at a Mother’s Day Rally. But judging by the cursory coverage the issue was given by Tasmania’s media last night, it will take much more action before this extraordinary valley attracts the attention needed to halt its destruction.

As usual, the media characterised the greenies as ferals and the issue got lost in the colour of the arrests, but what I saw yesterday suggests this is a battle which is deep and profound, in which the very values of Tasmania itself are at stake.

I was standing with the other media, wedged at the edge of the thin line of coppers, most of whom were wearing blue helmets like something out of the United Nations. Against them was a fair representation of middle class Tasmania and locals from the Derwent Valley. We were standing at the beginning of a road, which the Tasmanian Government has forged over the past three months deep into an area of pristine old growth forest after evicting protesters in January and bulldozing their protest camps.

The whir of chainsaws was audible across the valley as speakers addressed the crowd of 300 people and spoke passionately about the majesty of 500-year-old trees. When one speaker invited the crowd to join her in walking into the logging coupes the stand off began.

Some broke through the police line demanding entry into what they described as “their public forest”, and were arrested. Sixty others, led by the former Wilderness Society activist, Geoff Law, avoided conflict by taking another path through the dense forest on to the road behind the police, where they could freely enter the logging coupe.

Coupe 44A is a mess. It’s an area of about two acres carved out of the bush, about half of which is stacked high with logs. The coupe is over 20 hectares in size and just one of four coupes already earmarked for immediate logging. The “refuse” material — the logs that miss out on sawlog grading and are destined to become wood chips — overwhelmingly dominate the stack, filling close to half of the clearing. The better quality trees, massive myrtles and black hearted sassafras are piled on a much smaller stack behind it.

The protesters say that only two of the last 14 log trucks to leave the exclusion zone have carried high-quality saw logs. They say this makes a lie of Forestry Tasmania’s claim that this pristine old growth won’t be squandered for woodchips.

With the protesters in the coupe, the contractor’s grader was forced to shut down. The driver was smiling self consciously at the protesters as he climbed out of the cabin, aware that several cameras were trained on him. “Happy Mother’s Day” called out a protester as others cheered. I asked him what he thought of the rally. “What do you think?” he hissed back at me.

The Upper Florentine is so remarkable that even the Howard Government promised to protect it. In 2004, the year Howard made his infamous appearance in Launceston and declared he was the loggers’ friend, the Liberal Party issued its forestry policy promising immediate protection for 18,700 hectares of old growth in the Styx and the Florentine Valleys on the eastern boundary of the World Heritage Area. But by May 2005 that promise was worthless when the the Tasmanian Community Forestry Agreement revealed that only 6460 hectares would be protected, of which only 4730 hectares would be old growth.

In 2006, soon after the Tasmanian election, the state government began building a road into the area. The Protesters moved in and set up camps and tree-sits to try and halt the incursion. On 12 January this year those camps were raided and the tall tree lookouts were felled as gravel trucks and bulldozers worked for 12 days straight, pushing several kilometres into the valley.

When the protesters returned they were evicted again and have now set up camp on the main road where tourists honk their horns in support and contractors have allegedly harassed them.

At yesterday’s Rally, Tasmanian photographer, Rob Blakers, held up a sign and named the new road “Bartlett’s Road” in recognition of the current premier’s determination to push it deeper into the wilderness.

Yesterday the police finally entered the coupe. Geoff Law and others were arrested. A group of us avoided arrest by disappearing into the bush. Sean, a long-term protester led me back through the forest, pointing out the giant tree-sits felled to prevent the greenies re-establishing their camp. At one point we came across a giant of a tree, with a triangular base of massive proportions and which disappeared into the canopy 50 metres above us. It, like all the rest, is destined for the chainsaw.