A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Science

Standing sentinel: The vanishing giants of the Central Highlands

In Victoria’s Central Highlands, ancient survivors of a lost world cling on against the odds. Economy and industry, fires and drought, loom as close threats. Amalyah Hart journeys deep into the forest, navigating the human stories that will shape it’s future.

Standing sentinel: The vanishing giants of the Central Highlands

The Kalatha Giant: While this 400-plus year old specimen will not come under the chainsaw, Victoria's Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) - the planet's tallest flowering trees - are threatened by forces unimaginable when she first took root. Image: Brent Lukey www.greatforestnationalpark.com.au (with permission).

Story by Amalyah Hart
 

The tree looms above us. The air smells and tastes like eucalyptus, sharp and full. Everyone is silent, as people often are when staring at giant things.

The Kalatha Giant is a monumental mountain ash that lives in the valley after which she is named, up in the Central Highlands of Victoria near a town called Toolangi. Indigenous names pattern this landscape like topography on a map, laying meaning over place. Toolangi is aptly named after the local Taungurung word for “tall trees”, and Kalatha is prodigiously tall, reaching 65 metres high and with a girth of 14 metres.

It’s estimated she’s been growing for 400 years, even as the ecosystem that nourishes her has shrunk in size and density, as the shockwaves of white settlement have coursed across this landscape, upending a culture at least 60,000 years in the making.

The Kalatha Giant tree. Image: Brett Mifsud https://victoriasgianttrees.weebly.com/

The Kalatha Giant tree. Image: Brett Mifsud https://victoriasgianttrees.weebly.com/

The young woman next to me, seemingly moved to rapture in Kalatha’s presence, begins to sway lightly in the breeze, her arms raised up as if in prayer. All around us a cacophony of sap stirs in the trees. Beneath my feet filaments of fungi bristle and pulse with information.

I have come to Toolangi as part of an exploration of the decades long conflict between anti-logging protesters, logging industry bastions and the Victorian State Government, which has held a locked-in timber contract with Japanese paper giant Nippon since the 1990s.

Three protesters from grassroots anti-logging groups have brought me here under the vaulted canopies of this lush forest, and placed me like an offering at the feet of Kalatha, a tree which – while not directly under threat from logging – typifies what logged mountain ash trees have the potential to be.

Because although the Kalatha Giant herself will not come under the chainsaw, she and all members of her species are threatened by forces unimaginable when she first took root.

Mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) are the tallest flowering plants in the world, with known past specimens reaching 100 metres in height and 34 metres around the trunk. Their alpine ash cousins (Eucalyptus delegatensis) aren’t far behind. Straddled at their base by a carpet of foliage and huge, grasping ferns, these trees make up a landscape that feels as ancient as it is vast, tracing the ridges of the Central Highlands across the traditional lands of the Taungurung, Wurundjeri and Gunaikurnai people.

Our giant eucalypts evolved a long time ago, in a very different world – a Jurassic world of impossible scale, unimaginable beasts, and heaving continents that rip themselves apart. A land before time, where huge plants jostled for space and the very air was mixed differently.

Back then Australia was a continent in transit, drifting upwards towards the equator and drying up as it went, having recently been dislodged when the nebulous supercontinent Gondwana tore itself to pieces.

As this rainforest landscape aridified, it cast formerly thriving species into refugia habitats in the cooler, south-facing folds of mountains and hills.

It’s in these climes, among the dinosaurs, that our giant trees took root.

 

A species under threat

It’s hard to overstate just how much native forest has been lost across Victoria since – and because of – white settlement.

While in 1869, forests of all vegetation types made up 88 per cent of Victoria’s landmass, by 1987, they made up only 35%, having been cleared for timber and pasture land.

For mountain ash trees specifically, the Central Highlands contain the last truly significant Victorian communities; one study found that 41 per cent of large old mountain ash trees measured in 1997 have since collapsed. Remnant populations in the Strzelecki Ranges, Gippsland and the Otways cover mere fragments of their original distribution. And alpine ash are similarly dwindling, with 85 per cent of their area severely damaged by bushfires since 2002.

It’s a story of loss, and these forests are still cornered by a cabal of interconnected threats, including increasingly frequent, violent fires driven by a changing climate and – depending on who you ask – ongoing logging activity.

Alana is a member of Forest Conservation Victoria (FCV), a group dedicated to ending native logging across the State. She’s one of my guides – knowledgeable, serious and seemingly at home in this landscape.

She’s promised to show me a small section of this forest which was, not long before my visit, the site of a standoff between between loggers and protestors.

Just a few kilometres further down the road that leads to Kalatha, the designated coupe scheduled for logging that week in early March 2020 is known to VicForests – the State’s forestry agency – as ‘Zinger’, and had only recently been down-regulated from high to low erosion status, suddenly making it viable logging ground.

Alana recalls that almost as soon as her group got wind of contractors rolling in to harvest, they travelled to the coupe, alongside supporters and concerned citizens, to try to put a stop to it, placing their bodies in between machines and trees and waiting for something to give.

Part of their argument – aside from the steadfast belief that all native forests should be left undisturbed – is that logging here threatens rare and vulnerable species like the endangered barred galaxias (a freshwater mountain fish) and the greater glider that live and forage in zones abutting this coupe. But VicForests maintains that it protects endangered species by “retaining habitat trees and seed trees in areas where harvesting takes place”.

Alana claims that the protest saved the bulk of this five-hectare harvest area from destruction. The small section that was cleared looks like a raw wound, trunks ripped from the soil, foliage and leaf matter matting the floor like a thickening scab.

“If this was all allowed to grow and just do its thing, this would thrive and become really amazing habitat,” Alana says.

“How are they going to repair this?”

FCV is not alone in its concerns about VicForests. The forestry body has come under repeated scrutiny for perceived infractions of their own rules. In November 2019, for example, the ABC reported evidence that VicForests planned to log outside their allocated zones on public land.

VicForests, however, maintain the legality of their activity in these and all Victorian forests. On twitter, CEO Monique Dawson has said that, “VicForests and its contractors are deeply committed to the preservation and protection of environmental values … We carefully plan and conduct our operations and regenerate everything we harvest”.

In response to the March 2020 Zinger protests, the Conservation Regulator Victoria tweeted that staff on the site “found no evidence of unauthorised planning or conduct of timber harvesting”.

Forest activist Alana stands in front of a logged section of mountain ash forest in Toolangi. “If this was all allowed to grow and just do its thing, this would thrive and become really amazing habitat. How are they going to repair this?” Photo: Amalyah Hart

Forest activist Alana stands in front of a logged section of mountain ash forest in Toolangi. “If this was all allowed to grow and just do its thing, this would thrive and become really amazing habitat. How are they going to repair this?” Photo: Amalyah Hart

A turning tide against native logging

Most of the forests of the Central Highlands can’t be truly catalogued as old-growth, undisturbed forests. These trees are mostly regrowth from the vicious 1939 Black Saturday bushfires that ripped through this landscape and tore lives apart in the process.

All the more reason to value them, argue those who don’t want to see any more loss of this ancient ecosystem.

A Leadbeater’s Possum. Credit: D Harley.

A Leadbeater’s Possum. Credit: D Harley.

The champions of these trees, speaking out against logging, include forestry scientists and ecologists.

Notable among them is Professor David Lindenmayer, a specialist in forest ecology who has published a prolific corpus of research on the ash forests of south-eastern Australia, and the creatures who call them home.

He has called for an immediate end to all native logging in Victoria, warning that post-1939 mountain ash stands must be exempted from planned logging in order to sustain the overall ecology of the area, and forecasting the potential extinction of the endangered Leadbeater’s Possum if clearfell logging continues unabated.

The Leadbeater’s Possum is just one of many species that thrive in mixed-age mountain ash forests, where old hollow-bearing trees offer shelter and younger wattle trees offer opportunities for movement and sustenance.

“If Leadbeater’s Possum goes extinct,” Professor Lindenmayer writes in The Conversation, “it will not be because we did not have the science. It will be because we chose the wrong path.”

A consortium of concerned mountain locals formed Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum Inc., an organisation devoted to protecting these forests from native logging. In August 2020, in a historic judicial victory, the group won a Federal Court ruling against VicForests that prevents any further logging across a number of mountain ash stands in the Central Highlands, on the grounds that they provide crucial habitat for the Leadbeater’s Possum and the Greater Glider.

The ruling suggests the tide may be turning against VicForests, yet outside the newly protected zones, logging continues apace.

 

Seeing the wood for the trees

On the other side of the battle line, native logging industry workers, organisations and some forestry scientists maintain that sustainable clearfelling of these forests is not only possible, but favourable for the trees. A 1960s report by then PhD Candidate Ron Grose, which found that clearfell logging could contribute to the regeneration of mountain and alpine ash forests, has continued to form part of the basis of support for native logging in ensuing decades.

Despite the significant degradation of ash forests since then, industry representatives such as Timber Towns Victoria maintain this view. The organisation was formed in the 1980s in response to environmentalists’ attempts to suppress the native timber industry as a whole, and promotes the interests of timber workers in these forest towns. Whatever your position, it’s a reminder that the flipside of the eco-friendly coin is economic upheaval as a result of job loss.

But today these forests face escalating threats. The increasing regularity and severity of fires in Victoria and New South Wales, driven by climate change, threatens to topple many ash populations because, though they depend on fire to germinate, new trees cannot reach fire-safe maturity before the next blaze rolls through.

And while the logging industry is a major employer in Victoria, native forest logging accounts for only a fraction of the logging sector jobs across the state, amounting to a total of 2,117 full-time staff.

The forestry debate is fraught with many overlapping interpretations and truths. Patrick Baker, a professor of silviculture and forest ecology at the University of Melbourne, is scathing about the polarisation of the arguments.

Given that bushfires are predicted to escalate in a warming future, it’s his belief that some measured intervention in these forests is required – and that VicForests, distracted by logging conflicts, is overlooking the narrow window remaining in which to buffer the trees against this looming threat.

“If you thin, and you keep existing trees and remove some of the competition to make them grow faster, then the probability that they’re going to survive these fires is higher.

“So, from our point of view, it’s intensely frustrating to watch environmental groups and VicForests get into these spats and achieve nothing when they don’t have a lot of time to get these forests sorted out.”

Mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) are the tallest flowering plants in the world, with known past specimens reaching 100 metres in height and 34 metres around the trunk. Their alpine ash cousins (Eucalyptus delegatensis) aren’t far behind. Mountain ash trees occupy small niches in the mountains of Victoria and New South Wales. Photo: Amalyah Hart

Mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) are the tallest flowering plants in the world, with known past specimens reaching 100 metres in height and 34 metres around the trunk. Their alpine ash cousins (Eucalyptus delegatensis) aren’t far behind. Mountain ash trees occupy small niches in the mountains of Victoria and New South Wales. Photo: Amalyah Hart

Rethinking nature, rethinking the law

Dr Michelle Maloney is a lawyer who has spent years confronting the question of how nature might be given legal rights – a route that could in theory protect the mountain ash forests, as it has already protected the Vilcabamba River in Ecuador, and the Whanganui River in New Zealand.

“The fundamental problem is you’ve got a legal system borne out of feudalism, who saw private property as the foundation of their economic system, and they mentally separated from nature in a way that First Nations people never have,” says Dr Maloney.

“Rights of nature means pushing back that system that says nature is just for us, and rights of nature is a handy legal framing, or even a moral framing, to say we are just one part of an interconnected web of life.”

It’s a tantalising idea, this interconnectedness. It provokes questions about personhood, identity, what it means to “be” in the natural universe, a place many of us came to cherish in its absence over the pandemic year of household lockdown.

To many, it may seem ridiculous to propose that a tree, or a river, or indeed any natural feature could be afforded rights akin to that of a human. But there are some delicious overlaps between human and arboreal ways of “being”, increasingly articulated by some of the most exciting branches of science.

We know now that trees “talk” to one another, conveying information via electro-chemical signals that are shared between filaments of microscopic fungi that live on tree roots, and link often vast stands of trees together. Experiments have demonstrated that trees can warn one another of danger, divert nutrients to each other via these networks, and even sabotage competitor trees.

This means that, in a different but no less real way, trees are enrolled in a kind of social network. It means that when you walk through the forest you are walking above and amongst a community of living things, whispering in a language you don’t understand.

In The Expanding Circle, philosopher Peter Singer posits that the evolution of society can be characterised as the expansion of the circle of beings whose interests we value as highly as our own. First family, then tribe, then society, then global civilisation, then animals. Now plants?

For the tall trees of Victoria, it could certainly do no harm to attempt to understand them in this new (to us) but old (to First Nations) way, as beings of standing, with rights. Botanist, ecologist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Native American Potowatomi Nation, confronts this question in her book Braiding Sweetgrass.

“If a maple is an it,” she writes, “we can take up the chain saw. If a maple is a her, we think twice.”

Standing at the base of Kalatha, wrapped in the cool green glow of an abundant forest, minimised in comparison to her absolute vastness, she certainly feels like a her, and most definitely not an it.

Giant trees introduce us to new universes of scale, bending the limits of possibility. They transport us beyond ourselves.

The awe they inspire resonates powerfully inside the human brain, shutting off activity in the default mode network – the interconnected group of brain regions involved in self-obsessive ruminations. This is the network which fuels introspection and anxiety, which dissociates us from the outside world.

Awe is like a trip-switch for the mind, a hard reset to dispel the fog of modern life. Walking through the great ash forests gives you that vanishing feeling of complete, unassailable wildness.

 

The future of tall trees

Tall trees mean different things to different people. To some, they inspire awe, provoke wonder, even hint at the divine. To others, they are sources of quality timber or a good day’s wage.

To the Leadbeater’s Possum, they can be home. To humans too, once. As Tom Griffiths writes in Forests of Ash, the trunks of some of the tallest ash trees of Victoria – now long since disappeared – were occupied for months at a time by early yeomen settlers and their families.

The Victorian Government has the unenviable task of weighing up all the interests competing over these tall trees.

Seemingly satisfying no one, it has committed to ending all native timber logging by 2030. For the anti-logging cohort that date is viewed as a cop-out, because by 2030 they fear too much will have been lost.

For the timber workers and their associations the commitment is also unpopular because – despite a $120 million promise to support the transition of native logging jobs into plantations –  they fear the move will cast workers adrift.

Last September, market researcher IBISWorld reported that the pandemic-related economic downturn looked set to threaten logging industry revenue in the coming year, with global demand for timber trending downwards, suggesting the sector may be waning regardless of these controversies.

A year on from my first visit to Kalatha, and from the most destructive bushfires in Australian history, the debate over these forests is still nowhere near resolution.

As a mere human standing beneath the Giant Kalatha, at the quiet centre of a vortex of human conflict, it’s difficult to justify the felling of a single one of these rugged giants. In the stillness of a damp, cool forest, it feels something like sacrilege to imagine that we have any right to take them.

As the conflict rages on, these giants stand, sedate and impervious as they always have been, chipped away at by forces beyond their control. In their genes they carry a precious legacy.

A memory so distant, so intangible, so ancient it dwarfs the entire history of our species.

 

 

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

  • Editor: Jo Chandler
  • Reporter: Benjamin Silvester
  • Audio & Video editor: Louisa Lim
  • Data editor: Craig Butt
  • Editor-In-Chief: Andrew Dodd
  • Business editor: Lucy Smy
Winner — BEST PUBLICATION 2016 Ossie Awards