Controversy, conservation, campaigns and court cases: a historical overview of environmental campaigns for the Toolangi State Forest
The timber industry around Toolangi and Healesville peaked between 1917 and 1928 but declined due to the Depression, the 1926 bushfires and the 1929 timber strike[i]. In 1936 the Victorian government, the Forests Commission and Australian Paper Manufacturers Ltd. reached agreement for the supply of wood pulp and a mill was established at Maryvale in Gippsland[ii]. In January 1939 another major fire occurred, now remembered as Black Friday. Its first victims, on Sunday 8 January, were Charles Demby and John Barling of Toolangi[iii]. These fires went on to burn 79% of the Central Highlands[iv].
The outbreak of war in 1939 led to increased demand for timber for construction, fuel and pulp for paper and the pressure to ‘salvage’ trees killed in the Black Friday bushfires became ‘frantic’. In September 1941, nearly 3 million feet of timber was railed out of Healesville alone, a Victorian record[v]. Another effect of the war was that the diesel engine was developed for use in heavy military machinery, such as trucks and tanks. After the war the technology was developed further for use in agriculture and forestry.
In the post-war era the axe and cross-cut saw were replaced by chainsaws. Electricity and diesel supplanted steam engines and roads took over from the timber tramways, which had largely been burned in the 1939 fires[vi]. This increased mechanisation made possible the industrial scale clear-felling of large areas of forest in a single operation and by the early 1970s clear-felling had been adopted as the recommended method of logging regrowth Ash[vii].
By 1974 less than 6% of the Ash forests in Central Victoria was older than regrowth following the 1939 fires[viii] and conservationists were becoming alarmed. Coincidentally, the Leadbeater’s Possum, a species first described in 1867 and presumed extinct since 1909, was re-discovered by Eric Wilkinson in Ash forest near Marysville in 1961[ix]. The importance of protecting suitable habitat for the possum was soon recognised and the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria wrote to the Wildlife Department in March 1962 urging that roadside vegetation in the area be left ‘as intact as possible’[x].
‘Timber harvesting, forest management and conservation of Leadbeater’s Possum were contentious issues throughout the 1970s’[xi]. In 1975 the Land Conservation Council (LCC) recommended creation of parks covering the Armstrong Creek catchment and the Baw Baws[xii]. The LCC recommendations left Toolangi available for hardwood production. However, with further sightings of the possum being made, in 1980 the Native Forest Action Council published a broadsheet calling for creation of a National Park that did include the eastern part of Toolangi State Forest, describing the proposal as ‘the only way to protect the Leadbeater’s Possum from extinction’[xiii].
Wet forest soils are characterised by the production and decomposition of leaves, bark, twigs and other organic material that fall to the ground, forming a ‘topsoil enriched in organic matter and plant nutrients’[xiv]. In the 1960s a dam was being excavated on a Toolangi property off Myers Creek Road and the landowners found there was a market value for the removed ‘mountain topsoil’ for use in city gardens[xv]. Removing and selling topsoil from properties in and around Toolangi, known as ‘topsoiling’, was a practice that developed and soon became widespread. On one occasion, a property came on the market and the real estate agent involved bought it himself to strip the topsoil for profit before selling it on[xvi]. The practice continued for several years despite some locals such as Peter Perry, a strawberry runner farmer, being ‘violently against it’. ‘I could not understand it’, Peter explained. ‘I came here because of the soils and there’s these dopey bastards selling it!’[xvii]
Most of the stripped properties were established farms from which the forest cover had been cleared decades earlier. However, in the late 1970s a forest property on Spraggs Road owned by the Victorian Trades Hall Council was ‘cut-over’ and a permit was obtained to excavate the soil on part of the land. About 18 inches (45 centimetres) and in some places in excess of two feet (60 centimetres) of topsoil was excavated[xviii]. Stripping came within a few metres of Campbell’s Creek but to continue on the other, steeper, side of the waterway, a new permit was required. This was refused by the Council of the Shire of Healesville but appealed on behalf of the owner, arguing, ‘that the removal of topsoil layers was ‘“the only economic way” to reforest this site’[xix]. The appeal was opposed by members of the Toolangi Progress Association, including Peter Perry, Vic Williams and Peter Gibson, who engaged a photographer to graphically document the destructive effects of the practice. When the Appeals Tribunal saw the photographs a site inspection without notice was arranged[xx]. After the tribunal had visited the site and seen the effects of ‘topsoil stripping’ first-hand the appeal was rejected and in 1978 the practice ended[xxi].
More recently, Peter Perry was involved in the protection of another area of forest on Spraggs Road, the Castella Education Reserve, through which it was proposed to build a new road for access to logging coupes. His successful objection halted the project and conserved the integrity of the reserve.
As the conservation movement grew in the 1980s, and pressure on governments increased, the Victorian government passed the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988. It adopted the first Code of Forest Practice for Timber Production in 1989 and recognised the need to explain its forest policies to the general public. Forest drives were established around the state to highlight forests and their uses. These included the Black Range Forest Drive. A guide booklet was published to facilitate six of these drives, extolling the beauty of the forests and subtly establishing the ‘careful management’ of ‘The Renewable Resource’[xxii]. About this time a decision was made to establish the Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre to explain the importance of forestry to the public[xxiii]. On its opening day in February 1994, conservationists opposed to native forest logging held a protest outside the building.
Over the next ten years the forest conservation movement continued to grow but little attention was paid to Toolangi State Forest. This changed somewhat when in 2007 the Victorian government determined to install a pipeline to take water from the Yea River over the Great Divide to contribute to Melbourne’s supplies at Sugarloaf Reservoir in the Christmas Hills. Known as the ‘North-South Pipeline’, it was part of the Victorian Government’s ‘Our Water, Our Future’ plan, which included other major projects such as the Wonthaggi desalination plant[xxiv]. The route of the pipeline roughly followed the Melba Highway from north to south and cut a swathe through farmland and several significant sections of Toolangi and Paul’s Range forests. Protests and blockades were held at several sites along the route. On one occasion Water Minister Tim Holding attended a meeting in the Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre and was blockaded inside the building by demonstrators. He was eventually whisked away in a police car. The pipeline was commissioned in 2010.
In 2003 the Victorian government had resolved to separate the logging section of its environment department from the supervisory arm, and VicForests began operating in August 2004. The new corporation was responsible for commercial logging east of the Hume Highway, an area that includes Toolangi. While most coupes[xxv] are more or less concealed within the forest and not easily seen unless you are close, one was very visible. South End coupe is on the west facing slopes of Mount St Leonard, accessed from Monda Road, off Myers Creek Road. After it had been logged in 2008, the scar it left on the face of the mountain was visible from Kinglake, Steels Creek and even Kew. From the Healesville-Woori Yallock Road the coupe created a pronounced gap in the skyline. This breach of previous ‘visibility’ policy caused widespread community outrage.
Also in 2008, after almost a decade of negotiation between the department and the logging industry, a system of Leadbeater’s Possum Reserves was established. This included parts of Toolangi State Forest, mostly around the Sylvia and Myrtle Creeks and the Yea River.
When the Black Saturday fires burned devastatingly through the area in February 2009, pipeline machinery at Castella was destroyed. A community protest planned for the following Sunday became impossible. Around 43% of the Leadbeater’s Possum Reserve area was burned, less than four months after it had been established.
The central part of Toolangi largely escaped destruction as the Kilmore East fire passed to the south and the Murrindindi Mill fire burned through the forest to the north.
After the fires, the local community was pre-occupied with rebuilding and recovery. Many hoped the unburned portion of Toolangi, which became known as ‘the hole in the donut’, would be protected as a refuge for surviving wildlife and for local residents to visit as a precious area of forest that was still green, as opposed to orange and black. However, VicForests’ main concern was to continue to fulfil its ‘contractual commitments’ and within weeks, logging recommenced, even while the forest remained closed to the public. In the following months three changes to VicForests’ logging plans (the Timber Release Plan or TRP) were approved ‘to provide sufficient coupes for future operations’[xxvi]. ‘It is necessary for VicForests to undertake harvesting in green stands and areas where trees have not been killed by fire’, they argued. Areas that had been burned continued to be intensively ‘salvage’ logged. In March 2010 a further 29 new coupes were proposed to be added in Toolangi.
In early July 2011 a sign was placed on the Toolangi Tavern noticeboard, advising that Sylvia Creek Road was to be closed from 18 July for ‘tree falling’. An attempt to arouse community opposition to the logging of a coupe between the Yea River and Coles Creek Road in 2008 had met a muted response, but, after the fires, this was too much. A public event to ‘Save Sylvia Creek’ was arranged for Sunday 17 July, before the road closure so that locals and others could witness what would be lost in the logging of the coupe, called Gun Barrel. The following morning several locals attended but the road was not closed until Tuesday, when a gate was installed, blocking Sylvia Creek Road. A community meeting was hurriedly arranged for Wednesday and over 70 people attended, despite the short notice. A roster of volunteers was arranged to ‘recce’ Sylvia Creek Road for signs of activity each morning and to sound the alarm if any was found.
Logging commenced the following Friday but was interrupted the next Monday by a community walk-in of over 70 people, mostly local. During the following weeks, a number of activities aimed at disrupting logging were conducted with active support from the Toolangi and Castella community. Approaches were made to the Premier, Ted Baillieu, and a presentation was made to Murrindindi Shire Council. Cindy McLeish, MP for Eildon, was taken on a guided tour. On Sunday 31 July a public event called ‘Symphony for Sylvia’ was held to allow the public to express their sadness at the logging that had commenced but also to celebrate the fact that the damage had been limited by community action. Over 100 attended. That evening a site-specific report from the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) was received, recommending deferring logging while further investigations were carried out.
The next morning, a tree-sit was in place and a support crew was gathered at the base of the tree. DSE forest officers and police arrived early and two arrests were made[xxvii] but the tree-sit remained in place and no felling was possible. Logging continued to be peacefully and safely disrupted by a succession of tree-sits, walk-ins[xxviii] and lock-ons, all supported by community members who supplied hot soup, coffee and fresh scones (with jam and cream!). Donated firewood was a much-needed commodity as the hardy crew was camping out through a Toolangi winter. A community meeting on 11 August was the biggest so far with over 120 attendees including politicians and members of the logging industry. It was an animated discussion.
The tone of the campaign changed on 23 August when the police brought dogs to help locate tree protectors concealed in the coupe. This enabled felling to proceed, but logging finished early.
The next morning, Healesville-based community group MyEnvironment filed a writ in the Supreme Court. VicForests refused the request to cease logging and an urgent hearing was set for 8:30am on 25 August. Despite the three tree-sits in place, chainsaws could be heard but not tree-falling. A large group of community members gathered at the gate awaiting news of the court proceeding and the police and DSE officers came down to introduce a dog handler, with the warning that a dog was to be released and that anybody on the ground in the coupe risked being bitten. It was a great relief to all when news came through that an injunction had been granted and felling must stop[xxix]. The dog handler and his charge left soon after. Under the terms of the injunction, trees already felled could be removed and over the course of the day, five loaded trucks drove out. No further logging has occurred in Gun Barrel coupe since 2011[xxx].
The success of the Save Sylvia campaign did not mean an end to logging; it was just moved to other coupes. New campaigns were formed as coupes were scheduled. The Save Mount St Leonard campaign succeeded in removing two coupes on Monda Road from the TRP, but a coupe adjoining the northern boundary of South End, called ‘Leo’s Foot’ was logged, increasing the visible welt on the mountain’s lower west-facing slopes. During work on Leo’s Foot, a champagne breakfast was held in South End to celebrate a local couple’s 40th wedding anniversary. A notable aspect of this event was that, though logging did not cease, passing truck drivers exhibited a grudging respect.
The Save Rusty campaign focused on a coupe between Leo’s Foot and Sylvia Creek Road that contained over 100 big, old, hollow-bearing trees (each of which was given a name), providing habitat for a large population of Greater Gliders[xxxi]. Although the logging went ahead, a tree called ‘Hugo’ was protected and most of the ancient trees were preserved and remain standing. Due to the ecological importance of these trees, campaigning to prevent post-logging burning of the coupe continued. With the change of government in 2014 this campaign was ultimately successful, and the logged coupe was regenerated by ‘mechanical disturbance’ rather than by burning. Another campaign to protect Nolan’s Gully, off Spragg’s Road to the west of Toolangi, had some success and some unlogged coupes are now protected[xxxii].
During these campaigns regular community planning meetings continued to occur. These became important social events, usually attended by 20-30 people. A safe space was created in which participants were afforded the important opportunity to debrief[xxxiii]. News of the various campaigns was shared and successes were celebrated. Ideas for new campaigns were aired and discussed. Enduring friendships and connections were formed.
In July 2012 two protesters camping on Myers Creek Road, members of the Central Highlands Action Group (CHAG), were viciously attacked by up to 10 men in the early hours. Equipment was stolen and a vehicle was damaged, with a star picket speared through the windscreen[xxxiv]. This was an unprecedented escalation in violence and the community meetings discussed a response. It was suggested that such appalling behaviour would not be acceptable ‘in front of your grandma’, and the idea of Knitting Nannas was suggested, based on a passive form of protest used in other environmental disputes. The concept was that a group of senior community members would maintain a presence, not participating in any disruptive action but passively witnessing events from the sidelines. The strategy was successful and there has been no repeat of the same level of violence. The group became known as the Knitting Nannas of Toolangi, with the appropriate acronym, KNOT. The group remains active and has now developed further campaigns and, in turn, seeded new initiatives, such as the Great Tree Project.
Another outcome of the MyEnvironment case was that the Victorian government recognised the need to reconsider the protection of its faunal emblem, Leadbeater’s Possum, especially following the loss of 43% of its reserve in the 2009 fires. The Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group (LPAG) was formed to make recommendations on conservation of the possum. However, the members of the group were drawn from government related agencies and industry. The Terms of Reference stipulated maintenance of a ‘sustainable timber industry’. In these circumstances the conservation community had limited confidence in the process. Only one of LPAG’s thirteen recommendations improved on previous policy: the protection of a 200-metre radius buffer around the locations of confirmed sightings of the animal. The first of these buffers resulting from a community report occurred in 2015 in a coupe called ‘Freddo’, on Coles Creek Road, Toolangi. It was one of the three coupes in the MyEnvironment -v- VicForests case, so the confirmation of the presence of the possum was significant.
To raise awareness of the need to protect the area, the Little Red Toolangi Treehouse was created. This was literally a cubby house suspended in a tree that was inhabited for several weeks by volunteers. It was not in a coupe and was intended to educate, not disrupt. A support camp was established on the ground below and visitors were encouraged and welcomed. On one occasion a journalist was assisted to ascend into the tree to conduct an interview with the volunteer in the treehouse[xxxv]. Eventually the treehouse was removed in compliance with a court order.
The establishment of the Freddo buffer also encouraged further survey activity and a new group specialising in this work was formed, Wildlife of the Central Highlands or WOTCH. This group uses recent technology, including infrared cameras and GPS, to locate and document listed species in areas threatened by logging. Reports are then prepared and submitted to the Department of the Environment for assessment before a buffer is created. To date, WOTCH has been responsible for nearly 200 new buffers, adding up to around 2,000 hectares of protected forest. Many of these sightings have been in Toolangi including Imperium[xxxvi] (also on Coles Creek Road), Dutchie (Monda Road), Surfing (Hardy Creek Road), Whopper (Kalatha Road), South Col (Granton Road), Shrek and Infant (Nolan’s Gully) and Utopia (Coles Creek Road). As well as adding to protection of Leadbeater’s Possum habitat, these surveys, all conducted by volunteers, have increased knowledge of other wildlife present, including Greater Gliders and forest owls.
One of the most ambitious and influential campaigns to protect Toolangi State Forest from logging is the Great Forest National Park project. This concept began from local discussions in 2012, coalesced around a visit to Toolangi by Bob Brown[xxxvii], guided by Professor David Lindenmayer, and has continued to grow ever since. The concept was to use the best available conservation science and species records to create newly protected areas that connect the fragmented forests of the Central Highlands from Kinglake and Toolangi in the west, to Eildon in the east and the Baw Baws in the south-east. It builds on the proposals of the Land Conservation Council and the Native Forest Action Council from the 1970s and has received the support of David Attenborough and Dr Jane Goodall. Providing opportunities for recreation and tourism, it has the support of many local communities and businesses. It even received support from the Victorian ALP until the loggers’ union became involved in the lead-up to the 2014 state election[xxxviii]. After the election, the Andrews government established a Forest Industry Taskforce which met until 2016, when it disbanded without tangible results.
In early 2017, Healesville-based conservation group Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum (FLbP)[xxxix] worked with Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) to seek declaration of an Interim Conservation Order to protect critical Leadbeater’s Possum habitat, including parts of Toolangi State Forest. After some months, a disappointingly non-committal response was received from the Minister. Following this, FLbP and EJA agreed to work together on a new case, to be launched in the Federal Court. This case alleged unlawful logging and sought to protect important areas of habitat. The first hearing in the case was in November 2017 and agreements were entered into preventing work (or further work) in 66 coupes. Toolangi coupes involved in the case include Glenview, Flicka, Chest and Bridle (near Mount Despair), Goliath, Shrek, Infant and Junior (Nolan’s Gully), Gun Barrel, Imperium, Utopia and Home & Away (Sylvia Creek Road), South Col (Granton Road), and Waves and Surfing (Hardy Creek Road).
The full hearing of the case occurred in June 2019 and judgement overwhelmingly in favour of FLbP was handed down in May 2020. The court found that breaches of the Victorian legislation had occurred in all 66 coupes in the case and injunctions were imposed preventing further logging in any of those coupes. VicForests appealed the judgment and succeeded on 1 of 31 grounds of appeal. However, the findings of breaches under state law were ‘not disturbed’ and stand. FLbP has applied to the High Court for leave to appeal the one successful outcome in VicForests’ appeal, consequently the injunctions remain in force and the coupes are still protected from logging (October 2021).
After the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020, WOTCH commenced a new case in the Supreme Court seeking to protect unburnt habitat, the importance of which had been increased by the loss of large areas in the fires. Again, this case involves several coupes in Toolangi, including Castella East, Propeller, Brumby and Pony.
Following the favourable judgment in the ‘Possums’ case, other groups have filed further cases. Of particular note in regard to Toolangi are cases taken by Kinglake Friends of the Forests which are currently in process.
In November 2019, the Victorian government announced the cessation of native forest logging in 2030. The announcement also promised the immediate cessation of old growth logging[xl] and the creation of Immediate Protection Areas (IPAs) for conservation of Greater Gliders and other species. Part of Toolangi State Forest, including Nolan’s Gully and areas around Sylvia Creek, is now protected in the IPAs but the majority of its area remains available for logging until 2030.
[ii] Tom Griffiths, Forests of Ash: An Environmental History, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
[iv] Land Conservation Council, Melbourne Area District 2 Review, Proposed Recommendations, March 1993.
[v] In 1936, an annual record of more than 5 million feet had been set; see Houghton, Timber Mountain.
[vi] Griffiths, Forests of Ash.
[vii] Utilization of Regrowth Ash Forests, Forests Commission of Victoria, 1974, quoted in J.H. Seebeck, The Conservation of Leadbeater’s Possum, 1977, Public Record Office Victoria (PROV).
[ix] The location was significant as the earlier specimens had been collected from swamp forests in West Gippsland.
[x] Norman A. Wakefield, Letter to the Director, Fisheries & Wildlife Dept, 19 March 1962, PROV.
[xi] J.H. Seebeck, ‘Literature of Leadbeater’s Possum’, August 1987, Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research.
[xii] Leadbeater’s Possum – Proposed Recommendations, Melbourne Study Area, Land Conservation Council, 1975, PROV. See also Leadbeater’s Possum – Distribution of Leadbeater’s Possum in the Mountain Ash Forest of the Central Highlands, LCC, 1979, PROV.
[xiii] ‘Leadbeater’s Possum on the Brink of Extinction’, Native Forests Action Council, October 1980, PROV.
[xiv] P. M. Attiwill, Report on the effect of soil removal on reafforestation and plant growth, Town Planning Appeals Tribunal, April 1978.
[xv] Interview with Peter Perry conducted 19 October 2021.
[xviii] Attiwill, Report on the effect of soil removal on reafforestation and plant growth, 1978.
[xx] Interview with Peter Perry conducted 19 October 2021.
[xxi] When the block later came on the market, Peter Perry bought it. He still calls it the Trades Hall block and continues to protect the forest it contains.
[xxii] ‘See How They Grow: The Great Forests of Victoria’, Department of Conservation and Environment, 1990.
[xxiii] See separate article on the Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre.
[xxv] A ‘coupe’ is a specific area of forest, usually up to 40 hectares, planned to be logged in a single operation. Each coupe is assigned an address, or reference number, and most are given a name by the planners.
[xxvi] Notification of proposed change to the 2006/07 – 2010/11 Timber Release Plan (TRP), 17 December 2009.
[xxvii] The author was one of those arrested. Further charges were added later but all charges were eventually dropped.
[xxviii] Around 80 community members walked into the coupe on 17 August 2011. This was a well-publicised event and the loggers and DSE chose not to show up.
[xxix] The ensuing case, MyEnvironment -v- VicForests, alleging the presence of high-quality Leadbeater’s Possum habitat (Zone 1A) in Gun Barrel coupe and two others, was heard in 2012. MyEnvironment’s case was unsuccessful and was appealed in 2013, again without success. Nevertheless, no further logging at the site has occurred since and all three coupes are now permanently protected in the IPA.
[xxx] It is now (as of October 2021) in an Immediate Protection Area (IPA) declared by the Victorian government in 2019.
[xxxi] If these trees had been classed as ‘Ash’ they would probably have been automatically protected but most were Messmate or Mountain Grey Gum.
[xxxii] In the Toolangi IPA mentioned in note 20, above.
[xxxiii] It should be remembered that many of these were people who had recently experienced the tragedy of the Black Saturday bushfires. A shared bond and purpose arguably became a factor in recovery.
[xxxiv] ‘Star-picket attack on anti-logging campers’, The Age, 21 July 2012.
[xxxv] ‘I am holding a vigil in a treehouse to save Victoria’s Leadbeater’s possums’, The Guardian, 13 November 2013.
[xxxvi] For convenience, coupe names assigned by VicForests have been used here.
[xxxvii] Professor Lindenmayer invited the leaders of all major political parties. Brown was the only one to take up the offer.
[xxxviii] ‘Coalition tensions simmer over unexpected ‘no new national parks’ policy’, Josh Gordon, The Age, 15 November 2014.
[xxxix] Disclosure: the author is President of Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum Inc.
[xl] This part of the policy will make little, if any, difference in the Ash forests of the Central Highlands as less than 1.2% is now older than regrowth after the 1939 fires, and that is mostly already in protected areas.