From the earliest days of settlement until early in the 20th century, the exploitation of Victoria's forest resource was largely uncontrolled and mismanaged. This blog (The Early Years) provides access to a number of records from this era that illustrate the pressures our forests were under as a result of the demand for new settlement and new infrastructure, particularly railways, the gold rush and, perhaps above all, wilful political neglect.
Two publications from the 1920s, one by the first FCV Chairman, Owen Jones, and one prepared by the FCV for the Empire Forestry Conference of 1928, provide an overview of how and why our forests were mismanaged in these early years. The quotes below are from those articles. As you work through the blog you will find articles that both identify the problems and propose solutions. But the truth is that not much happened to get forest management onto a sound footing until the first two decades of the 20th century.
"The history of forestry in Victoria, as in so many countries under the control of the English-speaking peoples, has been one of vicissitude, of bitter, protracted, and often unsuccessful struggles against ignorance, prejudice, greed, and self-seeking. Our permanent and racial antipathy in regard to forest progress, of which Lord Lovat spoke at the first British Empire Forestry Conference, has in Victoria been intensified by the conditions prevalent in a new country, where much forest land must of necessity be cleared to permit of settlement, and where in consequence the forest too frequently comes to be regarded as a hindrance and a foe. These hostile ideas, ingrained in the older people, have been handed down from generation to generation, and though to-day conditions are improved, the foresters and the men of vision who realise the importance of the foresters' work have still a stern fight before them. Only gradually and with great labour is a public forest conscience being born, and there are yet many who regard the forest officers as their natural enemies, and would, could they have their way, abolish all foresters entirely. Strife, however, is a prime law of existence, and under its stimulus forestry is developing, though with painful slowness, into a sturdy plant, battling through the rank weeds of opposition and prejudice to win its way to the sunlight and clear air above." 1
"A summary of the changes of control to which the forests have been subjected is appended hereunder, as it goes far to explain the disabilities under which the forest administration previously laboured, and will make clear the position faced by the Commission at the time of its appointment.
1876—Forests controlled by the Department of Agriculture, which was then a branch of the Lands and Survey Department. 1880—Forests Branch under the Lands Department. 1884—Forests Branch under the Department of Agriculture. 1888—Forests Branch under the Lands Department.
1891—Forests Branch under the Mines Department. 1893—Forests Branch under the Lands Department.
1903—Forests Branch under the Department of Agriculture. 1905—Forests. Branch under the Mines Department.
1908—A separate Forests Department under a Minister for Forests. 1919—Forests placed under the control of Forests Commission
As a result of the dual control existing up to 1908, and the continual buffeting from one Department to another, any constructive policy was out of the question. The development of forestry was also considerably hampered by lack of legislation, and one of the first considerations of every Conservator was to endeavour to secure the passing of a Forests Act in keeping with the necessities of the situation at the time and founded on the experience of other countries. Bills were regularly drafted, but were usually consigned to oblivion. A short Forests Act was put into operation in 1876. In 1879 a Forests Bill was prepared, and read a first time in the Legislative Assembly. Provision was made for the repeal of the Forests Act 1876, for the dedication in perpetuity of all timber lands reserved under the Lands Act 1869 as State forests, and for power to increase or diminish the area of any forest or proclaim new reserves. Other clauses provided for the charging of royalty on forest produce, and for power to make regulations. This measure was not proceeded with. In 1881 an amended Bill, the text of which was practically identical with that of the previous one, was placed before the Legislative Assembly and read a first time, but this suffered the same fate as the preceding.
In 1887 a Bill was drafted but was not placed before Parliament. Its main provisions included more adequate supervision, confirmation, and dedication of all existing State Forests and Timber Reserves, creation of a Forestry Fund, and power to frame regulations.
In 1892 a short Bill incorporating some of the subject-matter of previous Bills was not proceeded with beyond the stage of a first reading. One of the chief clauses related to the reservation of additional areas as State forest, and the protection of already existing reserves from alienation.
A Bill was again introduced in 1905, but it was not until 1907 that any measure of success attended the efforts made to secure proper legislation. In that year the Bill placed before Parliament was passed and became law. The Act provided for the administration and control of the forests under a separate Forests Department at the head of which was placed a Conservator, who was to be directly responsible to the Minister for Forests for the proper management of forests and plantations. The passing of this Act really marked the beginning of forest conservancy in Victoria, and to a great extent removed the forests from the sphere of political control, which up to this time had seriously interfered with systematic working. Minor additions and amendments to this Act were made under the Forests Act 1910." 2
1 Forestry in Victoria - O Jones (Empire Forestry Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1926)
"With this “Victoria’s forestry heritage” website and, indeed for any other ‘heritage' documentation, it can help in understanding the ‘now’ and future options and directions if there is some idea of what has been inherited. From a forestry perspective, there is the question of the condition and nature of the native forests across Victoria up to and at the time of European settlement."
As a result of recommendations from the reports of the Royal Commission of 1871/1872, a number of regional forest boards of management were created to ensure that regulations concerning timber conservation in Victoria’s State forests were enforced. On the 6th March 1874, a Central Forest Board was established to oversee the entire system. The Board operated from within the Department of Agriculture through a network of local caretakers and the regional boards. It comprised Robert Brough Smyth, W. H. Archer (Secretary for Lands), A. R. Wallis and W. E. Ivey as secretary.
Late in 1874, the Minister of Lands and Agriculture presented to Parliament a ‘Paper relating to Forest Conservancy’. While describing the status of forest conservancy across the globe, the paper included a scathing report on the state of the forests of Victoria.
The following extract from Melbourne’s The Argus newspaper of 24th December 1874 paraphrases that report.
Extracts from a Report on the Red Gum Forests of Gunbower and Barmah
"The length of time that our redgum forests will last, at the present rate of consumption, is variously estimated at from four to six years."
"If we refer to the plan of the Barmah forest, it will be seen at a glance that the timber on the river bank, and back for an average distance of two miles, has been either partly or entirely worked, and that the mills which were laid down, with the exception of the Cornella mill, owned by Messrs. McCulloch and Co., have been abandoned on that account.
"Let us regard the forest as an inheritance, not to be destroyed or devastated, but to be wisely used, reverently honoured and carefully maintained. Let us regard the forest as a gift, entrusted to any of us only for transient care, to be surrendered to posterity as an unimpaired property, increased in riches and augmented in blessings, to pass as a sacred patrimony from generation to generation."
Baron Ferdinand von Mueller - Suggestions on the Maintenance, Creation and Enrichment of Forests (1879)