Reforesting - An Overview

During the last 20 years, there have only been isolated instances of land carrying commercial forest being cleared for farming purposes and subsequently abandoned. Over the past 50 years, however, large areas of valuable forest country, totalling probably 1,000,000 acres, have been selected and cleared to be later abandoned, in some cases reverting to the Crown. The bulk comprises hilly country located mainly in the high rainfall zones of South Gippsland, the Otway Ranges, and parts of the central and north-eastern highlands and foothills.

In South Gippsland, a settlement scheme was inaugurated in the regime of the Sir Thomas Bent Government towards the end of last century, and virgin Mountain Ash and Blue Gum forests were selected at prices of about £2 per acre. Areas were rapidly cleared by axe and fire, and for a short period the resultant pasture was sufficiently rich to enable settlers to derive a good living. This class of soil, however, quickly deteriorates under pasture, and, with the advent of bracken, ragwort and rabbits, selections were rapidly abandoned, soil erosion became apparent, and in many instances the titles to the land reverted to mortgagees, including Banks and Insurance Companies which had loaned up to £5 per acre on the land. A few isolated settlers, most of whom are leasing properties from the mortgagee owners at the present time, wrest a relatively precarious living from these areas.

The State Government intends that such land must in the future be reafforested and maintained permanently under forest cover. In furtherance of a definite scheme to this end, large areas of abandoned holdings have been acquired by the Forests Commission which will form the basis for a large-scale afforestation scheme in the immediate post-war years.

Similar conditions obtain in the Otway Ranges, parts of the central and north-eastern highlands and foothills, and isolated areas in Gippsland. The water catchment value of these areas has depreciated, and where there is no seedling regeneration of timber species the result is usually bare, non-productive waste lands.

More recent abortive settlement schemes include Icy Creek near Fumina, and parts of the Delatite highlands. (Galbraith, 1943)

The early history of forestry in Victoria is replete with stories about raising trees to regenerate degraded public land and to provide resources for private land holders to improve their land.

The second progress report of the Royal Commission on Foreign Industries and Forests, included a recommendation for the establishment of a State nursery near Macedon railway station “with the object of raising useful timber trees for distribution to selectors, and for the planting of reserves denuded of indigenous timber”. Accordingly, the Macedon State Nursery, the first in the colony, was established in that year.

Finding that the one nursery could not keep pace with the constantly increasing demand for trees, the Creswick State Nursery was established early in 1888 at Sawpit Gully under John La Gerche, the local forester. At the same time Inspector Blackburne started the Havelock State Nursery and a small local nursery was operating in the You Yangs.

In 1890 the Tintarra State Nursery was started on Gunbower Island where it was intended to grow hundreds of thousands of Sugar Gum ("for the arid dry plains of the Avoca and Loddon, and the dry sandy mallee wastes of the north-west and northern portions of the colony") and Blue Gum for the mines.

This article provides a more detailed picture of Victoria's forest nurseries and the scale and scope of their operations.

Serviced by the Creswick State Nursery, Victoria's first reforestation projects were undertaken by John La Gerche in Sawpit Gully in the 1880s, on land that had been severely degraded during the Gold Rush. These included plantings of Pinus radiata, and one of the original trees was still standing in 2018 in the Sawpit Gully Historic Reserve. In later years larger areas around Creswick were planted to pines, and trial plots of hardwoods established. Besides Sawpit Gully, by 1890, plantations had been established at Havelock, You Yangs and Mount Macedon.

The 1937-38 FCV Annual Report states "Certain experiments in connexion with the encouragement of natural regeneration of Cypress Pine (Callitris) in the north-west part of the State have been carried out during the past two years, and in view of the successful results secured to date under what have been unfavorable climatic conditions, it is proposed to extend this work considerably during the coming year”.

There was a focus was also on establishing plantations on degraded farmland in the Otway Ranges (Aire Valley in the early 1930s) and on purchased derelict farmland in South Gippsland, such as at Allambee (1947-49), Childers (1946-48), Halls Rd (Boolarra) 1949, and in the Loch Valley.

By far the most significant was the South Gippsland Reforestation Project, centred on the eastern portion of the Strzelecki Ranges, which had been opened up to settlement in the 1880s, and later for Soldier Settlers following World War I. This is well described in WS Noble's book: The Strzelecki's – A New Future for the Heartbreak Hills A New Future for the Heartbreak Hills. (1974), and is the subject of an article by Brian Fry.

While these major projects were underway, smaller projects were undertaken in other Forest Districts like Powelltown, where in the 1960s District Forester Jack Gillespie oversaw the re-establishment of eucalypt forests on areas where repeated fires had turned productive forest into wattle scrub.