The Evolution of Legislated Obligations for Forest Areas in Victoria

A Summary
Andy Beveridge (bio) & Mike Leonard (bio)


The story of the progressive removal of Victoria's forests, and the evolution of legislative and bureaucratic strategies to better understand, and to protect what remained, and to facilitate sustainable timber harvesting and fire management mirrors, and at times impacts significantly on the economic and social history of the Colony/State.

Pastoral squatting in the 1840s, gold rushes of the 1850s, a succession of Land Acts in the 1860s (which were designed in part to ‘...facilitate the alienation of the waste lands of the Crown...’), and the continued expansion of the transport network all combined, by the early 1900s, to produce a geographic distribution of forests that is similar to that of today. It was in 1907 with the passing of the Forests Act, and in 1908 with the creation of a State Forests Department, that the first significant steps were made towards the conservation of the State's forests. That task continued and expanded during the 1900s.

What follows is a brief history of that evolutionary process.

See also: Public Land Management - Evolution

1800 to 1872

European sealers and whalers are now active around Bass Strait. The Aboriginal population of the future colony of Victoria is estimated to have been between 30,000 – 70,000.
First permanent European settlement in Victoria established at Portland Bay by the Henty brothers. Sheep runs established.
John Batman seeks to acquire around a quarter of a million hectares between Port Phillip and Corio Bays from the Wurundjeri and Wathaurong Tribes. The initiative is rejected by Sydney-based Governor Bourke and the British subsequently issue an instruction for the appointment of magistrates at Port Phillip, and for the sale of land. The following two years see pastoral runs spreading as far as Winchelsea, Inverleigh and Bacchus Marsh in the west, and Woodend and Kilmore in the north. Increasingly conflict with Aboriginal communities ensues.
First timber licence regulations established under the Land Act (largely ineffective).
"The credit for Melbourne's pioneer sawmill can be attributed to Alison and Knight, who were known to be operating a few weeks before Manton and Co. actually started up in 1841." Source: The Dynamic Forest (FR Moulds, 1991
6th February – ‘Black Thursday’. Under conditions of extreme wind and high temperatures all of what will become Victoria, except the Mallee Region, experiences bushfire.

1st July – Victoria proclaimed a separate Colony: non-aboriginal population estimated to be 77,400.

Discovery of gold: Relatively benign environmental impact of the early pastoralists ends. Massive influx of migrants demands timber for mine props, firewood and for building. The need for food stimulates intensive agricultural development. Forest clearing begins in earnest in the immediate vicinity of the goldfields (Ballarat, Castlemaine, and Bendigo) and spreads. (Population estimates rise to 236,800 in 1854, and 408,600 in 1857).
Second timber licence regulations (Land Act).
November – First meeting of the Victorian Parliament.
"By 1859, there were seventy-one sawmills in Victoria. During the 1860s, this number expanded to 141. Power was supplied by steam in the 1860s, except for the relatively few water-driven sawmills." Source: The Dynamic Forest (FR Moulds, 1991)
The Nicholson Land Act releases 0.33 million ha of land for settlement, and it provokes continuing controversy with the squatters. Subsequent Acts in 1862 and 1865 release a further 2.2 million ha.
First provision in the Land Act for sawmill licences.
The Amending Land Act details the first powers to proclaim reserves for ‘...preservation and growth of timber...’.
The earliest authentic map of Victoria's forest cover is compiled (revised and printed in 1869). Reliability of the map considered to be high. Reveals 20 million ha (or 88%) of Victoria covered by forests and woodlands. By comparison, a Departmental publication in 1987 describes 8 million ha (35% of Victoria) - covered by forests and woodlands. (See also: Woodgate and Keenan)
Around 46400 ha declared State forests and Timber Reserves. Cutting banned in some areas of the You Yang’s to allow regrowth.
The first truly economically successful Land Act passed; 4.7 million ha surveyed and selected. The State's agricultural capacity rapidly expands. New Section 6 of the Act allows the Governor to ‘...reserve from sale any Crown Lands which were required for the growth and preservation of timber...’.
The first recorded concerns at Government level about remaining forests. Minister for Lands and Agriculture presents (1874) report to Parliament on ‘Forest Conservancy’. Report deals with remaining forests and, in reviewing government action in recent years concludes ‘ more effectual method of legalising the destruction of timber could be devised…’.
1871, 1873, 1879
Provisions in Land Act to grant exclusive rights to cut timber.
The first State nursery established (at Macedon) to assist in the replanting of cut over areas.
Forest and Fire Responsibility in Victoria

A State Forests Department was established in Victoria in 1908. In 1918 the Forests Commission, Victoria (FCV) was formed to administer the relevant legislation and to manage the Department. From the outset a key requirement of the Department / Commission was to meet ‘…The need for an effective fire prevention and fire suppression organisation….’

Responsibility for the relevant legislation lay with the FCV until 1983. In that year the FCV was effectively incorporated into a new body, the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands (CFL). That organisation’s successors in law have been the Departments of:

  • 1990: Conservation and Environment (DCE)
  • 1992: Conservation and Natural Resources (CNR)
  • 1996: Natural Resources and Environment (NRE)
  • 2002: Sustainability and Environment (DSE)
  • 2013: Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI)
  • 2015: Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP)
  • 2023: Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA)
Note also:
  • that the Land Conservation Council, which was formed in 1971, was to play the key role in determing the uses of public land in Victoria from that time.
  • that the Government exited the plantation business in 1998, when the plantation business was sold to Hancock Natural Resources Group to form Hancock Victorian Plantations (HVP). For fire management purposes, HVP would become an Industry Brigade under CFA legislation.
  • that in 2004, VicForests, a government commercial entity, was established to manage commercial timber harvesting on public land.
Sources for this Article Include:

Doolan, B.V. (2016). Institutional Continuity and Change in Victoria’s Forests and Parks 1900 – 2010. Master of Arts thesis - Monash University. 180 pp.
Moulds, F.R, (1991). The Dynamic Forest – A History of Forestry and Forest Industries in Victoria. Lynedoch Publications. Richmond, Australia. 232 pp.