A few hundred million years ago, Australia resided down south near the pole stuck together with most of the southern hemisphere, its landmass covered in lush rainforest. It’s hard to imagine our dry red centre crisscrossed with rivers, shrouded in mist, and bursting with tropical life, and even harder to picture the same across Antarctica.
But that’s how it was until Australia drifted north and encountered a drier climate (Antarctica meanwhile was encircled by icy sea currents and stirred into one gigantic Mojito).
Remnants of subtropical Gondwana can still be found on the New South Wales-Queensland border. This fragment of ancient flora that has survived cataclysmic change is still the biggest subtropical rainforest in the world.
Australia is a country of superlatives. In Western Australia you’ll find the world’s largest and healthiest temperate woodlands, and in Tasmania there’s the world’s tallest flowering plant – a mountain ash dubbed Centurion reaching 101 metres skyward.
If not for the towering redwoods of Californian, Australia could claim the world’s tallest living tree. The tallest ever found (now deceased) was a mountain ash in Victoria. In 1872 forester William Ferguson spotted a megatron in the hills of the central highlands measuring 132 metres. How did they measure such a giant back then, you may ask. They chopped it down. “What’s that tape say Fergo? 132? Yep, world’s tallest tree alright.”
Victorian’s don’t have a fantastic record for looking after our woody wonders (although, at least we didn’t burn down Australia’s biggest tree in 2002 like Forestry Tasmania). To labour a theme, Victoria is the country’s most denuded state, having lost around 70 per cent of our native vegetation to agriculture, logging, mining and urbanisation. This habitat loss is distributed unevenly, meaning that some ecosystems have been reduced to a fraction of their previous size. Less than 8 per cent of old growth forest remains in Victoria and around 1 per cent of old growth mountain ash – home to our states faunal emblem, the ridiculously adorable leadbeater’s possum.
If you’re keeping an eye out, it’s easy to tell when you’re walking through healthy old growth, in contrast to a forest that’s been replanted or logged. Old intact forests have species diversity, few exotic weeds, and flora of all different ages – including golden oldies so high it hurts your neck to ponder their tallest tips.
If you are surrounded by trees that are fairly tall but are all the same height and girth, if you can only spot a few different species at ground level or lots of lawn or weeds, you’re not in Gondwana anymore. If you stumble across a black expanse of treeless earth codling charred stumps wider than your outstretched arms and battered tree ferns burnt to a crisp, you have found yourself a freshly burned, clear-felled old growth forest.
Despite the vital role our forests play in water catchment, habitat creation and climate regulation, despite the endangerment of so many forest species, despite the tourist value of forests, not to mention the uncalculated joy they bring to those who visit and the myriad positive impacts they play in human health, our old growth forests are still be clear-fell logged, woodchipped and exported to Japan. In fact, the last few years have been a giant leap backwards in forest, species and environmental protection.
In December 2011, the Victorian Government transferred responsibility for the care of public forests from the state’s Environment Minister to the Agriculture Minister, Peter Walsh, deputy leader of the National Party. The Nat’s policy platform includes increased hunting of native birds, reduced marine protection and the introduction of cattle grazing to our Alpine National Park. National Party support of the logging industry is outspoken.
This change seems minor considering that earlier in the month, sole responsibility for calculating the amount of hundred(s) year-old trees that can be sustainably chopped down was handed over to the logging industry itself. VicForests are now the custodian of our natural heritage and will determine when and where logging takes place. National Parks are not exempt from their consideration, being opened for “thinning”.
The logging industry’s credentials as a protectorate of our forests lost their sheen somewhat when, less than twenty-four hours after this announcement, local group Environment East Gippsland filed a writ in the Supreme Court accusing VicForests of logging an area that their own map describes as a protected rainforest site of national significance. Environment East Gippsland won and are preparing their next case.
Last year, another community group, My Environment, took VicForests to court in an effort to stop them logging the last 17,000 ha of habitat left to the aforementioned leadbeater’s possum. Australian National University ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer has accused the Victorian Government of “managed extinction” and says the leadbeater’s end can be expected within 25 years. My Environment lost the case and have gone to appeal, with the judge pointing out that the failure of endangered species law to protect endangered species demonstrates its inadequacy.
The Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 is the key piece of Victorian legislation charged with this protection. It is now under review by the state government to ensure better protection for the logging industry – the law will be diluted so that the detection of endangered species in proposed coups can no longer disrupt logging schedules.
In August this year legal organisation the Environment Defenders Office released a report examining 15 years of Regional Forest Agreements (the agreements that provide guidelines for state logging operations). The report is a damning indictment of environmental and biodiversity protection standards, management and compliance.
Much of the time, environmental protection is bartered off in the name of economic progress, but an analysis of its public accounts reveals that VicForests have racked up cash losses of $22 million since their formation – equating to a loss of $1.50 for every cubic metre of wood logged.
With our new Prime Minister firmly committed to handing environment powers to the states, it is now more important than ever to call for better protection for the places we love close to home.
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