Running for the Pilliga

To raise awareness for the plight of the spectacular Pilliga forest, under threat
from Santos’s disastrous plans to mine coal seam gas, the Wilderness Society
has partnered with For Wild Places to launch the Pilliga Ultra.


Words: Dan Down

The largest remaining stretch of intact, rare temperate eucalypt woodland in western NSW. Forest that feeds clean water into the Great Artesian Basin—the crucial life support system for much of inland Australia. If that sounds significant it’s because it really is. You only have to look at a map to see why. Open this Google Maps satellite-view of NSW and aim for the town of Narrabri. Puncturing the vast, beige sea of sunburnt fields stretching the length of the state between desert and the Great Dividing Range, you’ll see it: the Pilliga Forest, a bastion of deep green.

The sacred lands of the Gamilaraay people, the Pilliga covers over half a million hectares. It’s vital habitat, supporting over 900 plant species, as well as koalas, rare barking owls, critically endangered swift parrots, and the endemic poolkoo (Pilliga mouse). Yet in a special kind of madness, it’s here that Santos has Federal approval to build its Narrabri Gas Project, which will see up to 850 coal seam gas (CSG) wells drilled into this ancient landscape. At 95,000ha, the area impacted would be 38 times the size of the City of Sydney.

Pilliga forest. Credit: Mark Pearce

The Government go-ahead comes despite 98.7% of landowners covering 3.2 million hectares surrounding the Pilliga explicitly saying ‘No’ to dirty CSG in community surveys. This is no surprise: The extraction of the gas can disrupt and contaminate the important groundwater that the Pilliga has stood sentry over for millennia.

However, while Santos’s scheme has Federal approval to move forward, the fight is far from over. On 31 July, over 100 runners and walkers will embark on the Pilliga Ultra: 5-, 20- and 50-kilometre trails through the forest to raise awareness and funds for the Wilderness Society’s campaign, local First Nations groups and a forthcoming court case.

“We are now seeking to stop the mindless release of exploration acreage to begin with, which takes place without any community consultation.”

The event comes after thousands of people joined local communities in making submissions to the NSW Independent Planning Commission (IPC) to oppose the project. “Together our tidal wave of submissions saw the IPC impose 134 conditions on Santos which could cripple the project,” says Wilderness Society CEO, Matt Brennan who is competing in the Pilliga Ultra. “I see running (or walking!) the Pilliga Ultra as a way to join the groundswell of opposition to Santos’s plan. It’s a way of demonstrating with the local communities that this project is too risky for the forest, water and climate.”


Threatened Pilliga mouse. Credit: Justin McDowell
Pilliga lookout. Credit: Hugh Nicholson

The best way to prevent a fossil fuel project is to stop it before it starts. We’ve proved we can do just that. Just last year people made their voices heard and forced the government to pull its proposed sites for oil and gas exploration from the vicinity of World Heritage-listed Ningaloo and (Gutharraguda) Shark Bay. We are now seeking to stop the mindless release of exploration acreage to begin with, which takes place without any community consultation. It all comes as the oil and gas industry’s own international body, the International Energy Agency, calls for an immediate end to new fossil fuel extraction if we are to avert catastrophic climate change.

“And so, on 31 July, we are running,” says Matt. “We stand united against the push to fast-track the destruction of our precious forests for a fossil fuel resource that threatens biodiversity, our climate and the living culture of the Gamilaraay people.”

Matt Brennan, CEO Wilderness Society, will be hosting a Facebook Live discussing the Pilliga Ultra. Support our runners or even take this opportunity to run in the Pilliga forest yourself! 
Find out more about the Pilliga and what can be done to protect it.