They left the best part behind
Herald photographer Dallas Kilponen looks at the Boggabri coal minePT0M0S 620 349
A LARGE, wooden sign by the dirt road warns visitors to Leard State Forest that collecting firewood is against the law.
A few hundred metres down the track, a great cavern of grey and white and brown piles of earth stretching almost to the horizon opens up between the trees.
The contradiction is not lost on Phil Laird, whose family has been farming Maules Creek in the state's north-west for six generations. The 7000-hectare forest, in which a huge open-cut coalmine sits, is named after them.
The shape of things to come ... Phil Laird looks over the Boggabri coalmine at Maules Creek. His family has farmed land there for six generations. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
''They've bought all the land from Leard's Forest through to Gunnedah and now they're coming this way,'' he said of the coalmines. ''We're just running out of people.''
Mr Laird, his parents, brothers, wife and two young sons, are living and breathing the policy debate raging inside the halls of power in Macquarie Street, Sydney, 600 kilometres away, where miners and farmers are at war over the state's vast rural lands blanketing massive reserves of coal and gas, but topped with rich, arable soils.
Mr Laird took his fight to Sydney on Tuesday and joined the thousands of protesters, led by the NSW Farmers Association, outside Parliament House on the eve of the close of public submissions into the government's proposed strategic rural land use policy.
Under the plan, none of the state would be off limits to mining or gas drilling.
And, despite stipulations miners must prove they could keep environmental damage to a minimum in prime agricultural land, the farmers, along with conservative groups like the Country Women's Association (CWA), want the best farming areas protected from any extractive industry.
Mr Laird's mother, Wilma, a member of the CWA for more than 50 years, is as passionate as her son about preserving for farmers the paddocks her sons still use to grow cotton and run their cattle.
''We've got the Maules Creek mine right on our doorstep,'' the mother of six and grandmother of 18 said.
''My grandfather's been dead 60 years and he knew there was coal here. I never thought that I would move out here and I'd be in the middle of it. It's been a bit of a shock.''
While Mrs Laird acknowledged the mines brought money to the local community through the purchase of land and some employment, she said the gain was short term.
''I've got this feeling that they're buying our community,'' she said.
Mr Laird said the existing mine in the state forest, owned by Japanese company Idemitsu, was currently extracting three-and-a-half million tonnes of coal a year. It wanted to extend the take to seven million tonnes a year.
Another two mines planned for the same area were even bigger, he said. ''If you want to be a farmer and live here over generations, this is a threat.''