The Wonders and Perils of the Central Highlands of Victoria

Written by Miranda Braakhuis.

Vice President of Deakin Enviro Club


Breathtakingly tall towering trees. Babbling streams surrounded by cool temperate rainforest and wildlife abound. This is what awaits those who visit the forests in the Central Highlands region of Victoria, Australia. Located just over an hour’s drive northeast from Melbourne, the Central Highlands is home to numerous stands of the world’s tallest flowering plant, the mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans). Reaching up to 132 metres tall (Moore 2018), mountain ash provide habitat to our Victorian faunal emblem, the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, and dominate the landscape, although the forests are also home to numerous other plant species. Mountain ash are also the world’s most carbon-dense forests, meaning they take in large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help curb the effects of climate change. However, these majestic forests and the biodiversity they support are threatened by processes such as ongoing clearfell logging and bushfires. Tensions between the conservation of biodiversity and timber harvesting have led to the current government policy, which is failing our forests and the wildlife they support. We need to act now to ensure their survival.

Mountain ash trees. Photograph by Chris Taylor (2014).

 

Anthropogenic and natural processes have caused the decline in forests

A heavily subsidised logging industry, along with bushfires such as Black Saturday in 2009, have reduced the proportion of old growth trees—those greater than 190 years old—including mountain ash, to just 1% of the forest area (Lindenmayer 2013). Old growth trees are ecologically vital as they provide habitat and nesting sites for arboreal mammals such as Leadbeater’s Possums. It takes upwards of 190 years for mountain ash to form hollows, but clearfell logging operations are conducted on short 80–120 year rotations, resulting in a decline in real estate for Leadbeater’s Possums. There is a high risk the possums will become extinct in the next 20–40 years as their habitat shrinks further (Lindenmayer 2015). Bushfires, while also a threat, will always be part of the natural cycle of ecosystems in Australia and are out of our control in terms of prevention. What we can prevent, however, is the intense, widespread logging regimes by the state-owned company VicForests that leaves hectares of forests decimated.

 

The current model of logging by VicForests is the practice of clear-felling, where 60% of the total biomass remains on the site as waste slash, and 40% is used as wood products. From these wood products, 72% is turned into wood pulp for the Japanese company Nippon, who produce Reflex paper (Burns, Lindenmayer & Keith 2014). This is despite the fact that existing plantations can supply wood pulp for paper. A parliamentary inquiry into state-owned logging agency VicForests recommended the industry transition into plantations as native timber supplies continue to decline and forest ecosystems become more threatened. Furthermore, millions of dollars are being lost annually through forest logging in Victoria—the carbon offset value and water production of the forests means the trees are worth far more standing up than they are timber. And that isn’t even taking into account tourism and other social and cultural benefits of the forest. Our own government is doing us a huge disfavour by reaping short-term economic profits from logging at the expense of the long-term survival of our forests and wildlife.

Clearfell logging in the Mount Disappointment State Forest with the Melbourne City skyline in the background, August 2010 (Taylor & Lindenmayer, 2018). Photograph by Chris Taylor.

 

A Great Forest National Park is the solution

To protect the mountain ash ecosystem from logging, we need a large national park in the Central Highlands. Currently, the region is home to fragmented patches of state forest and existing parks and reserves that are too small to support a viable population of Leadbeater’s Possums, especially if there are more fires in the next 50–100 years. The state forests in the Central Highlands region are broadly designated for timber production, whereas if these were converted to national parks, VicForests would be unable to clearfell in the region as national parks are conserved for biodiversity outcomes. An expansive connected national park allows for natural fire regimes, trees to grow to large sizes—where they produce hollows and help maintain carbon stocks—and ensure water yields are maximised. This is where the Great Forest National Park (GFNP) comes in. The GFNP is a proposed national park in Victoria, stretching from Kinglake through to Baw Baw and north-east up to Eildon. The proposition is to add 355,000 hectares of protected forests to the existing 170,000 hectares of park and protected areas in the Central Highlands of Victoria. The park will host a range of activities including bike riding, bushwalking, four-wheel driving, and zipline tours. The GFNP could potentially draw almost 380,000 extra visitors a year to the Central Highlands, add $71 million annually to the local economy, and generate 750 full-time jobs (Lindenmayer 2013). Globally renowned naturalists like Sir David Attenborough and Dr Jane Goodall endorse the creation of a Great Forest National Park.

Leadbeater’s Possum (Burns, Lindenmayer & Keith, 2014). Photograph by Dan Harley.

 

What can you do to help and how can you get involved?

Firstly, if you haven’t been to the Central Highlands before, do yourself a favour and spend a weekend exploring rainforest gullies, walking among giants, and discovering a reason to care. It is truly a place of spiritual nourishment. Self-guided drive tours with recommended stops and points of interest can be found online. If you don’t have a car, have no fear because the Deakin Enviro Club will be running a weekend trip to the Toolangi Forest in partnership with Wildlife of the Central Highlands (WOTCH) during Trimester 2. This trip involves educational talks and tours, rainforest walks, visits to logging coupes, and even the chance to go spotlighting at night to try to see Leadbeater’s Possums and other arboreal mammals! Stay tuned to the Deakin Enviro Club Facebook page for details about this event.

You can also email your local politician and our state environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio (lily.dambrosio@parliament.vic.gov.au) calling for protection of this incredible ecosystem. And remember, many small actions combined make a big difference, so choose 100% post-consumer recycled alternatives, and encourage your workplaces and universities to do the same (Deakin is using Reflex 100% post-consumer paper). And be sure to spread the word about the wonders and perils of the Central Highlands with friends, families, and colleagues.

References

Burns, E, Lindenmayer, D & Keith, H 2014, ‘A job for Victoria’s next leaders: save the Central Highlands’, The Conversation, 27 November, retrieved 9 March 2019, <https://theconversation.com/a-job-for-victorias-next-leaders-save-the-central-highlands-34608>.

Lindenmayer, D 2013, ‘Why Victoria needs a Giant Forest National Park’, The Conversation, 30 September, retrieved 6 March 2019, <https://theconversation.com/why-victoria-needs-a-giant-forest-national-park-18452>.

Lindenmayer, D 2015, ‘Victoria must stop clearfelling to save Leadbeater’s Possum’, The Conversation, 22 April, retrieved 7 March 2019, <https://theconversation.com/victoria-must-stop-clearfelling-to-save-leadbeaters-possum-40685>.

Moore, G 2018, ‘Mountain ash has a regal presence: the tallest flowering plant in the world’, The Conversation, 1 June, retrieved 6 March 2019,

<https://theconversation.com/mountain-ash-has-a-regal-presence-the-tallest-flowering-plant-in-the-world-96021>.

Taylor, C & Lindenmayer, D 2018, ‘Logging burns conceal industrial pollution in the name of ‘community safety’, The Conversation, 17 May, retrieved 2 April 2019, <https://theconversation.com/logging-burns-conceal-industrial-pollution-in-the-name-of-community-safety-96712>.

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