Above the Snowline: Alpine Resorts

B Doolan (bio), K Baines (bio), M Leonard (bio)


The FCV’s Role

When the Victorian Parliament established the FCV in 1918, the management of alpine resorts was unlikely to have been one of the functions that lawmakers had in mind. The 1918 Forests Act gave the FCV the responsibility for controlling and managing "State forests and plantations nurseries forestry schools and industrial undertakings". But within thirty years - the Second World War behind Australia and the hope of better times ahead - the Commission took its first steps into developing alpine areas for recreation. It was to become an important, if always satellite, part of its activities.

The scene of the FCV’s first alpine management was Mt Buller in 1947. Other alpine resorts on State forest would follow, designated as "alpine reserves" under the reservation provisions of Section 50 of the Forests Act: Mt Baw Baw and Lake Mountain in 1959-60, and Mt Donna Buang in 1962-63. Intriguingly a subdivision was drawn up for an alpine village at Mt Wills, near Tallangatta, in the early 1950s (FCV Annual Report 1952-53) but the development of this location didn't proceed.

Mount Buller

It seems that the FCV’s first move into alpine resort management and development was a response to approaches from the skiing fraternity. In 1924 a small party from the newly formed Ski Club of Victoria ascended Mt Buller to explore its potential for ski runs. They were looking for skiing opportunities that were closer to Melbourne than Victoria’s sole existing skiing destination at Mt Buffalo. The skiing potential was confirmed and in 1929 the Club built a lodge at Horse Hill, and then a hut at Boggy Creek in 1933. At the end of the Second World War, Major Ivor Whittaker - a keen skier who had lost his life on military service in the Middle East – left a bequest for the Club to build a lodge at Mt Buller for the benefit of Victorian skiing. In early 1948 "a forest township was surveyed near the summit of Mount Buller for the establishment of residential facilities for skiing parties", in a subdivision of 14 quarter-acre blocks (FCV Annual Report 1947-48). A Committee of Management was appointed on 1 June 1948 to manage the area. The subdivision was extended by 11 blocks within a year and then extended numerous times in subsequent years to create the Mount Buller Alpine Village. The Forests (Mt Buller Lease) Act was passed in 1957 to allow leasing of 8 acres of land at Horse Hill for a 'modern hostel', the first of many substantial commercial premises and operations on the mountain.

By 1962 the Commission reported that the total investment on Mt Buller totalled £750,000 and the village comprised 83 lodges and 6 commercial buildings, providing accommodation for 1,000 overnight visitors. Major engineering works and improvements were being undertaken by the Commission virtually every summer, including road construction and parking, water supply, and septic tank installation. In 1964-65 the first master plan was produced and in 1973 a revised master plan was prepared which featured one of the earliest examples in Victoria of public participation in public land planning.


Kofler Hut, Mt Buller
Built by the FCV
Early 1960s
Source: FCRPA

However, the expansion did not come without its problems. The Commission reported that it "now finds itself heavily involved in recreational forestry" and that at Mt Buller in particular "the costs in development and maintenance are substantial and are being met, in part, from Treasury advances" (FCV Annual Report 1966-67). These advances from expected future revenue into the forestry fund threatened to deplete the Commission’s funding for core forestry activities. The Commission’s 1969 Annual Report gave special attention to the demands on forests for public recreation, and detailed the deficiencies of the existing funding arrangements.

The Commission had become, in effect, a township manager and this, together with the alpine environment, presented challenges to its technical expertise and resources. The development of a reticulated water supply was completed in the mid-1960s, but it took some time to master the operating challenges of frequent freezing conditions. The Commission began to rely heavily on external expertise, initially through the Public Works Department, but eventually by retaining private providers such as engineering consultants Gutteridge, Haskins and Davey, and utilising specialist town planning firms such as Interplan, and various architectural practices. By the early 1980s Mt Buller Alpine Village accommodated approximately 5,500 overnight visitors.

The Mt Buller Alpine Reserve Committee of Management administered the mountain for the whole of the Commission’s period of responsibility. The Committee, appointed by the Minister of Forests under section 50 of the Act, comprised FCV members, nominees of the mountain’s businesses and lessees through its Chamber of Commerce, nominees of the Victorian Ski Association, and nominees of the Shire of Mansfield. The Country Roads Board (later Roads Corporation) and the Soil Conservation Authority were also represented and were important partners in development and management, the latter having been given authority for soil conservation on all land in Victoria above 4000 feet by a Premier’s directive.

The Committee of Management was chaired by a senior FCV executive. This role was filled by AL Benallack in the 1960s, and Dr Ron Grose 1 for much of the 1970s. Dr Fred Craig served as deputy chair for a number of years. The District Forester for Mansfield District attended Committee meetings on an ex-officio basis. Jim Westcott and Hugh Brown filled this role for long periods. In the 1970s it become customary to appoint a forester attached to the Mansfield District as the Manager of the Alpine Reserve in a Forester F1A position. Bob Jones, Cyril Suggate and Sandie Jeffcoat occupied this role for considerable periods, the latter continuing as resort manager after the devolution of the FCV. A Ranger-in-Charge position reported to the reserve manager, a position occupied for many years by David Kirkham. The secretariat for the Committee of Management operated from the FCV’s Melbourne office. Gerry Gannan occupied the position of Secretary for many years, and subsequently, Paul Fern, supported by an Assistant Secretary (variously filled by David Osborn, Dorothy Stevenson and Julie Anzarut). A large seasonal workforce was employed including carparking attendants, snow clearing crews and a ski patrol staffed by a core of paid leaders supplemented by volunteers.

Mt Baw Baw

The timeline of development at Mt Baw Baw was as follows:

  • 1945 - The Mt Erica Division of the Ski Club of Victoria (later to become the Baw Baw Ski Club) erected a hut and became the first organised body on the mountain.
  • 1955 - Mt Erica club set up the first tow.
  • 1957 - A number of applications were received by the FCV from interested bodies, and as a result the Commission improved Neulyne’s Road to a then winch site, and constructed a jeep track from there to the ski club hut.
  • 1959 - An FCV inquiry into the area resulted in the setting up of a Committee of Management under the Forests Act to oversee development.
  • 1961 - The Country Roads Board reconstructed Neulyne’s Road from the Gantry to the Winch. The following summer the CRB completed an access road to the village site.
  • 1962 - The Committee of Management drew up proposals for development of the Mt Baw Baw area.
  • 1963 - Ski club sites were subdivided and further clubs moved on to the mountain.
  • 1967 - A Ski school established on the mountain by Franz Reiter.
  • 1970-75 - Chairlift established as main winter access. T-bar lift installed on Maltese Cross. Platter lift installed to replace Hut Run rope tow.
  • 1975-91 - Platter lift installed on Big Hill. Summit T-bar lift installed. Painted Run rope tow replaced with T-bar lift. Platter lift installed on Tank Hill. Alpine Resorts Commission took control of Mt Baw Baw Alpine Resort from FCV.
  • (Source: Mt Baw Baw Alpine Resort Website. Accessed 26 Jan 2021.)

Prior to any development on Mt Baw Baw itself, in the 1930s members of the Yallourn Rover Scout Crew, under the leadership of John McMahon, became interested in skiing at Mt Erica, on the south-east end of the Baw Baw plateau. They cut ski runs and built a hut at Mushroom Rocks, where they still maintain a lodge (JW McMahon Lodge, also known as the Captain Hurley Rover Hut). A development association promoted the area for skiing and a “Ski Erica First” publication was prepared. When a road was built close to Mt Baw Baw, the area was abandoned and after using mill huts at Neulyne’s Mill (now site of the main resort car park) to gain access to skiing at Baw Baw, the Rover Scouts in 1964 took up a site in the new Baw Baw village and built the W.F. Waters Ski Lodge.

The Baw Baw Alpine Reserve comprised all the land of the Baw Baw plateau above the 4,000 ft contour, and was reserved under Section 50 of the Forests Act in 1959/60. The Mt Baw Baw Alpine Resort, where the village and ski area are located, was set aside as a small part of the alpine reserve where development could occur.

In later years (post-FCV), the Baw Baw plateau became a National Park, its current status.

The then newly established Alpine Resorts Commission took over management of the resort (and the other Victorian ski areas) in 1985.

Accommodation at Baw Baw has mainly been in family-friendly club lodges, some of which did allow non-members to stay on a semi-commercial basis. Caberfae Lodge was established as a commercial accommodation lodge and restaurant, and, after being sold in the early 1970s to Max Otter and others, was renamed Watzmann Haus.

During the 1970s, surprisingly for such a small resort, there were three lift companies: Gippsland Chairlifts, which ran the winter village access; Baw Baw Ski Tows; and Dartos. As well as the compact downhill ski area served by the tows, the area has some excellent cross-country skiing trails. It is also a popular hiking area in the warmer months.

During the 1970s, debate continued about the effect of resort development on the habitat of the (now) critically endangered Baw Baw Frog (Philoria frosti). It did not go down well with some conservationists when the Committee of Management released a bumper sticker depicting a frog on skis and with the slogan “Phil Frosti says, Ski Baw Baw!”

The latter half of the 1970s saw some major projects completed, including:

  • Installation of a village sewerage scheme which connected septic tank outlets with a main which piped effluent down the mountain to a settling/passive aeration pond.
  • Construction of medical centre including ranger accommodation.
  • Construction of a public shelter adjacent to the top station of the access chairlift.

The Baw Baw resort was in the Neerim Forest District. The District Forester during the 1970s was Bob Waugh, followed by Norm Cox. An assistant forester within the District was Area Manager for the resort; Garry Squires for much of the 1970s, followed by Keith Maplestone. The District Office Manager, Bob Southgate, in the Neerim South office, provided administrative assistance on Baw Baw matters.

Chairman of the Committee of Management from its inception until about 1979 was the Hon. JCM (Jim) Balfour, the State member for Narracan, and a minister in the Hamer government. He was followed, until the demise of the FCV, by Stuart Calder, Officer in Charge, Forest Environment and Recreation Branch.

The Secretary of the Committee of Management in the first half of the 1970s was Paul Sholly, followed 1976-80 by Kester Baines, followed 1980-83 by Brian Doolan. All were based in the FCV head office, at 1 Treasury Place then 601 Bourke St.

The Committee of Management included representatives of other government departments (Public Works Department, Soil Conservation Authority and Country Roads Board), local government (Shire of Buln Buln and Shire of Narracan) and three skiers’ representatives.

In the mid-1970s, the first official Ranger was appointed for the resort, being Bob Adams, whose previous work was at Charlotte’s Pass and, previously, as a NSW police officer. He was assisted by Gary Bonfield and Chris Cummins. When Bob moved on to work with the National Park Service, Gary took over as Ranger.

Lake Mountain

A reserve covering 396 hectares of land at Lake Mountain was declared under Section 50 of the Forests Act in 1959 and a committee of management appointed at the same time. Like Mt Donna Buang, Lake Mountain comprised only a relatively small area of sub-alpine terrain with most of the reserve comprising ‘Ash’ forest, but it generally received snowfalls from mid-June to late August at the upper levels.

As the reserve sat astride an extensive plateau, the potential for downhill skiing was very limited. However, the gently undulating terrain, particularly to the north, which comprised snow gum woodlands and open heathlands, and the nearby Mt Bullfight plateau, saw the area increasingly valued as a cross-country (Nordic) skiing destination.

The reserve came within the responsibilities of the FCV’s Central Division and the Marysville District. In 1977 the Victorian Government accepted a recommendation by the Land Conservation Council that the alpine reserve should be incorporated into a larger Lake Mountain State Park taking in the alpine bogs of Echo Flat and snow gum woodland to the north. This recommendation was not implemented for some years and the FCV continued to manage the area until the creation of the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands in 1983. A management and development plan for the reserve was initially drawn up in 1977 by Graeme Morrison, and a further plan in 1981 by Mike Leonard as the then Divisional Recreation Officer.

Mt Donna Buang

An area equivalent to 380 hectares was reserved under Section 50 of the Forests Act at Mt Donna Buang in 1963 as an alpine reserve. Although the lowest of what would later become Victoria’s ‘alpine resorts’ at approximately 1250 metres above sea level, Donna Buang had been a destination for snow-tourists and skiers since very early in the twentieth century. By the 1960s the area was a traditional day trip for Melburnians looking for a place where adults and children could see snow for the first time, and enjoy tobogganing and snow play.

In the early 1980s an entrance building to the area was constructed just above the Cement Creek turntable, this building complementing several other day-use facilities located within the reserve.

Why did the FCV get Involved?

In some ways it is remarkable that the FCV embarked on the development of alpine recreation in the late 1940s. The precedents and influences for Victorian forest management at the time came from places that were definitely not alpine: nineteenth-century local forest boards around the central Victorian goldfields, the forestry schools of England, and the imperial forest services of tropical India and Burma.

The war was barely over, the holocaust of the 1939 fires still scarred much of the forest estate, and the massive post-fire salvage logging program would not be completed for another 5 years. It is a testimony to the spirit of reconstruction that Australian governments pursued in many areas in the post-war period. The FCV was almost certainly cognisant of the social and economic transformations that were happening in Victoria in the 1940s and 50s. After the deprivation of the Depression era and the war, the economy began to expand quickly. Prosperity brought the promise of a better quality of life, including leisure time, increased car ownership and mobility, access to recreational equipment and the growth in clubs and other organisations with know-how and experience. For many post-war immigrants from central Europe, recreation and relaxation meant heading to the forests and mountains rather than the beach. Austrians, Germans, northern Italians, Czechs and Poles were notable pioneers in building ski lifts, ski club lodges and guest houses in the Victorian alpine resorts and in the Snowy Mountains.

The Commission was also increasingly looking away from Europe and towards the United States Forest Service and Canada for forest management ideas. The US Forest Service managed millions of acres of land that received regular snowfall including mountain forests that were ideal for skiing. It had a planned program of developing ski areas from the early 1930s and was the landlord to dozens of ski resorts by the 1950s.

Whatever the motivations for the FCV’s role in developing Victoria’s alpine resorts its efforts left an impact that was geographically concentrated but very significant in the State’s recreational and tourism history

FCV Involvement Ends

The governance of Victoria’s alpine areas had been an ongoing matter of review and debate for much of the 1970s and 1980s. The Land Conservation Council’s investigations of the Alpine Area in 1979 and again in 1983 recommended that the Victorian Government maintain the concept of discrete alpine resort areas, separately managed from the surrounding public land – unlike the approach in New South Wales where a number of the largest resorts were part of the Kosciusko National Park. In 1980 the Thompson Liberal Government commissioned a Ski Industry of Victoria Working Party to report on the management and development of Victoria’s alpine resorts. The Working Party recommended expansion of infrastructure to meet forecast high growth in skiing demand, including development of a new downhill and cross-country ski resort on State forest at Mt Stirling, with potential links to Mt Buller.

The development from scratch of a purpose-built alpine resort was a major challenge that had never been undertaken in Victoria. The FCV engaged planning consultants Loder and Bayly to prepare a proposed resort design including an environmental effects statement. Ron Grose and later Athol Hodgson had primary responsibility for overseeing the planning, and John Taylor served as the FCV’s project co-ordinator. A draft proposal was published in 1982 with a final design released in 1983.

The Ski Industry Working Party report had questioned the departmental/committee of management model used by the FCV (and also by the State Electricity Commission for Falls Creek and the Lands Department for Mt Hotham). Optimistic growth forecasts for skiing and summer recreation were used by the ski industry to push for a specialised alpine resort management structure. The incoming Cain Government responded by creating a dedicated statutory authority, the Alpine Resorts Commission , under a new Alpine Resorts Act 1983. The areas that more or less corresponded to the Section 50 reserves at Mt Buller, Baw Baw, Lake Mountain, Mt Donna Buang and Mt Stirling, were excised from State forest and reserved as ‘alpine resorts’ under the new Act, along with land at Falls Creek and Mt Hotham. The new Act also identified Mt Torbreck in the Rubicon State Forest as an area to be potentially designated as an alpine resort, but this did not proceed and was later ruled out by a Land Conservation Council recommendation in 1994. 2

1 Dr Ron Grose, former FCV Chairman, and Chair of the Mt Buller Alpine Reserve Committee of Management, was to serve as General Manager of the Alpine Resorts Commission for several years in the later 1980s/early 1990s.
2 Local Chambers of Commerce, and the local shire had been lobbying governments over the years to develop Mt Torbreck. In the early 1980s the FCV installed several tall, marked poles on the upper sections of the mountain, and on nearby Mt Bullfight. The poles were then monitored for several years in winter, using light aircraft, the subsequent data revealing significant viability concerns as far as infrastructure investment went.