"The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do."
Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia, Inaugural Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, August 1996.

East Gippsland Forests

Despite being the predominant sawlog producing region in the State after WW11, we have little information about East Gippsland forests on this site so far. To help fill the gap this article draws on Moray Douglas' work in A History of the Forests and Forestry in East Gippsland. It comprises quotes from Moray's publication to give you a sense of the forestry activities that occurred over a period of at least 150 years. 

The Forests at First Settlement

(At the time of first settlement) "Eastern Gippsland was almost completely covered in forests. The few treeless areas included the Gippsland and Omeo plains and the Bogong, Dargo, Nunniong and other small high plains, as well as isolated clearings, coastal heaths and grass-tree plains."

The red gum and box forests of the lake margins and plains, the box forests of the inland valleys and the gum forests of the tablelands normally occurred as open forest; often the trees were widely spaced and could be more correctly defined as woodland. But extensive well-stocked stands, particularly of red gum did occur (the missing forest?); these were able to support a major timber industry for many years.

The mixed-species forests of the coast and foothills together with the mountain forests were almost invariably thickly or densely timbered, with only small areas lightly stocked with large trees. Small areas not dominated by eucalypts also occurred, including patches of rainforest, silver wattle stands in the moister forests, and patches of wattle and other shrub species on some drier sites."

Early Settlement

"The influx of squatters to Gippsland was very rapid following Strzelecki's and McMillan’s announcements of the discovery of rich pastures. By 1842 eight major squatters and a number of smaller ones occupied lower Gippsland (1), while C.J. Tyers, Commissioner-in-charge of the Gippsland Squatting District, reported that 40 stations were established by April 1844. All the best land including the open grassy areas around Lake Omeo, the Gippsland Plains, the open forests of the river valleys and the lake margins were occupied."

"The arrival of the flocks and herds of John Pendergast, John Hyland, Edmund Buckley and James Macfarlane at Omeo (Benambra) signalled the first impact of Europeans on the forests of Eastern Gippsland."

"The numbers of squatters were so few that their direct impacts on the forests were insignificant. It was a very different story with their stock. Sheep and cattle left their mark on the environment at a very early stage."

"The expansion of settlements and mining activities into the 1880s saw the impact of Europeans on the forests gain impetus. Settlers and bush grazing had the greatest impact, while the arrival of the railway led to the start of large-scale utilization of the vast timber resources of the region. The first tentative steps were taken towards saving the forests from selection and towards their management, but little progress had been made by the end of this period."

Gold

"Gold was first discovered in Eastern Gippsland in 1851 by the Rev. W. Clarke, at Bendoc, the first payable find was at Omeo in 1852 and working of the alluvial deposits of Livingstone Creek began in 1853. By 1860 alluvial gold had been found and was being worked in the Tambo valley (Swifts Creek and Cassilis), the Nicholson River (Deptford and Store Creek), the Mitchell River (Boggy Creek, Bullumwaal, Merrijig Creek, Wentworth River and Upper Dargo River) and Bendoc (28). In the relatively short period of 1852 to 1865, it is likely that prospectors tested almost every stream in Eastern Gippsland. Where the workings were extensive, like at Livingstone Creek, Swifts Creek and Boggy Creek, their impact was significant. By the mid-1860s reef mining had started in a number of localities including Grant, Crooked River, Dargo, Omeo, Cassilis, Boggy Creek and Bendoc. Being largely underground, the mine working had little impact on the forests, but the nearby forests did provide timber for buildings, for lining the shafts and for fuelling the steam engines to drive the winches or the batteries crushing the ore. The areas affected were only small, however, and often it was for only a short term. Mining at Grant, for instance, reached a peak in 1865 with no457 miners working 180 claims on 92 reefs and boasted 18 pubs and 14 stores. By 1877, the Good Hope Mine had closed, there were only 18 diggers left and 30 at the Crooked River. Grant was a ghost town (30). The forest soon reclaimed the site. Elsewhere, reef mining continued through the 1870s, becoming of major significance in the 1880s."

Wildfire

"Victoria got an early taste of what can happen when, on Thursday 6th February 1851, the whole Colony of Port Phillip was burning - from the western coast to the Australian Alps and from the Snowy River to the Murray. The damage was devastating with many lives lost and homes and stock destroyed. The settled parts of Eastern Gippsland seem to have escaped the worst of these fires but, as described by McLean who, at the time was living on his father’s property at Glenaladale, they were close: I have a very vivid recollection of Black Thursday 1851, the darkness on that day varied in different localities. The whole country was ablaze. Down in Gippsland near our place the hills were on fire right up to the Australian Alps and even the Alps themselves. There was a very strong wind blowing and it blew smoke all over our place. We were pressing wool at the time but we had to knock off work before lunch because it had become so dark. At first when the sun and sky were obscured by the smoke, the atmosphere turned a livid red colour. That lasted perhaps ¾ of an hour, then it became quite dark and we couldn't see a yard away. Millions of half burnt and charred leaves were flying about, our faces became black and grimy, the heat was intense and fearfully oppressive. I think it was about 2.30 when night seemed to close in on us and long after sunrise next morning it was as dark as early evening."

Sawmilling

"Sawmilling boomed in the 1880s. To meet the demand brought about by the construction of railway lines to Heyfield in 1883, Bairnsdale in 1888, together with the Sale-Stratford line and the Maffra-Briagolong line, many sawmills were built across the red gum plains making use of the large volumes of timber available. These mills not only provided bridge and wharf timbers to Melbourne but also the sleepers and other timbers required to construct the rail lines for the Eastern Gippsland lines as well as across the State. Interestingly, for many years, substantial quantities were still sent by ship because sea freight was cheaper."

"In contrast to the booming hewn-timber industry, the sawmill industry was quiescent. From 1908 through to 1914 only a few small mills operated intermittently supplying local markets."

"The onset of the Great Depression saw the region’s sawmilling industry at a very low level with only about 60 men employed cutting 12,000 m3 of logs."

"The relative insignificance of the industry in East Gippsland is demonstrated by the fact that in 1945 the total output of sawn timber was 13,000 m3, of which 2400 m3 was from private property. This compared with a State output of 580,000 m3 (sawn). The high cost of freight had kept mills at a severe disadvantage compared with those nearer to Melbourne.

"In 1943 plans were being drawn up for organising sawmilling in East Gippsland for after the Second World War."

"Based on the information provided, Inspector H. Galbraith outlined broad principles for proposals for organizing the industry in his area: Before any further extension took place, the development should be organized to serve trade requirements while at the same time safeguard objects of management, silviculture and protection within the forests.

"Galbraith’s key proposals with respect to exploitation of the coastal and foothill forests included:

  • Sawmills to be general-purpose mills of medium size (allocations of from 7.500 m3 to 9,000 m3 per annum); not isolated in the forest, but located in conversion centres and equipped with burners capable of disposing of all their sawdust.
  • The timber to be allocated under short-term licences but from logging units with sufficient reserves to ensure long-term security. Each mill to have a similar mix of good and poor forest.
  • Control of timber procurement by tree-marking.
  • The Commission to construct and maintain the main extraction roads; secondary roads to be built by the individual miller, subject to Commission approval for their location and alignment. Royalty to be ‘in the round’ with stumpage values based on the distance of the sawn timber haul to Melbourne, log haul distance to the mill, density of the timber stands and the form and quality of the trees.
  • To ensure that the sleeper requirements for the Victorian Railways could be met."

"The massive expansion of housing construction from the late 1940s greatly increased the demand for timber, which led to a major expansion of the industry in Eastern Gippsland and, by 1958, it was supplying some 38% of the State’s sawn timber."

"The industry in East Gippsland continue to expand, rising to nearly 50% of the State’s output by 1970 and reached its peak in 1980."

"By 1979-80 sawlog output had risen to 560,000 m3, half the total for the State. Sawmills were being amalgamated with large units replacing a number of the smaller mills so, by 1983, the number of mills had fallen by 20% but the total allocations were still more than 600,000 m3. In practice the extracted volumes were substantially less than this."

Sleepers, Round timbers et al

"The first record of sleeper-hewing in Eastern Gippsland was from 1887 in the Coongulmerang Reserve. The industry expanded very rapidly. In March 1889 the railways department called contracts for 25,000 hewn sleepers to be delivered between Toongabbie and Bairnsdale while later that year cutters arrived in Bruthen to procure sleepers for the Great Southern Line.

Demand for round timbers was also increasing. Tenders were frequently called for the supply of box and ironbark piles for bridges and wharves while a demand for semaphore poles for the railways and electric light poles was emerging. Again, the demand was initially met from freehold but, increasingly, the timbers had to be sourced from the forests on Crown Lands."

"In November 1911 the demand for sleepers was particularly strong with large loads being sent from Bairnsdale - the majority of which were for the Cressy-Maroona line. The construction of the Bairnsdale-Orbost line between 1910 and 1916 also created a substantial demand, easily met from the forests close to this new line."

"Sleeper output from East Gippsland peaked in 1953-54 when 467,000 or 93% of the State’s total was produced. An output of 300,000 was maintained for a number of years, declining to 200,000 in the early 1960s and down to 100,000 by 1969-70. With the closure of the line from Bairnsdale to Orbost in 1978 output fell sharply to 39,000 in 1980, later declining to insignificant levels.

"Over 6 million sleepers were cut following the end of the Second World War, an average of 200,000 a year."

"When yellow stringybark became an acceptable species, the output of S.E.C. poles increased substantially and, when white stringybark became acceptable in 1942, Eastern Gippsland was uniquely placed to supply poles, particularly the larger and longer dimensions. During the war years, though demand fluctuated, thousands of these poles were cut. Kirby Cross, one of the larger contractors, sent poles from Nowa Nowa by rail. Forests here were capable of producing very long pole and piles."

"After the war the output gradually built up to an annual harvest of more than 10,000 poles in 1949; it then diminished during the 1951-53 downturn before rising sharply, peaking in 1954 at an output of 20,000 poles - the major source of large poles for the State."

Staff

"Howard Stoney was the first Forester in Eastern Gippsland. He was one of the original 16 and took up his position in Bairnsdale in 1883, aged 24. Originally from Bairnsdale, he had no forestry experience but had worked in the Sale Land Office as a Crown Land Bailiff."

"The first significant organisational change in the field occurred in 1925 with the creation of a number of Inspectorates. The Gippsland Inspectorate extended from Mt Useful to Cape Howe and included the Omeo District. James Firth, the forester in charge of the Briagolong District, was appointed to the position with headquarters in Bairnsdale. With the extension of beam cutting in the east, officers were located at Noorinbee from 1925, and Mallacoota from 1927, both under the control of the Orbost District. In 1934 a new Cann Valley District was created with headquarters at Noorinbee." (p81)

"In 1940 a new Inspectorate was created with headquarters at Warragul and the Briagolong District came under its control. This left the East Gippsland Inspectorate with four Districts: Bruthen (Omeo), Nowa Nowa, Orbost and Cann Valley. Staffing levels gradually increased with appointment of forester assistants and foremen or overseers to most Districts. These were also located in other centres - Murrungowar in 1940 and Bendoc and Mt Taylor in the early 1940s."