The sun peppers through the foliage. People gather among the trees in tightly-knit groups, voicing their objections to what they believe to be senseless destruction. Toolangi State Forest is a region one hour north of Melbourne, and its days may be numbered.
Diana Gentu lives in Toolangi, and has a very close connection with the forest. She operates the Litttle Red Toolangi Treehouse and dedicates hours of her life trying to protect the old growth trees she lives by and admires each morning.
With a crackle in her voice, Diana told Catalyst what is happening to the forest is “absolutely senseless, opportunistic, and I think, morally bankrupt”.
What exactly endangers this landscape is the point of heated debate. Victorian timber arm VicForests unveiled plans for logging to take place in Toolangi Forest long ago—but only now is the uproar intensifying.
Researchers from Melbourne University and Australian National University released a study last week that found logging can ‘greatly increase’ fire severity for up to 50 years. In the report, Professor David Lindenmayer said that fires on Black Saturday were 25% more severe in areas that had been logged in recent decades.
Lindenmayer’s report says under the Victorian Government’s plan, 180 square kilometres of mountain ash forest will be logged up until 2016, however, VicForests urges that 60 square kilometres will be harvested over the next five years.
Some specialists are calling for logging to be stopped within 5-10 kilometres of towns, and the decision to log Toolangi has now come under further heat from locals.
“The locals have been very traumatised by the loss of forest from the 2009 fires, and with this recent study, there is now plenty of anxiety about logging not only for the increased fire severity and loss of habitat, but for the Leadbeater’s possum,” Diana said.
Leadbeater Possums are Victoria’s State Faunal emblem. They are an endangered species with a dwindling population after losing 45% of their habitat in the Black Saturday fires. It is easy to sympathise with these petite, helpless little creatures, but it takes some background to see the broader context.
Zoos Victoria’s Leadbeater’s expert told me about these mammals and further clarified their significance.
‘The Leadbeater is an icon of the disappearance of the Australian bush; it’s become a symbol of endangered mammals that are facing extinction,” they said.
Healesville’s resident mammal is merely the size of a fist and has gigantic round eyes that could mellow even the most masculine of blokes, but yet this little guy manages to symbolise destruction, survival, and most importantly, hope.
Diana says with confidence that she believes it’s only a matter of time before action will be taken to better preserve this land.
“The authorities are going to have to listen to the overwhelming public opinion soon enough,” she said.
Tread through the muddy terrain of the forest for long enough and you will cross one of these logged areas. They give off a chilling, lifeless vibe. A few of the larger sights are beginning to regrow, sprouting with juvenile tree stands.
New growth may seem like a silver lining, but it could lead to a serious downfall.
In order to maintain a better understanding of the risks and repercussions associated with an increased fire severity within such a large habitat, Catalsyt spoke with Associate Professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology Patrick Baker.
Baker has been working in forests around the world for 25 years and describes himself as a “forest guy”, but considers logging a “drop in the bucket” in the context of the bigger picture for the mountain ash forests.
“I think the discussion about logging at the moment is somewhat opportunistic,” he said. “It’s certainly an issue, but there’s a much bigger gorilla in the room, and I don’t think anyone has even noticed.
“In the Black Saturday fires we had around 400,000 hectares of forest burned. If this new bushfire severity study is correct, then we now know that forest stands aged between 10-35 years old are more prone to higher severity fires.
“We now have 400,000 hectares of forest that are 5 years old, so by 2019, we are going to have a huge area of the landscape move into this dangerously susceptible age class.”
After a brief pause, he adds: “We’re going to be sitting on this for another 30 years, and that’s a very big problem.”
General Manager of Stakeholders and Planning at VicForests, Nathan Trushell, says that harvesting trees from regions like Toolangi, is a necessary and unavoidable choice with the city’s rising population.
“With the population of Melbourne estimated to grow to the size of London over the next 30–40 years, the demand for renewable materials will continue to increase. People need houses and they need timber products,” Mr Trushell said.
“Almost all of us use hardwood timber products in some shape or form every day. It might be the floor we stand on, the furniture we sit on, the house we live in or the paper we write or print on.”
In regards to the survival of the Leadbeater Possum, Mr Trushell urged that “trained foresters” scouted every area planned for harvest, and any high quality potential habitats that they found are now excluded from harvesting and are protected.
“While VicForests’ practices have been questioned in recent times, both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal have found the detailed survey work we do prior to harvest ensures we comply with the measures in place to protect habitat for the Leadbeater’s Possum.”
Walking around the grounds, individuals and families of all ages can be seen roaming the woods. They share the space with dirt bikers, picnickers and even camping families. This forest holds sentimental value; it is more than just grassland.
A Twitter campaign labelled #SaveRusty has been used to try to persuade ministers and legislators to intervene and implement strategies to protect the forest.
Whether or not logging is the prominent threat to this landscape is the point of a fierce debate. But either way, it seems this forest is not going to go down without a fight.
Catalyst contacted the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries but they declined to be interviewed, saying they do not speak to students.
By Rowan Forster
Image: Crustmania via Flickr