As life on Earth has evolved, so too has the relationship between forests, woodlands, and humans. The area now known as south-eastern Australia is no different. For millennia humans and the area’s natural landscapes co-existed, first-peoples developing an intimate knowledge of the components, interactions, moods and nuances of the natural world they shared.
The British initiated the movement of people from other lands into the area in the late 1700s and. following the discovery of gold in the mid-1800s, that movement became a flood.
With aboriginal people increasingly marginalised, and the new arrivals believing the continent was too vast and too ‘foreign’ to be concerned about environmentally, the development of a culture that would seek to foster the ‘wise use of natural resources’ took a long time to evolve.
This section of the website seeks to examine that evolution, and the forms it took both in the wider community, and politically and bureaucratically. It begins by examining the early British colonial days, then following the story through to the 1990s. The approaches taken, particularly from the early 1900s, when the first effective government agency dedicated to the care and management of forests was formed in what, by then was the the State of Victoria, are examined in some detail.
The creation (in 1908) of a State Forest Department, and of a related Forests Commission (which began operation in 1919) represented the first serious attempt by government in Victoria to embrace the need to study, care for, and manage what had previously, in community parlance, been known widely as a major element of the ‘wastelands of the Crown’. In the early 1980s forest management was co-located with a range of other scientific disciplines that were important if forest management was to meet community expectations.
Introduction by Mike Leonard (bio)
Change seems to be all around us, and constantly accelerating. Even our most basic institutions – intended to provide some stability and consistency in our lives – are being fundamentally questioned, in Australia and abroad. In the smaller world of Victorian forest management institutional change has been with us for decades.
With the passing of the Forests Act in 1907, and with the creation of a State Forests Department in 1908, the first significant steps were made towards the conservation of the State's forests.
An associated Forests Commission, Victoria (FCV) became operational in 1919. Commissions and Authorities were seen, in that era, as a way of, in part, putting some distance between the longer-term strategies and planning horizons associated with, in this case, the care and management of forests, and the shorter-term political electoral cycles.
Between 1908 and 1985, a period of some seventy-seven years, the FCV was the primary body responsible for around one-third of Victoria that was largely tree-covered, and in public ownership.
In 1985, and following reviews of public land and natural resource managing agencies, the State Forests Department (together with the then Lands Department, the Soil Conservation Authority, and much of the then Ministry of Conservation – including the National Parks Service and the Fisheries and Wildlife Service) were incorporated into a Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands (CFL). (The FCV continued to exist, legally, for several subsequent months).
Since that time the FCV’s and CFL’s successors in law have been the Departments of:
Several years ago Brian Doolan, whose early career (in the late 1970s) included a role in alpine resort management and recreation with the FCV, and in more recent years senior management positions in Parks Victoria, successfully submitted a thesis for a degree of Master of Arts at Monash University, in 2015. Brian’s research addressed, in significant part, much that is relevant to the events described above.
The Great Depression of the 1930s, and World War Two were defining events in recent human history.
By the 1960s however, certainly in Australia, economic activity had rebounded and, in many parts of society optimism was in the air. It was also a time of increasing social change. An influx of people from other nations was helping shape the way Australians lived, and major attitudinal changes were emerging across many areas of society.
Concurrently, a long-running war in Vietnam was escalating following the USA’s involvement; a commitment that was to be followed by Australia.
More generally, large-scale protests and public demonstrations became prominent, particularly in larger cities, opposing recently reintroduced military conscription, the Vietnam War, and established rules and restrictive morals. Campaigns included those for greater independence and equality for women in the workplace, fairer wages, a free accessible system of education, and the recognition of, and a struggle for, the rights of Indigenous Australians.
In 1966, Robert Menzies retired after 18 years as Australia’s Prime Minister. His successor, Harold Holt was to be a very different style of leader. Following Holt’s subsequent disappearance while swimming, John Gorton and then William McMahon were to lead the Federal Government during a period of increasing instability.
As Australia continued to urbanise, a modern environmental movement also began to emerge, as in other parts of the world during the 1960s. Somewhat critical to the evolution of this social movement was the publication in the USA in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. The book helped galvanise community concerns, internationally, over the effects of pesticides on the environment and human health.
Meanwhile, the term ‘gross domestic well-being’ was joining ‘gross domestic production’ in the popular lexicon.
As the environmental movement grew, so did its greater formalisation. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) was established in 1966. Peak conservation councils were also founded during this period in most States and Territories.
In the 1960s and 1970s, campaigns were to lead to the protection of some of Australia’s unique and special natural places. The ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the late 1960s to prevent the destruction of Tasmania’s Lake Pedder was followed in the 1970s and 1980s. for example, with successful opposition to the proposed damming of Tasmania’s Franklin River. Tens of thousands of Australians mobilised, achieving not only protection of the Franklin, but of most of South-West Tasmania.
Politically, at the federal level, the Labor Party had entered opposition in 1949. A Liberal/Country Party Coalition was to govern continuously for the next 23 years. Gough Whitlam was elected Labor Party leader in April 1967, and led his Party to victory at the 1972 election.
On assuming the Party leadership, Whitlam revamped the Party’s platform and, on coming to office, change was quickly implemented across many areas of Government. While social justice and cultural matters featured prominently in the new Government’s agenda, so too did the environment.
Initiatives included the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974, which required the Commonwealth Government to undertake Environmental Impact Assessments on projects under its control, or undertaken using its funds; ratification of the World Heritage Convention; creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; passing of the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act, establishing a professional service to manage federally-controlled National Parks; recognition of the land and water rights held by Indigenous Australians; establishing the Australian Heritage Commission; ratification of the RAMSAR convention, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
In late 1975, during on-going controversy, the second Whitlam government was defeated by a Coalition government led by Malcolm Fraser.
The incoming Government maintained many of the social reforms of the Whitlam era, but sought to introduce increased fiscal restraint, while being less active on environmental matters.
In 1977 a Liberal minister, Don Chipp, resigned to form a new social/liberal party, the Australian Democrats. This development, and a concurrent proposal to dam Tasmania’s Franklin Dam mentioned previously, are considered by many to have contributed significantly to the emergence of an influential and more organised environmental movement in Australia.
Fraser was to govern until early 1983 when Bob Hawke led the Labor Party back into office.
In Victoria, Liberal Party Premier Henry Bolte had been in power since 1955.1 He liked to be seen as a simple farmer, but he had a shrewd political mind. Helped by a split in the Labor Party in the mid-1950s, he was to be re-elected six times, his popularity peaking at the 1967 election. By the early 1970s however the State Government realised it had to broaden its appeal.2 In August 1972 Bolte resigned, arranging for his deputy, Dick Hamer, a somewhat more progressive Melbourne-based politician, to succeed him. Hamer was to win three further elections.
Hamer moved to modernise government in Victoria: environmental protection laws were greatly strengthened, the death penalty was abolished, Aboriginal communities were given ownership of their lands, abortion and homosexuality were decriminalised, and anti-discrimination laws were introduced. And by the mid-1970s Victoria had been christened ‘The Garden State’.
In 1971 the Land Conservation Council (LCC) was established, replacing the Land Utilisation Advisory Council (LUAC), which had been formed in 1950 (at the same time as the Soil Conservation Authority - SCA). The LUAC's functions had been to define catchment areas and advise the Minister and the SCA on land use in any catchment area. In 1966 the LUAC had been charged with recommending the best uses of Crown lands in Victoria. However, there was no provision for public participation in the process, and as a result of public interest in land-use management, and in particular a controversy over the future of the Little Desert, in western Victoria, the LCC was established to carry out investigations and make recommendations " ..on the balanced use of public land.. " throughout Victoria.3
Politically, by the late 1970s, Victoria was experiencing increasing economic difficulties, rising unemployment, and industrial unrest. In mid-1981 Hamer resigned, and was succeeded by Deputy-Premier Lindsay Thompson. At the election the following year the Liberals were defeated after 27 years in power.
On September 3rd, 1939 Australia entered World War Two. In January of that year the most devastating bushfires Victoria had seen since European settlement swept much of the forested parts of the State. Some 1.5 million hectares were burnt, 650 homes and businesses, and 69 timber mills were destroyed and, tragically, 71 persons lost their lives.
The Royal Commission that followed the fires, which at the time of writing remains one of the stand-out Inquiries of its type that Australia has seen, was to result in a much greater focus on forest management in Victoria in general, and on fire management in particular.
For the then FCV there were to be increased powers and responsibilities, improved budgets and resources, and at least for a time, increased political influence.4
The first seven decades of forestry in the new State of Victoria was a tug of war between extensive clearing for mining, a government need to establish a thriving farming sector, and wasteful illegal logging pulling in one direction and the need for protection and sound management of native forests pulling in the opposite direction.
The FCV was borne out of these circumstances. The establishment of the FCV in 1918 set up Victoria’s first adequately-staffed and reliably-funded forest service, with a comprehensive charter underpinned by legislation and government policies to soundly protect and manage forests.
This article covers the period from 1850’s until the milestone event of the establishment of the FCV in 1918.
"Let us regard the forest as an inheritance, not to be destroyed or devastated, but to be wisely used, reverently honoured and carefully maintained. Let us regard the forest as a gift, entrusted to any of us only for transient care, to be surrendered to posterity as an unimpaired property, increased in riches and augmented in blessings, to pass as a sacred patrimony from generation to generation."
Baron Ferdinand von Mueller - Suggestions on the Maintenance, Creation and Enrichment of Forests (1879)