November 2023


Wood for the trees

By Jonathan Green
Toolangi State Forest, Victoria

Toolangi State Forest, Victoria. © Cavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Native timber harvesting is ending, but as we begin to understand that ‘untouched wilderness’ is a myth, how best should forests be managed in future?

Drive it like you stole it. Thrash it, pedal to the metal. Log it, lop it, clear it. Pulp it, burn it, plant it. Run it dry.

Among the first acts of the Australian colonial project was an attack on trees. The First Fleet carried, in a groaning manifest that also included a piano and 589 petticoats, 700 felling axes, 700 hatchets, 700 felling axe handles, 80 carpenter’s axes and 20 shipwright’s axes.

Landing in Botany Bay, the new arrivals deployed portions of that cargo, and in that first confrontation between Europeans and Australian nature, set to, swinging the continent’s first resident honed steel with a will.

The local trees offered stout resistance. It may have been Eucalyptus botryoides, the southern mahogany, or Eucalyptus pilularis, the tough-as-nails blackbutt, or perhaps Angophora costata, the Sydney red gum, but the chosen trunks blunted the First Fleet axes and shattered their helves. In a sign of destructive determination to come, the colonists resorted to gunpowder and blasted at the stumps.

On January 26, 1788, the English weighed anchor and sailed to Port Jackson, still unhappy with the available timber – “the worst wood that any country or climate ever produced”, according to the fleet’s surgeon general – but determined to lay waste and make good. They chopped, they cleared, they built.

In 1908, 120 years and many axe blows later, a royal commission of inquiry into forestry was convened. It found that:

… probably no section of business under Government control has experienced greater vicissitudes in management or less consideration than that connected with our forests. No attempt appears to have been made to lay down a policy of management and apparently as each responsible department became tired of the business, or failed to succeed with it, it was passed on to another … The protection of the forest domain appears to have been nearly always subordinated to the policy of settlement.

By the turn of the 21st century, the policy of “settlement” was so settled, paved and subdivided as to be ubiquitous, and 40 per cent of the continent’s forests had been cleared. In Victoria, that figure was 70 per cent. Drive it like you stole it.

For one of the most environmentally significant public utterances since colonisation, the budget speech delivered by Victorian treasurer Tim Pallas in May 2023 was conspicuous for its failure to mention the environment. Logging in Victorian native forests would end in January 2024, well ahead of a previous 2030 deadline, or as the treasurer put it:

… native forestry has been hit with increasingly severe bushfires, prolonged legal action and court decisions. All of that has drastically cut the timber supply we can actually use. Hundreds of workers across Victoria haven’t been able to work a day in months. It’s not good enough for us to just cross our fingers and hope for the best. We need a plan to support workers and support jobs. That’s why we’re stepping up to give these workers – and their communities, businesses, and partners along the supply chain – the certainty they deserve. Native timber harvesting in state forests will end next year. But work has already started on a proper, managed transition.

In this telling, and it’s of a piece with the dominant thinking since 1788, a forest is first a resource and then a workplace, trees are grist to various mills, and logging can only end as an act of grudging necessity. It ended in Victoria because of a diminution in the supply of trees “we can actually use”. It ended because the forest was all but done.

But, whatever the terms, the outcome is an ecological positive: logging of now-scarce native forest, ecosystems that include all manner of scarcities and near-to-extinct plant and animal species, will end. That’s not to be underestimated as a turning point in the course of colonial Australian environmentalism, even if it’s one prompted by a dead end.

Western Australia has also halted native forest logging, a move that will save swathes of karri, jarrah and wandoo forests. So perhaps the clearing of the lush eastern and south-western portions of the continent has reached a point of conclusion, the decline of our forests testing even the loose and self-serving construction of “sustainability” deployed for decades by an increasingly rapacious timber industry, one fuelled by old “regional forest agreements” that guaranteed quantities of timber to loggers and millers, which the forests concerned were increasingly incapable of supplying. This was a situation exacerbated by the 2009 fires that took out 70,000 hectares of mountain ash forest in the central highlands of Victoria alone. In the end, government was paying compensation for the shortfall of available timber while loggers clear-felled to get what quantities they could.

“What remains are just fragments,” says Dr Chris Taylor, a research fellow at Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society. “Many people think with the logging ending everything will be okay. But it’s not okay. We’re talking about a seriously degraded landscape because of the logging. These are places in need of serious and active restoration.”

Taylor believes that we are at a historic moment. “The industrial forestry model has left the forest in such a precarious state. Nearly 70 per cent of the mountain ash forest in the central highlands is seriously damaged by fire or logging, or is within 200 metres of forest that has been. We need a radical change if these forests are to survive in perpetuity.”

The mountain ash forests of Victoria’s central highlands are at the core of this conversation, but are not alone. Victoria hosts a remarkable variety of forest environments, from the high country’s dieback-troubled snow gums and alpine ash to temperate rainforest in lush pockets of East Gippsland. They are extraordinary environments of great biodiversity. Organic cultures that survived the last ice age, that stretch their roots back to Gondwanan antiquity; places now tested to the extremities of tolerance by fire and logging.

Eucalyptus regnans (mountain ash) is one of the planet’s most remarkable beings. The largest flowering plant, a tree that can grow to 100 metres over a lifespan that can touch 500 to 600 years. A tree that grows with astonishing rapidity, shooting higher by more than a metre a year. The tree’s hard, pinpointed seeds are released by fire, which for almost all of regnans’ millions of years have been rarely intense enough to reach the seed-bearing crowns. Regeneration was never hectic, moving to a rhythm that matches a lifespan in centuries. Nor did the necessary fire occur in vast swathes. That’s a recent innovation: fire made more intense by the crowded regrowth of logging and the slow, incendiary influence of climate change.

It is difficult to imagine the forests of the central highlands in pre-colonial times, and perhaps harder for the Western imagining to come to a sympathetic and nurturing understanding of a complex, multi-species, living entity that straddles so many human generations in just one of its own. We are worlds apart.

Our temptation, then, is to “other” such places, either as resources to be exploited or, and this may be a confronting possibility, as wilderness. Harvesting curtails the great mystery of the trees’ longevity, creating stands of trees of uniform age and felling them at around the human span of age 80.

The reaction to that exploitation is often to insist that the forest be left to its own devices. It’s a prevalent notion: somehow Australian bushland and forest survived 60,000 years of intimate, sculpting contact with Indigenous Australians while remaining “wild”, a state it should be returned to. It’s an argument for an environmental terra nullius, imagining the forest without the ancient and forming constant of human presence.

For postcolonial Australians, imagining nature as a balanced co-creation of human, animal and vegetable species is “a great mental obstacle”, says ANU historian and author of the perception-shifting chronicle of pre-colonial Australian nature, The Biggest Estate on Earth, Bill Gammage.

Colonisation removed Indigenous Australians from the country in which they were an intrinsic element of an ecological partnership. So, as Gammage explains, “if it’s wilderness, it’s because we made it so”. In fact, wilderness is a term that he uses with reproach, saying that “we have this notion of wilderness and it’s a thing to overcome; and doing that will be very difficult”.

The end of native forest logging saves little that might be described as virgin forest. “I’m not sure there is any untouched forest left,” says Gammage. “At least none that’s as it was in 1788.”

The contemporary gaze finds an altered landscape. The modern eye – especially the non-Indigenous one – is schooled to find beauty in the remarkable stands of adolescent trees that make up the bulk of the remnant mountain ash forest. They soar straight and noble, but look twice and two things become clear: the understorey is an imposing jumble, and the trees are unnaturally uniform in girth and height. “We’ve shifted the forest into a younger age class,” says Taylor. It’s been a deliberate act: the forest industry prizes the younger trees for their straight unencumbered trunks, not old growth trees with hollows. But mountain ash begins to produce the hollows that house some of the country’s most endangered species after 120 years. “The young forest that remains has been set in a cycle of assured degradation, particularly with increased probability of carrying a high severity bushfire.”

For most of us, though, these remnants, these pockets of verdant traumascape, are all we know of our native forest. We walk among towering stands and gaze upward through the vaulting cathedral of soaring trunks, and are filled with wonder at the place, never mind that the forest is a single-aged monoculture, overpopulated and choked, that its understorey is a hectic mass overgrown by ready access to the sun that pierces the immature canopy.

And here’s the tricky conundrum that presents itself when logging stops and we are presented with choices for the future of these spaces: are they best left to their own devices as “wild” places or intricately managed – not for profit and extraction but for the health of the forest and the complex ecosystems it houses. Another possibility exists: the bureaucratic and embedded workforce structures that once logged could be repurposed to continuing commercial logging under the guise of fire preparation, forest thinning and salvage. Old habits will die hard.

As Chris Taylor says, “There are some organisations who want to keep logging the forests as a form of ‘restoration’. I do not see continued resource extraction in these forests as being part of any restoration strategy.”

Many, such as Bill Gammage, argue that despite its vulnerability the worst thing to do would be to lock the forest away in the hope that human absence would see it revert to some “natural” state. This is country that was nurtured by humans for thousands of generations. In their present degraded and imperilled state, those forests need that human intervention more than ever.

The decision to halt logging came after decades of intense and committed activism, activism coupled to intense scientific scrutiny and, ultimately, court action that halted the felling in its tracks. The forest was exhausted, the cost of business as usual was punitive to government.

As campaigning, the government decision delivered everything. In the way of constructing a future reality, it has delivered nothing.

From a distance, the forest is a ruffled rim of blue. Come out of the valleys and the flats and there it is, that distant edge of the seen world: treed hills, some steep and stark, some just a ripple. The lip of an almost ubiquitous Australian imaginary, the blurred outline of a greater complicated and unknown world: the “bush”, as if it were a single entity, like a large and complicated shrub.

At my feet is the rich mulch of mud, leaves, moss and twigs that forms the footing here, a track near Toolangi in Victoria’s central highlands. Beneath my boots the earth squeezes wetly flat with every step, and I sink a little before moving on. I try to imagine the world beneath each footfall, the layers of slow rot, crisscrossed with resisting strands of falling limb and buried root, the incalculable teaming of insect and microbial life, the subtle connecting trails of fungal mycelium that lace this understorey in a mycorrhizal network, linking the surrounding root systems, sharing nutrients, water and perhaps even alerts to crisis.

The trees soar above me. Adolescent mountain ash for the main, 80 or so years old, trunks like masts, straight and certain, branchless before spreading into a bursting wig of limbs at the crown. Toolangi. It means “tall trees” here on Taungurung Country. Eucalyptus regnans, from the Latin for “ruling”.

This fraction of forest has been spared the apocalyptic scrape of clear-felling but has had its share of calamity. It burned badly in the 1938–39 Black Friday bushfires. The state did. Two million hectares razed. Seventy-one people dead.

After those fires, the forest faced another existential challenge: the slow escalation of logging. First selectively, picking at the best of it for sawn timber, a system that created mills and communities, a patchwork of settler life, then replaced over time as the process industrialised, swapping community and forest for scything machinery that let one man do the work of 20 and a slowly connecting landscape of industrially devastated clear-fell coupes, the ground razed and the logs ground down for chips or sawn for packing pallets.

I’m with ANU researcher Lachlan McBurney and forest campaigner Sarah Rees. McBurney has studied this forest since 2001, Rees has campaigned for its survival for 23 years. We’re in here to look at a bigger tree, a mature ash maybe 400 years old, a huge pyramid of timber buttressed at the base and piercing the sky like a dart. It’s one of very few. After decades of logging, maybe 2 per cent of the state’s old forest survives. We call it old-growth, a term appropriated from the US timber industry that wasn’t meant to be a positive, Bill Gammage tells me. It was a 1930s term for “decadent old forest”. Forest overdue for felling.

The big old trees are so distinct in these logging-sculpted ranges that most have names; the Kalatha Giant even has a boardwalk and a car park. It rewards the 500-metre walk, soaring for the sky above fluted buttresses as broad as a car. You stand before it, you breathe in its age, and calculate the many-zeroed odds of its survival. It is monumental.

Bringing people in to feel the wonder of this place, that’s the key to its future, says Rees. “These forests have been a glorified fibre farm since the 1930s. They don’t want people in here.” Rees wants government to commit to greater access, by making the area part of a new national park, called the Great Forest National Park.

“Unless you ease city people into this experience, it can be intimidating. We need to find ways to connect ordinary people with these places, really good interpretive systems, a headspace of valuing this as a heritage environment, a cultural space, things that invite future generations to take on stewardship of these forests.”

We leave the giant and head off to one of its contemporaries, a tree called Blackbeard. The track is a little less travelled than the Kalatha Giant’s boardwalk. It was a path pushed through for logging that never took place after highly motivated, diligent and often sopping-wet citizen scientists found critically endangered Leadbeater’s possums nearby. Blackbeard, another titan surrounded by a sea of adolescent trees, is lucky to be here.

The forest, though, is more than its tall timber. McBurney points out a rangey shrub, so unprepossessing it would barely raise a passing glance from most walkers. It’s an Olearia argophylla, the musk daisy-bush, and soon it will burst into its annual show of small white flowers. This one is maybe 400 years old. “Some of these shrubs and ferns are older than the overstorey,” he says. “The olearia is a real survivor, made to survive fire.” It has a huge lignotuber, a subterranean heart of its being and secret to its regrowth when its upper limbs are laid waste.

Schooled by the needs of forestry, we tend not to see the reality of the forest for the trees. These places are a complex lattice of species, some achingly rare. The Leadbeater’s possum has fame if not numbers on its side. It was thought extinct until 1961, and has lived in these hills for some 20 million years. It’s hard to say how many survive. By some estimates there are 2000 adult animals but there could be as many as 4000 or fewer than 1000. There are also rare plants such as subalpine beard heath, sassafras, monkey mint bush and violet westringia. Greater gliders, long-footed potoroos and sooty owls. These forests are places of both rarity and abundance. Each piece completes the whole.

“Forestry wants none of that,” says McBurney. “Forestry wants a wheat crop. They cull that and grow it back, but you don’t grow back the complexity of these places.”

Rees has long fought for the establishment of the Great Forest National Park, which would protect more than 350,000 hectares. “We’re on the precipice of a new era in land management. A chance to know our country better.”

But because the state government’s announcement that logging will cease was not followed by a future plan, it means the vision for a national park is no closer. As Rees says, “We’re entering a limbo period where we have no idea what management will look like.”

Stark white ring-barked forest
All tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon.
— Dorothea Mackellar, “My Country”

To touch the land. And what to feel from that touch: strangeness or a wonder of place? An earth we only walk upon, or a place of connected sense in which land is a part of that walking self, and that self is equally part of land? But no. Not that. Not for me. I don’t think I was raised to be capable of embracing that connection. I was not raised in that connection. I’m upon this place: touching, taking and full of wonder, but not being of it.

I walk, looking, admiring, breathing quietly, lost in the beauty of place, sitting quietly in cooling sand, bowing in the shade of looming forest, gazing from high peaks at the rippling curves of blue ranges. Sometimes there is something more. I wouldn’t claim to feel a presence, but there’s something there, some glimmer of a subtle sense as I stare across water, down on hazy valleys or into the spaces between the trees.

I’m watching. Looking on. Looking in. And that’s the thing: I can never simply be a part of this. It’s a thought that sucks a little of the life out of me: that once, and still, people lived in this place who were fully here, who saw themselves as integral, without distinction from all the life and soil and rock, water and space that surrounded them. The old people were this place, and this place was them. Think of that. I try. I fail.

I sway a little inside at the realisation that I will always only be a stranger here, someone passing through. Passing through with lightness and respect I hope, but never forming a part of this greater whole. What must that be like? How must it be to see no distinction between the “natural” and the “human” worlds. How must it be to feel intimately connected to place?

I can’t grab it. It’s not in the centuries of separation bred into me, bred into any settler in this place. That has to be true, surely. As Enlightenment-formed creatures, we are not culturally wired to be of the world. We are in the world. We see that world before us. Often we consider it a thing created in all its abundance and diversity for our benefit. We watch it. We consider it. We weigh it and seek, sometimes, to understand it. This otherness gives us licence to take from it. Ultimately to destroy it if needs must.

This is the predicament I ponder at as I gaze out on Country. And I struggle to get even the merest inkling of belonging – that feeling the old people here must simply have known in a way that’s deeper than appreciation. That they were here, and here was them, an indivisibility that is the essence of caring. I will always just be me, looking on. Being here, but not being here. I’m awed by the power of that other belonging, of the care it represents, of its mystery to me and its unknowability.

The area of Victoria that will be spared logging come January 1, 2024 is huge – “larger than the entire land mass of Tasmania” is the state government’s claim. The decision on how best to care for that country in the future is a complex and nuanced one, one that will involve multiple interested parties, not least the numerous groups of Indigenous Australians whose traditional Country forms the newly protected area. Environmentalists, foresters and government all consider traditional owners to be key to the process. Which is not to say that Indigenous Victoria will provide a consensus view of what ought happen next on Country of vastly different character, from clear-felled regrowth to virgin stands of secluded temperate rainforest.

Consultation has begun. Government can be an iceberg: public statements are just the tip of a more complex process of dialogue and policy formation. Sometimes, though, the political imperative for announcements can get the upper hand. Having decided to end logging next year, Victoria’s government faces pressure to give some certainty to what comes next.

According to the chief executive of the Taungurung Land and Waters Council, Matthew Burns, there’s a risk that the state wants to talk solutions before the nature of the problem is properly understood.

Taungurung Country extends from Heathcote in central Victoria, to Mount Buller in the Alpine north-east, to Benalla in the north and the town of Marysville in the central highlands, which are its heart.

“We know that there are areas of that Country that are sick,” Burns says. “Forests have been mismanaged or managed for a particular resource. And there are forests that have been managed from a conservation lens, where we need to lock up forests and keep them away from humans, and then there are forests that have been cleared.

“Unmanaged forest is unhealthy for Country. If I look at Taungurung Country, there are areas where there are too many trees, where the forest is too dense, too much fuel load on the floor, not enough light getting through to create a healthy landscape.

“We need to be able to actively manage Country and have all the tools available to us to get it back to a landscape that is healthy and able to provide for us, able to provide for the broader community and able to provide for all living beings. A national park, at this point… is that something to provide all the tools that we need to work on Country? That’s something that we have to work on.”

Having announced an end to logging, the state government established an “eminent persons” panel to begin a process of community consultation around the next policy steps. A lot of models are possible, but the push from activists, conservationists and many in the broader community is for a new national park.

Mike Nurse is the Taungurung delegate to that panel. A national park, he says, doesn’t necessarily present the best support framework to activate traditional owner rights. A joint management plan is generated and that’s kind of where it ends. “What’s not clear is how best to do it,” Nurse says. “The existing arrangements for managing public land are geared up often to do things that aren’t very helpful. There’s this binary approach to management between lock it up and leave it as a national park for visitor use.”

As with all aspects of land management, the national park deliberations aren’t occurring in a vacuum. There has been a long process of policy discussion between state agencies and traditional owners resulting in a suite of policy documents.

Within this, Nurse says, there is a solution framework in the cultural landscape policy. “These policy documents have been developed over the past five years. It’s not just send out a small army of blackfellas to light fires everywhere. It’s actually quite sophisticated: solutions in policy, solutions in development of practice and solutions in new governance arrangements that express true partnership.

“It’s bringing both worlds together.”

The traditional owner imperative, says Burns, is to meet cultural obligations and responsibilities. “Broadly speaking, I think traditional owners all feel that their obligations … are the same: that we’ve got a responsibility to care for Country, and in the modern context that means healing Country.

“The role that we want to play as traditional owners, as Taungurung on Taungurung Country, is in line with what the broader community wants. They want to see healthy forests and healthy landscapes, and that’s what we want to see as well. But with the obligations and responsibilities that we have, we don’t have the powers at this point to enable us to genuinely influence the way that Country is managed.”

Whatever comes next for the forests, it will be born out of a process that, as Burns says, is “slow and part of a very big picture”. There’s a need, he says, for progress rather than decisions. It’s wholistic. Multi-generational. In a forest where lives span centuries, where the stewardship of millennia has been unpicked in little more than a century, the time might have come to hasten slowly.

Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green is a writer and ABC broadcaster.

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