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Imagining The Great Forest

The ancient forests of Victoria’s Central Highlands are home to a myriad of natural ecosystems, all precious, all interrelated. It’s time they were all protected as one National Park.
The mountain ash forests of the Victorian Central Highlands have existed for millions of years. The Great Forest National Park is an idea to protect them into the future. Photo: Cam Suttie.

The mountain ash forests of the Victorian Central Highlands have existed for millions of years. The Great Forest National Park is an idea to protect them into the future. Photo: Cam Suttie.

In the past few weeks I’ve read two books together, through nothing more than coincidence, which combined to form a precious thread of deeper understanding. The first was small and powerful: Don Watson’s history of the Scots in Gippsland, Caledonia Australis. He wrote it in 1984, before Keating and the Redfern Speech and Bleeding Heart and all of Watson’s other great works. It’s recently been re-released, and it reads as sharply modern: too smart to fall for old canards about doughty pioneers and the natural world. With his usual perspicacity, Watson marvels at the ability of one oppressed, dispossessed culture – the Scots – to set about dispossessing another one, the Gunaikurnai peoples of eastern Victoria, and to do so without a trace of irony or remorse.

The other book is Professor David Lindenmayer’s The Great Forest; a big, lushly illustrated volume about the landscapes, cultures and ecosystems that combine to form the putative Great Forest in the Victorian Central Highlands. Both writers are in many instances talking about the same mountains. The same hills and valleys and rivers and marshes and forests. Set nearly four decades apart, both works express alarm at our inability to see what is right under our noses: the prodigious gift of forests.

Alexander von Humboldt was the first naturalist to think of environments as systems. Before him the understanding was that individual creatures lived in nature: they predated each other, they reproduced and they died. Like a simulacrum of perfect capitalism, it was every critter for themselves, and interconnectedness extended only to having to avoid being eaten.

Then along came Humboldt, von Guerard and others with their conceptions of a planet made up of interdependent biology, physics and chemistry, great waves of consequent forces. Humboldt’s monumental Kosmos – nothing less than the expression of his long life’s work – proposed that the sciences speak in unison: that mountains rise out of the sea because of natural forces, are colonised by vertebrates and occupied by humans through other natural forces, and that each natural system ensures the successful operation of each other one. More than a century ahead of his peers, he proposed that people could influence climate.

The Central Highlands forests are priceless, and yet they are being logged at an economic loss. Photo: Cam Suttie.

Why do these books matter to a discussion of a national park that doesn’t even exist yet? Because the worth of the idea of a Great Forest national park lies in its implicit recognition of the interrelatedness of things. This is not a national park for an individual lake, or reef, or mountain. It is a national park for a system, one that takes in water and fire and culture and geology and evolution.

We’re getting better at doing this: the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, established in 1975, protects not one reef but more than 3000 reefs, whose interdependence qualifies them as one giant natural system. And recently, scientific talk has turned to the idea of a Great Southern Reef, a matrix of cool temperate reefs stretching 8000km around southern Australia from Coolangatta in the east to Kalbarri in the west and taking in all of Tasmania’s waters. Again, a park for a system – anchored by landmark species such as giant kelp (Macrocystis pyifera).

The Great Forest would link 1.1 million hectares of land, of which 710,000 hectares is forest, and incorporate 25 existing conservation reserves into one vast, enclosed terrestrial system with outer urban Melbourne framing its south and west, the Baw Baw Plateau in the east, Lake Eildon in the north and the La Trobe Valley in the south.

And if kelps are the anchoring vegetation of the Great Southern Reef, and corals fill the role for the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Forest has its landmark species as well: most notably Eucalyptus regnans, the mountain ash. The tallest flowering plants on Earth, these old giants watch over the Countries of the Gunaikurnai, Taungurung and Wurundjeri Nations, sundered from each other since European arrival in the region in the 1830s. (Professor Lindenmayer’s book shows for the first time the boundaries of the three nations on the Central Highlands, and links its photography to each).

What emerges from the combined reading of Watson and Lindenmayer is a sense of a vast, sacred space at the foot of the Great Divide, entangling millions of years of geology and evolution with thousands of generations of human experience and culture. A place that cares for us – with water, air and climate moderation – even while we settlers fail so evidently to care for it. A place so full of mysteries that we are likely to destroy any number of them before we even discover their true natures.

The Central Highlands were formed by volcanic “cauldrons” 373 million years ago, and the topographical traces of those events are still visible in the escarpments south of Eildon, and the presence of tors (obelisks) and waterfalls.

The forests as we know them now emerged about 60 million years ago. Among the wettest places in mainland southern Australia, the hills and valleys came to be dominated by mountain ashes 25 storeys high. Given optimum conditions, a mountain ash can grow at a rate of one metre per year for the first 50 to 70 years of its life and might top out after 120-150 years at 90-100 metres in height and a girth of around 30 metres. And there the giant might rest, drawing tonnes of water every day from the forest floor to transpire it into the clouds, for about 550 years. How to frame this? There are trees, just an hour from Melbourne, that are taller than the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and very nearly as old. They too have seen warfare, and wildfire and murder. They too are labyrinths filled with secrets.

The great trees endure much violence over the course of their long lives. They develop hollows from lighting strikes and falling branches, and damage from termites and fungi. Tree-ring studies show that old trees might survive up to seven fires in their lifetimes, and the scarring left on their trunks can yield vital information about the extent and direction of those past conflagrations.

The great individual trees have been given names by colonists, like the Furmston Tree near the village of Fernshaw, which collapsed in the 1990s, the Ferguson Tree near Healesville and the Edward VII Tree in the Upper Yarra. It’s a curious indictment on our history that we have both conferred names on some trees for their singular majesty, and also gone on to dismember them for profit.

Among and under the regnans are cool temperate rainforests of myrtle beech and sassafras, living relics of Gondwanaland. The trunks of these dinosaur trees are heavily encrusted with lichens, mosses and hornworts that trap and hold moisture. The rainforests of the Central Highlands, unlike their counterparts in the tropics, are largely silent places, deeply indifferent to the presence of humans. They take 50 or 60 undisturbed years to develop, and once they’re logged, they’re lost for another half-century.

The giant trunks of the dominant trees, when they fall to the forest floor, create a rich and complex understory community. And it’s like the barroom scene from Star Wars in there: iridescent ghost fungi, ancient ferns up to 1000 years old, and the world’s tallest moss, Dawsonia. A silent white glider; pink, red and bright orange robins. Thornbills doing their mimicry. The critically endangered Baw Baw frog, of which only 250 individuals remain, and a rare lily called tall astelia, in one of only twelve populations left on Earth.

These are only a cross-section of a wide range of habitats: there are also manna gum forests and snow gum woodlands, and fens, a type of grassy marshland also known as a mire. They’re delicate, vital structures. Watson’s book records Angus MacMillan’s despair at getting his horse bogged in one. It would not have occurred to him that he and his horse were vandals, interlopers in a delicate world.

Living in close dependence upon all of that vegetation are a remarkable cast of animals – to name just a tiny sample, the Leadbeater’s possum (wollert), which was thought to be extinct until rediscovered near Marysville in 1961; the superb lyrebird (buln buln); the feathertail glider, which weighs only 15 grams and has incredibly sticky feet powered by sweat glands and vacuum to assist landings; the greater glider, yellow-bellied glider and mountain brushtail possum. Cavity-dependent species like possums and gliders need hollows to live in. We don’t have woodpeckers, so hollows are mostly made by fungi and can take centuries to form.

The Leadbeater’s possum was thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered in 1961 near Marysville. They remain critically endangered today, and their fate is tied to the fate of the old growth forest. Photo: Steve Kuiter.

The clean water that works its way downstream from Victoria’s Central Highlands is worth 25 times more to the economy than the timber we extract from the region. But our awareness of that value seems fleeting at best. Large areas of the Birrarung (Yarra River) forests have been lost due to agriculture, urban development, mining and logging.

Logging’s been going on in the region for 150 years now. Although there are only five sawmills left, clearfelling is so indiscriminate that it compromises the entire forest ecosystem, from floor to canopy, increasing the risk of wildfire while it reduces water-carrying capacity and biodiversity. The amount of water a catchment generates is a function of the forest’s age. Due to logging and wildfire, almost 98 per cent of the wet forests of the Central Highlands are less than 80 years old.

Clearfelling is particularly devastating to possums and gliders because of their dependence on hollows for habitat. The impacts of clearfelling on a given coupe can last for up to 170 years. The fragmentation of the forest mosaic increases windspeeds, causing collapse of more old trees.

The ANU has found that almost 77 per cent of the Victorian old growth forest that was mapped between 1996 and 2020 is already gone. And for what? The timber is not taken for beautiful cabinetry and flooring: 87 per cent of native timber winds up in paper or cardboard. Of the overall biomass in an old growth forest, only 4 per cent becomes a timber product. An incredible 60 per cent of the biomass remains on the forest floor as waste. Old growth logging loses money. It’s estimated that Victoria would be $110-190 million per annum better off – between the corporate losses of VicForests and the alternative industries we could generate – if we stopped logging Mountain Ash and Alpine Ash forests.

Establishing a Great Forest National Park across Victoria’s Central Highlands would better protect the state from catastrophic bushfires. It would help protect Melbourne’s drinking water. It would boost biodiversity, tourism and employment. Over the phone, David Lindenmayer describes the economic, environmental and social case for a park as “overwhelming”. Yet he concedes that it’s a long way from happening.

The reasons for that come down to what Scott Ludlam memorably describes as “state capture”. The industry is haemorrhaging large amounts of money, Lindenmayer tells me. To make a road into the forest to transport cut timber from coupe to mill costs $1 million per kilometre. “And there are thousands of kilometres of these roads: VicForests gets interest-free loans from the state government to build them.”

Why would the state government back an operation that is patently uncommercial, with all the electoral risk that entails? According to Dr Lindenmayer, it’s because of deep ideological loyalty to the CFMEU, and some very effective lobbyists, driving the image of “the hardworking, working-class bloke in red and black check, wandering through the forest with a chainsaw, taking a tree here and there, as though your very own grandad did it.” The reality, he points out, is that old growth forestry is done by blokes sitting in huge machines. A logging crew is perhaps six people. What’s more, the capital investment to employ just one of them is about $5 million, according to Price Waterhouse Coopers – roughly ten times what it is for plantation timber harvesting.

The proposed Great Forest National Park would extend from present-day Kinglake National Park in the west to Baw Baw National Park in the east, north to Lake Eildon National Park and south to Bunyip State Park, taking in about half of the overall landmass of the Central Highlands. The proposal requires no buy-backs of freehold or leasehold land. It would need aerial walkways, all-abilities access tracks, infrastructure for traditional owners to practice their culture on Country. But all of these things would pay their way over time. As Lindenmayer says, we’ve seen it already in the Otways.

Research in 2014 revealed that 89 per cent of Victorians support such a national park. And the institutional supporters and opponents line up pretty much exactly as you’d expect them to: the Royal Society of Victoria, Australian Conservation Foundation and The Wilderness Society in support, and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, the state Liberal and National Parties and the Victorian Association of Forest Industries in opposition. Meanwhile the state Labor Party, the party of government in this state, remains paralysed on the issue.

The park’s opponents can only make their case in the unctuous prose of the lobbyists, away from public scrutiny. The mood for greater care of public assets, for environmental custodianship to be a frontline consideration – that mood is growing. The carbon value of forests is growing.

We need to set aside party politics and private interest. We need an extensive dialogue with traditional owners. We need a Great Forest National Park. We will look back in horror at what we did to the Great Forest in years to come: it will seem blindingly obvious that old growth logging was foolish and greedy, like dredging the Bay for scallops or paying a bounty for Thylacines.

If only we could swiftly get ourselves to the position of looking back at the madness, rather than having to live amongst it.

End native forest logging and support the creation of the Great Forest National Park in Victoria. Learn more here.

“We need to set aside party politics and private interest,” says Jock Serong. “We need an extensive dialogue with traditional owners. We need a Great Forest National Park.” Photo: Jarrah Lynch.

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