The Forests Commission’s Role in Catchment Management

David Williams (bio)

"The Commission repeats its contention, stressed in previous reports and endorsed by authorities all over the world, that a permanent solution of water conservation and erosion problems is fundamentally dependent on the systematic and strict management of vulnerable highland catchments under effective forest vegetation. The natural protection so afforded is a prime factor in soil stabilization, in the control of surface run-off, and in the encouragement of maximum absorption of water into the soil to feed natural underground water storages." FCV Annual Report. 1938/39

The Forests Commission Victoria (FCV, hereafter termed ‘Commission’) took a close interest in catchment management and erosion control from its very earliest days. It advocated for the permanent reservation of mountain catchments to provide for utilisation of the timber resources and water conservation from as early as 1922. It raised concerns about the detrimental impacts from uncontrolled grazing of mountain forests in the following year, proposing that it should be given authority to regulate forest grazing to protect against significant erosion that was occurring at the time.

As well as supporting proper management of mountain forests for water conservation, the policy also supported its major objective of permanent reservation of the valuable timber resources from the substantial mountain forests in Eastern and North East Victoria.

The Commission was successful over a period of time in achieving the reservation of vast areas of mountain forests and utilising the timber resources from those forests as well as implementing practices to protect water conservation thereby supporting water supply to much of rural Victoria.

The key catchment management question from the earliest times was whether timber utilisation in catchments was compatible with water conservation. The resolution of this question was to have a significant impact on the Commission. The Commission contended that closely controlled timber utilisation was compatible with water conservation and so adopted a policy of timber harvesting in water supply catchments. In contrast Melbourne’s water supply authority, Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) maintained a ‘closed’ catchment policy which stated that public access is to be strictly controlled and economic, commercial, urban and recreational use or developments are to be prohibited.  Accordingly, the MMBW’s position was that timber harvesting in Melbourne’s water supply catchments was incompatible with providing high quality water for Melbournians.

The policy differences represented a major point of conflict between the organisations for a number of decades. The conflict was ultimately adjudicated in favour of the MMBW and Melbourne’s extensive forest catchments remained closed to timber harvesting. This outcome was one of the Commission’s major disappointments.

The Commission’s interests in catchment management were advanced at two levels which warrant separate consideration. The two levels of interest were:

  1. Permanent reservation of catchments predominantly in Victoria’s mountain areas in North Eastern and Eastern Victoria, and
  2. Specific case for timber utilisation in Melbourne’s water supply catchments.

Catchment Reservation

As early as 1922 the Commission advocated for the permanent reservation of extensive forested catchments in Eastern and North Eastern Victoria (Forests Commission Victoria, 1928). This included a proposal for the permanent reservation of 170,000 acres (66,900 hectares) of the watershed of the Tambo and Timbarra Rivers to ensure protection from fire and to preserve stream flow for the rivers and creeks within the catchments. Another proposal was the reservation of the extensive Hume Basin catchment to ensure water conservation to support the recently commenced construction at the time of the Hume Weir on the Murray River.

The Hume Weir was being constructed jointly by the Victorian and New South Wales governments and was a project of national significance. It was completed in 1936 to provide flood mitigation, hydro-power, irrigation and water supply. The Victorian agency involved was the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (SRWC) which was the water authority for rural Victoria (other than Melbourne metropolitan water supply). The Commission correctly argued that the success of the Hume Weir project required protection and proper management of the forest catchments upstream of the weir.

The Commission’s supporting case included:

  • Permanent reservation of the catchments as forest cover was widely accepted as the most effective land use to provide fire protection and water conservation,
  • Appropriate specialised forest management practices were required to conserve water resources,
  • The FCV was the appropriate agency to assume responsibility given its expertise in forest management,
  • Carefully controlled utilisation of the timber resources was compatible with water conservation,
  • The community cannot afford the luxury of dedicating extensive forests to single use of water supply to the exclusion of utilising valuable timber resources.

The Commission saw these principles as important to the future development of the State. It reiterated its position in subsequent years restating its proposals in 1926 for the catchments of the Tambo and Buchan Rivers. In 1927 it repeated its call for permanent reservation for the Hume catchment and affirmed its policy of the compatibility of timber utilisation and water conservation. Commission representatives actively promoted these messages to the public through opportunistic platforms over the subsequent decades.

The Commission undertook surveys of the Murray and Mitta Mitta Rivers in 1933 to quantify the extent of erosion and siltation flowing from adverse activities including uncontrolled use of fire, land selection in unsuitable localities, alluvial mining and free reigning lease holdings by cattlemen. This was to support its case that proper management and elimination of damaging activities in the headwaters of the catchments was essential to support the important Hume Weir project. It furthermore contended it was the appropriate agency to manage the forests for these outcomes. An example of the ineffectiveness of dual responsibilities occurred on unreserved Crown land where the responsibility for grazing was with the Lands Department whilst the Commission exercised responsibility for fire protection. The Commission drew attention to the observations of the Royal Commission into forest grazing which noted that graziers were the main cause of fires in mountain forests in Eastern Victoria. 8  The Commission contended that the Lands Department did not have the expertise, resources or level of interest to proactively control or effectively manage grazing.

The Commission in 1935 again raised concerns about negative impacts of ill-advised clearing of forest cover in the headwaters of highland catchments. The clearing of forests caused serious adverse impacts through the flooding of rich agricultural land following the heavy rain and flooding in Eastern Victoria in 1935. Floods in all Great Dividing Range catchments caused serious soil wastage at high elevations resulting in siltation and choking of rivers at lower levels impacting rich agriculture land.

Review of the Use of Victoria’s Public Land – Commission’s Proposal, 1936

The Commission had repeatedly highlighted problems of substantial erosion and land degradation caused by inappropriate forest clearing and other damaging activities, but its representations had produced little immediate response from the Government or other land and natural resource management agencies.

In an attempt to raise the matters to another level and with a strong belief in its position about reservation of unreserved Crown forests and its suitability as forest manager, the Commission in 1936 presented a proposal for a review to determine the optimal use of all of the State’s public land. The review was to include a comprehensive survey and consider what land should be permanently reserved as forest, what areas could be released for settlement and what areas already denuded needed to be reforested. It further proposed that the review would be jointly undertaken by representatives from all land and natural resource agencies and a coordinated report would be presented. The proposal did not meet with immediate support. The Commission continued to advocate for such a review in the succeeding years.

The extended drought between 1936 and 1945 and increased pressure resulting from population growth after World War II caused the Government to realise the land and water management arrangements at the time were inadequate. It established the Land Conservation Authority (LCA) in 1940 to address the shortcomings. Its role was to conduct land assessment over the whole of the State in order to achieve a balanced use of Victorian land. 12 This was similar to what the Commission had proposed in 1936 but the difference being that the Commission proposed the review be undertaken jointly by representatives for all Victorian land and natural resources agencies whereas the LCA, as the body with overall responsibility, was independent of the government departments. The LCA had limited impact on the Commission’s interests.

Land Conservation Council (LCC) was established in 1970 following public land management controversies. Its role was to present recommendations on the balanced use of all public land in Victoria. The LCC was well supported by various governments with the overwhelming majority of its recommendations being accepted. The LCC recommendations significantly adversely impacted the Commission’s interests.

Catchment Management Prescriptions

By the late 1940s the Commission was expanding its approach to catchment management. It pointed out that it was increasingly observed worldwide that proper management of forest catchments was superior to all other approaches for maintaining effective control of soil erosion and water conservation, which includes maintaining the quantity, quality and regularity of water flow. The Commission contended management of forest catchments was essential to protecting water supply engineering structures which underpinned water supply. To reinforce its message the Commission highlighted the lessons from the devastating 1939 bushfires about forest cover being an appropriate method of managing water conservation. Widespread erosion and siltation occurred from burnt areas following heavy rains where the decomposing vegetation and litter cover on the forest floor had been destroyed by the fires.

It is noted however that the Commission’s strongly held position on compatibility of timber utilisation and water conservation was not supported by scientific evidence at that time as very little, if any, relevant hydrology research had been undertaken. This was a key issue in the debate with the MMBW which held the opposite view. The MMBW’s position was likewise not supported at the time by hard evidence from relevant research studies. This matter is further discussed below.

The Commission was aware that its conflicting position with that of the MMBW would at a future time be publicly contested and would need to be resolved. This encouraged the Commission to pay increasing attention to how it would demonstrate the compatibility of timber utilisation and water conservation. It recognised the importance of expert knowledge of water and soil conservation to proper management of forest catchments by introducing special courses in 1948 into forestry training to ensure all foresters were expertly prepared for managing forest catchments. The Commission reflected on the changes that had occurred over the preceding two decades and noted there had been a substantial increase in water supply for rural communities derived from forested catchments on the one hand, and considerable changes in logging procedures on the other hand. More intrusive practices including use of steam winches and tram haulage were replaced by less intrusive tractors and road transport. Also sawmills had been relocated in towns outside the forest following the recommendations from the Stretton inquiry into the 1939 bushfires in Victoria. 7 Using this experience, the Commission committed to the preparation and application of comprehensive catchment-specific prescriptions in the late 1950s that included provisions covering the following:

  • Roads, snig tracks and log landings – these were to be planned, constructed, maintained and used in a manner that minimised erosion.
  • Planning logging operations – plans were to minimise canopy openings consistent with silvicultural requirements and operations were to be controlled by tree marking to the maximum extent possible.
  • Logging operations were to be undertaken in the following manner:
    • Snigging – care was to be taken to avoid siltation of any running stream.
    • Stream protection – streams were to be kept clear of heads of felled trees, logs and other material associated with logging. A strip of at least half a chain (10 metres) was to be reserved along each bank of permanent streams and a clear distance of at least 10 chains (200 metres) was to be established upstream from an inlet of any weir. Where it was necessary for tractors or other vehicles to cross streams, suitable crossing were to be constructed.
    • Rehabilitation – appropriate measures were to be undertaken to prevent erosion of snig tracks and landings and to divert drainage from snig tracks and landings.
    • Wet conditions – it was desirable to suspend logging in small catchments during the winter period where possible. Where complete suspension was not possible, operations were to be minimised and confined to areas least liable to erosion and where soil disturbance would cause minimum stream turbidity.
  • Habitation– camps and other living quarters were not to be established in catchments.
  • Burning operations – were to be minimised consistent with proper fire protection.
  • Timber salvage in the event of wildfire damage – approval of the Commission was to be obtained before undertaking such operations.

The timing of these actions was probably largely influenced by the anticipation of the Government’s need to decide the conditions for the catchment of the new Upper Yarra Dam and the Parliamentary Sate Development Committee inquiry into the utilisation of timber resources in the State’s watersheds which commenced in 1957. This is discussed further below.

This approach was further advanced in the 1960s with a procedure for the preparation of prescriptions in consultation with the Soil Conservation Authority (SCA) for catchments proclaimed under the Soil Conservation and Land Utilisation Act 1958 which provided for logging and water conservation. Within a few years prescriptions had been promulgated for sixty catchments. 1

Overall, the Commission was successful in having mountain catchments permanently reserved with the utilisation of timber resources being achieved through carefully regulated management practices. Victoria’s water supply catchments as at 1959 are shown below.

Victoria’s Water Supply Catchments 1959



Source: Bulletin Number 11, Forests Commission Victoria, 1959


1. Carron, LT 1985. A History of Forestry in Australia. Australian National University Press.
2. Forests Commission Victoria 1928. Handbook of Forestry in Victoria.
3. Empire Forestry Conference Australia and New Zealand 1928.
4. Forests Commission Victoria 1959. Evidence Presented to the State Development Committee on its Enquiry into the Utilization of Timber Resources in the Watersheds of the State. Bulletin Number 11.
5. Frost, Lionel and Shanahan, Martin P 2021. Domesticating Water: How Initial Choices Shaped Water Networks in Three Australian Cities. Australian Historical Studies, 52-2, 171-188.
6. Hopkins, Edwards 1954. Journal of American Water Works Association. Vol 46. 5, 1954.
7. Royal Commission 1939. Report of the Royal Commission to Inquire into The Causes of and Measures Taken to Prevent the Bush Fires of January, 1939 and to Protect Life and Property and The Measures to be Taken to Prevent Bush Fires in Victoria and to Protect Life and Property in the Event of Future Bush Fires. Government Printer, Melbourne 1939.
8. Royal Commission 1946. The Report of the Royal Commission to Inquire into Forest Grazing 1946. Government Printer, Melbourne 1946.
9. State Development Committee 1960. The Utilization of Timber Resources in the Watersheds of the State - Final Report. Government Printer, Melbourne 1960.
10. The Gippsland Times 1944. Waters of Thomson River. The Gippsland Times, 25 September 1944.
11. Weekly Times 1953. Forests Needed to Protect Melbourne Water Supply.
12. Werdiningtyas, Rr Ratri 2019. Understanding the Co-evolution of Land, Water, and Environmental Governance in Victoria, Australia during 1860-2016. Doctor of Philosophy Thesis, Department of Infrastructure Engineering, The University of Melbourne