From its source in the Victorian Alps, the Goulburn River flows north, snaking through the regional town of Shepparton on its way to meet the Murray on the New South Wales border. Sometimes, the combined waters of both rivers back up along the Murray, travelling for about 80 kilometres to a narrow section of the river called the Barmah Choke, and from there it spills out through the Barmah–Millewa Forest, the world’s greatest, and largest, stand of that classic Australian eucalypt, the river red gum. In fact Victoria’s entire central-northern region is laced with waterways that can dramatically swell and shrink. This is what makes the area vulnerable to flooding, but it’s also why the river red gum thrives there.
A few weeks back, before the floods, I was taken by a group of park rangers to look at the Reedy Lake, Nagambie Wildlife Reserve, which is about 100 kilometres south of Barmah as the crow flies and 60 kilometres south of Shepparton. The area has never been logged and is full of big, old river red gums. It’s incredibly beautiful, with a canopy overhead, and grasses spotted between and around the trees. The air was full of birdsong and mosquito hum: within seconds we were all slapping at our arms and legs, and a discussion started up about Japanese encephalitis.
We were there because 30 to 40 of the reserve’s largest river red gums had been illegally cut over a single night in August. This was particularly concerning given such pristine forests are increasingly rare. A year ago, another relatively untouched area nearby, Mansfield Swamp, had been targeted and every large habitat tree removed. Greg Chant, a conservation regulator with the Victorian government, told me that when the illegal timber market first became an issue, thieves focused on trees that had already died. Skeleton trees. Those trees still provided habitat and had cultural meaning, so it’s a loss, but there was worse to come. “Now only the big old ones are left,” Chant said. “Soon there’ll be nothing left.”
Chant oversees Operation River Gum, a joint operation between multiple government bodies including the state Conservation Regulator, Victoria Police and Parks Victoria. The rangers I was with at Reedy Lake were doing similar work under the name Operation Goulburn. The hope is that they can make a dent in the illegal removal of trees for firewood from vulnerable ecosystems in parks and reserves, and along the Murray, Goulburn, Loddon and Ovens rivers. “Wherever you’ve got public land and easy access, theft is an issue,” Chant told me. “And it’s changing the nature of our landscapes.”
A large number of logs lay around the reserve, some with the word “evidence” sprayed on them. There was some suggestion that the big old reds of Reedy Lake had been cut by different people to those who’d taken trees from the sites I’d visited earlier. For starters, the stumps had been cut higher, implying those wielding the chainsaws stood on the back of their trucks or utes as they struggled to get through the enormous trunks. This would also have had the advantage of keeping themselves out of the mud. There were signs that their trucks had become temporarily bogged trying to get the high-grade timber out – and that was before the recent floods. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Reedy Lake has remained relatively untouched for so long. Thieves struggle to get in with the required equipment.
Timber theft is an issue across Australia, but especially in the colder states. As Parks Victoria ranger Tracey O’Keeffe told me, “Some people just look at trees and think, I could be warm. They have no understanding of them as nature. They don’t understand the importance of old trees.”
When I first heard about the increasing environmental destruction that timber theft is causing, I had some sympathy for the fact that people living near rivers, breathing country air and surrounded by trees, saw these as “natural” resources to which they had a right. I did not understand until I saw the extent of the harvesting for myself that this was no casual collection of firewood. It’s big business.
The number of people who are attempting to stop these crimes is small and the area of country they are guarding is large. Their resources are limited and the rate at which the thefts are taking place is escalating. Tree theft used to spike in winter, but these days it happens year round, and its management has to be juggled alongside the ever increasing number of disaster responses required. The pressures on the environment are also increasing. That doesn’t make this crime trivial by comparison; it makes it far worse.
It was a cold spring morning when I turned up at the Parks Victoria office in Shepparton to be briefed both on the scale of the issue and to understand what the impact of the theft was on the rangers and guardians of the land. Seven senior employees from around Victoria were there, so great was their concern about the extent of habitat destruction. The river red gums being taken today are survivors of the logging age, a period in which countless trees were logged between the mid 1800s and 2009. This history of logging facilitates the thefts: one of the reasons why people can get so deep into the forest to do damage is because of all the old logging tracks. Nowadays, it is illegally cut limbs that are dragged out or loaded onto a trailer, then, more often than not, shipped down to Melbourne. Sometimes gangs go into an area three or four times in a single night to try and extract as much wood as they can.
The reasons for the increase in activity are various: the 2010 designation of Barmah Forest as a national park and therefore a place where firewood collection is illegal; the rise in energy prices; escalating drug use in the region and a consequent increase in robbery to support habits. Drugs such as methamphetamines also contribute to the process: emboldening people, for a few hours at least, to do what can be dangerous work. They’re often lifting pieces of wood that weigh as much as 40 kilograms and taking “ice” makes that demanding activity easier. It might also explain why the trunks are cut poorly. Cut trees end up hanging off other trees, landing on trailers and hitting cars. It’s surprising that no one has lost their life.
The rangers tell me that 80 per cent of the thefts are commercial, which means that the timber is stolen by fly-by-night big collectors to be sold for firewood. The other 20 per cent is people taking timber for heating or to sell to others and pay the bills. A good 30 per cent of the trees illegally felled are too old to provide high quality firewood, so they’re just left lying on the ground.
Shepparton is one of the largest towns in the region, which extends from Melbourne’s northern growth corridor through to the New South Wales border. That’s more than 40,000 square kilometres, much of it falling within Yorta Yorta Country. The Goulburn River runs through the town and is also surrounded by forest. This geographic particularity makes theft relatively easy.
In general, a lot of hardware is required to remove trees at such a large scale: trailers, chainsaws, winches and blocks. It’s another indication that this is big business: an operation needs to be big enough that it can invest in all the paraphernalia and scale up to meet demand. A useful way of stopping theft – if offenders are caught – is to impound the equipment.
Most trees are stolen at around two or three in the morning, in the hope that the team leader of Parks Victoria’s Shepparton office, senior ranger Neville Wells, is in bed. Most of the tip-offs that Wells receives are from people who hear the chainsaws going. He has been trying to manage this problem for some 23 years. It’s extraordinarily stressful.
When I’m taken out to see the damage for myself, I choose to ride in the ute with Wells so that he and I have a chance to talk. Wells has lived around the Goulburn River for most of his life. “There are 200 entrances along the Goulburn where people can enter these parks,” he tells me, “which is just one more reason why the situation is so difficult to monitor.” Wells has learnt to look along creek lines and to see tracks in the grass where people have brought in their four-wheel drives. He keeps an eye out for the telltale flashes of red – freshly cut timber – and points them out to me as we drive. He describes turning up to an area that had been hit during the night and seeing sugar gliders coming out of a tree that once stood 30 metres high, koalas sitting among the ruins and sea eagle nests on the ground. Wells was a forester before he was a ranger. He last logged a tree in 2006. But in his days of logging he saw nothing that upset him as much as the destruction he’s witnessed over the past 12 months.
Our first stop is Gemmill Swamp Wildlife Reserve, just over the Goulburn from Shepparton on the outskirts of Mooroopna. It had been badly hit about two weeks earlier. There were downed trees everywhere, spray-painted by authorities to mark them as evidence. But there was other evidence to be found: teeth marks of different types of chainsaws; tyre marks in the mud; caffeinated drink bottles. Both Wells and Parks Victoria regional enforcement coordinator Todd Cody have come to know the drinks different gangs prefer, and most of those stealing the wood are known to not just Wells and Cody but to the local police. This is partly because Shepparton is a relatively small town, and partly because of the overlap between tree theft and drug use. It’s also because getting caught is seen as a reasonable cost of business: while it is possible that you will end up with a jail term, it’s unlikely. Legislation around illegal harvesting is old and there is currently none around the sale of timber. People are usually arrested, pay their fines, and then head back out to the forest for another load of wood.
Just a couple of days before our visit, several people had been caught heading out of the park after felling trees, so there was real concern that the culprits (or others) might return while we were there to pick up the wood they’d left behind. The situation is becoming increasingly dangerous and Parks Victoria officers have been threatened. Those taking the trees are often armed – not least with chainsaws. If Cody or Wells catch people in the act of cutting or loading the wood, they’re not empowered to make arrests. They don’t carry weapons. This means the police have to be available to attend the scene.
While we’re standing by a recently cut log, some older damage catches my eye. A very large stump of a river red felled long ago has a deep groove around the entire circumference of the trunk, just below the cut. Ringbarking – a legacy of when logging was legal in the area. I look around and see several old ringbarked stumps, alongside the gashes of red stumps of the dozens of trees that have been taken out more recently. It’s a battlefield. The stump I am looking at is all that remains of a “mother tree”: a large, long-lived river red gum that contributed, among other things, to the broad canopy that once existed in the region’s woodlands. If a tree is to be a “useful” building resource, it needs to grow straight and tall. And it’s only going to grow straight and tall if the sunlight is directly above it. To achieve that, Yorta Yorta ranger Ralph Hume tells me, you cut down the mother trees, the providers of shade.
These older, legal, assaults on the forest set up a way of thinking about trees, and timber, that is hard to shake. “Since white settlement, the river red gum have been seen as a resource,” says Hume. “Not as something that was alive and supported the life of much around it. And it is that way of thinking that has led us to where we are now.”
Where we are now is standing in a park that has been trashed by guys using chainsaws to steal the few trees we have left. “Our families may not sit under the shade of a red gum if we don’t do something,” Hume adds. As we walk back to the car, he puts into words something I’d felt walking through this area where there were fewer and fewer old trees and not enough grass. “The land is sick,” he says.
It’s clear, though no one I spoke to would state this on the record, that more resourcing needs to be provided to save the forests from timber theft. Parks Victoria, Victoria Police and the state’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning are all doing what they can with the staffing and money they have, but it barely makes a dint. When I ask what would make a difference, the two recurring words were regulation and education.
You used to need a permit to sell firewood, which meant there was a system that could be regulated. No longer. While it is illegal to sell firewood collected for domestic use, thousands of people sell wood over Facebook Marketplace, and it’s hard to police effectively. You can get a cubic metre of red gum for around $70 in Shepparton, while the going price in Melbourne is $300. This wood is often cut to order, which underlines a point that Chant made: “People who buy firewood need to know they are creating a market that need not exist. We understand that some of the drivers for the illegal firewood market are increasing energy prices, but the purchasing of firewood illegally obtained from public land comes at an even higher environmental cost.”
Some firewood suppliers are members of the Firewood Association of Australia, which commits to, among other things, not knowingly selling timber that is illegally and unethically sourced. But the association’s code of practice is voluntary rather than regulated, and the word “knowingly” covers a lot of sins.
A point that everyone I spoke to made was that if people need to buy firewood, or to use timber to run their business, they need to ask questions. When I speak to craftsman Damien Wright, he acknowledges how difficult it can be to always know how legitimate your timber’s provenance is. This is just one of the reasons why working with timber is, inevitably, “a colonial act”. “We’re the bedrock of the extraction industry,” he says.
So, how can you know if the wood you are burning has come from, say, fallen trees or a plantation, or whether you’re using offcuts from an illegally cut ancient red gum that once stood in the river system of northern Victoria?
“Use your judgement,” Chant says. “If the people delivering your firewood look professional, ask them where they get their wood from. Ask them for a tax invoice.” Hayden Cronin of CERES Fair Wood, an organisation in Melbourne’s north that works hard to ensure it sources timber from sustainable stock, agrees that transparency is the key. “I’d encourage consumers to ask questions,” Cronin says.
There is one moment from my time among the trees that continues to haunt me. There is – or was – a culturally modified river red gum, a scar tree, standing in a woodland just north of Shepparton. The tree was several hundred years old, an age that gave it the nooks and crannies that made it a home for dozens of species – from ants to bats, sea eagles and sugar gliders. This is why these old trees are known as habitat trees. Over centuries they have provided a place to live for a multitude of species, materials for canoes, and a resting place for the dead. They have stored carbon, have acted as waymarkers and have provided shade for generations. They even act as books of a sort: bearing the history of those they’ve grown up with and the landscape they live in – inscribed on their trunks and in their limbs. Wells tells me that at least 200 habitat trees a year disappear, alongside thousands of other, younger trees. Hume considers the loss of habitat trees as the worst aspect of the entire illegal timber industry. “These trees are where the totemic species live,” he says. “My totem, the fishing bats, live in the river red gum, and those bats are now in danger. Once the bats become extinct they are out of the system. My story no longer exists, and that is just one species. It’s devastating.”
By the time I met the scar tree it had been sawn through the middle of its scar. It was one of 120 trees that had been taken out along a 2.5 kilometre strip of Myers Track here along the Goulburn River. There may well have been more trees downed deeper in the woods. When Wells responded to the call-out – the chainsaws had been heard by people on a neighbouring property – the sawdust on the stumps was still warm.
Before I realised what I was doing, I leant down and patted the slain trunk and then stood up as I was joined by several Yorta Yorta rangers and cultural officers. I found I couldn’t stand there and watch as they investigated the destruction. It felt private. I walked down to a dry creek bed and saw there were ruined trees everywhere – the red of the freshly sawn wood, and fluorescent paint flashing where the trees had been marked as both evidence and for safety. Cody joined me and pointed out felled trees that were hanging off the canopies of still standing trees. This was dangerous and added to the general pointlessness of the destruction. Clearing the mess was, he told me, just another example of ways this illegal, and incompetent, logging takes rangers away from their work.
When I finally returned to the scar tree, Hume was standing by it with his palm on the fresh stump. He looked at me and began speaking. “Three or four hundred years ago, my ancestors stood here on this very spot and they took the bark to make something.” It was hard not to imagine: a group of Yorta Yorta people, around 20 generations ago, standing in lush woodland, being careful not to take so much bark that the tree was hurt. Wells asked Hume what he thought they should do with the stump and log. Hume thought for a moment before replying. “Leave it here. Leave it on Country.”
All the places I visited in September are now 2 metres underwater. “The gums,” Wells tells me, “are loving the drink.” If any trees die it is likely to be the recently regenerated red gum seedlings, and that is no bad thing. Forests need young trees to be thinned out and the larger ones left to live into old age. That is the only chance for this country, where the scar tree lies, to return to the grassy woodlands that once flourished across this land.
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