On and on it flows: a barbed, bristling, triffid-like sea of blackberries. Blackberries blanket roadsides and logged hills and as far as the eye can see; bunch around tall tree trunks; drape across tree ferns; choke mountain streams, and hang through the mossy branches of mystic Antarctic Beech trees, the Gondawanda icon that attracts official conservation status.
Welcome to the Royston River road, where the Rubicon Forest Protection Group (RFPG), based in Taggerty and Alexandra, is campaigning to bring about an end to flagrantly unsustainable logging: the systematic shaving away of the last substantial intact areas of 1939 ash regrowth forests in the Central Highlands. By law these 60 – 70 metre ash forests can be logged because they are not yet designated ‘old growth’: they are only 80 years old, not 100 years old. But the 1939 regrowth forests in the Central Highlands will never reach old growth status, because once logged, they are on an 80-year logging cycle. And despite the loss of 13,500 hectares of ash forest in the 2009 fires, research carried out by Dr Nick Legge (2017) found that the rate of harvesting has actually doubled since 2011. At the current rate of logging, there will be very little left in five to ten years’ time.
To inform the local community and others about what is happening, and swell the voices of protest, the RFPG is organising a series of excursions – by car, by foot or, as in April 2016, by helicopter – to bring people into Rubicon’s remaining mountain ash forests to experience their glory and witness the destruction of these biodiverse ecosystems.
On May 6, thirty-five people in a convoy of eleven cars participated in the most recent trip which started near the tiny, ex-State Electricity Commission town of Rubicon. We followed the Royston River Road through the Rubicon historic area with the eastern side of Lake Mountain National Park on our left and the Royston Range on our right. Locals Ken Deacon, farmer and tourist operator, Ann Jelinek, farmer and ecologist, and Nick Legge, farmer and forestry analyst provided commentaries at stopping points along the way.
Boardwalk connecting the campgrounds in the Rubicon forest. Image by Tamas, Creative Commons.
The first five kilometres passed through camping grounds, the eighty-nine year old hydro-electric station, and historical buildings that date back from the days when giant trees were felled by hand and pulled by draft horses down the mountain on a tramway. We passed briefly through towering 1939 mountain and alpine ash re-growth forest, with Antarctic beech, banks of tree ferns and understorey plants, and views down to the Royston River. We learned from Ann Jelinek that at least six arboreal mammals, including Leadbeater’s possum, greater gliders, several species of owls, lyrebirds, and a host of other birds make their homes in this relatively small, untouched area of forest.
From forest to wasteland
Biodiversity then came to a halt as a grim wasteland, the legacy of many years of industrial-scale clear-fell logging, unfolded on either side of the road. Recently logged slopes covered with burned, blackened stumps, unwanted smaller trees and branches reached right up to the road without any buffers. Huge machines were parked in current coupes where the once pristine forest was being shaved away. The recently logged coupes were adjacent to dense, plantation-like regrowth coupes, now lacking in tree ferns, understorey plants, and former native animal inhabitants. A deer track leading into one of these was a reminder of the ideal habitat created by logging for feral deer. Most of the western slopes of the Royston Range had been stripped bare or are ear-marked for logging in the near future. A few spindly seed trees had been left in the middle of bare coupes, but many of these were already dead, probably as the result of regeneration burns that follow logging. We saw the forest disappearing before our very eyes. Under conditions of climate change, the conversion of damp, biodiverse forests into dry, fire-prone, virtual plantations means that the forests are unlikely to ever grow back.
Several coupes, where regeneration has obviously failed, were host to dense silver wattle, hickory wattle, blackberries and scotch thistle. New blackberry infestations were sprouting along the peripheries of most coupes, seemingly untouched by any control measures, in clear breach of the Code of Forest Practice.
Last of the 1939 regrowth
We continued south towards Mt Bullfight Conservation Reserve which is at the centre of the last remaining substantial area of 1939 regrowth forest in the Rubicon. The group climbed down an embankment to take in a stand of ancient, moss-covered Antarctic beech on the Royston River with its clear-flowing water, mossy boulders and fern gardens. But blackberries grew vigorously even around this little rainforest oasis, probably because of the loss of shade following logging on the opposite side of the road.
The rough road to the top of Mt Bullfight, a designated nature conservation area, is choked with blackberries. Alarmingly, VicForests plans to turn the other end of the winding track to Mt Bullfight Reserve into a major logging road to access five alpine ash coupes with a net area of 67 ha.
The Rubicon Forest Protection Group commissioned an expert report, Unsustainable! (Legge, 2016), for Vicforests and DELWP, with an analysis of logged and unlogged ash forests and current and projected logging rates. Their Submission to Vicforests 2016 Timber Release Plan argued that the five unlogged coupes adjoining Mt Bullfight Reserve and other coupes on the southeast slopes in this area should be left untouched, as they encompass the last broadly intact area of 1939 alpine ash regrowth unscathed by the 2009 fire. The RFPG submission pointed out that there is no evidence that the required fauna surveys have been carried out. The submission was predictably ignored by VicForests.
Whilst one huge machine can fell, strip, saw through and stack tree trunks with industrial efficiency, processes of legal redress, political change and policy implementation are painfully drawn-out. DWELP authorities must consider the conclusion of the National Blackberry Taskforce Report (2009), that priority should be given to contain and prevent the further spread of existing infestations, and put an immediate moratorium on the logging of this last, undamaged, 67 hectare section of forest while further research and negotiations take place in relation to the expiring Regional Forest Agreement.
Research carried out by Dr Nick Legge provides conclusive evidence that the logging of the ash forests in this area is totally unsustainable given the vast areas of forest killed on Black Saturday. The long-term economic future for the region is nature-based tourism. Why are we allowing what remains of these spectacular natural attractions on Melbourne’s doorstep to be trashed and smothered under a blanket of blackberries?
The Rubicon Forest Protection Group is working alongside groups such as The Wilderness Society, MyEnvironment and the Knitting Nannas of Toolangi to save what is left before it is too late. The Greens party was born out of epic struggles to save Tasmanian forests and stop the Franklin from being dammed. That spirit of dogged determination is what is needed now. Local Greens members of parliament, especially Janet Rice and Samantha Dunn, are showing great leadership and working on several fronts to save Victoria’s ash forests. More support from city-based Greens members is needed so that the 1939 re-growth forests will become magnificent old-growth forests of the future, supporting thriving wildlife populations and an economic future in nature tourism. We invite and encourage Melbourne Greens members and supporters to make the short drive to the Central Highlands; contact The Wilderness Society or other local groups for information; and join guided forest tours to see for themselves what is going on.
Jill Sanguinetti is a member of the Rubicon Forest Protection Group Inc.
Image at top of page: Rubicon River, by Tamas, Creative Commons