Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre
by Steve Meacher
In the late 1980s there was increasing controversy regarding the native forest logging industry, particularly the wood chipping sector. The industry was spending millions of dollars to improve its image. Against this background, in the early 1990s the Commonwealth and Victorian governments agreed to jointly establish an education program based in Toolangi to, ‘raise public awareness by providing greater opportunities for the community to obtain information about the unique ecology of Australia’s forests, the management of these forests, nature conservation, heritage values, and forests economic and wood production values’.[i]
The concept was that Toolangi State Forest would be considered a ‘Demonstration Forest’ in which selected sites showcase and explain forest ecology and ‘active uses’ including logging and regeneration. The program would be based at a forest discovery centre, to be built on the Healesville-Kinglake Road, Toolangi, adjacent to the local Department of Conservation, Natural Resources & Environment office.
The Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre (TFDC) opened in February 1994. It was designed by Peter Pass, an architect within the department who had designed utility buildings in National Parks. Each building was matched to its surroundings. The TFDC was Peter’s largest building and his masterpiece. It is constructed of native timber, much of it obtained locally. Within the design there are many references to the logging history of Toolangi and to the surrounding environment. The brief was ‘a high quality and innovative education and information project which will provide schools, special interest groups and the public, with accurate, balanced and comprehensive information about all aspects of the biology and management of Victoria’s native forests’. It was clear that the unstated intent was to focus on explaining the need to utilise the forest timber resource and on the opening day a protest was mounted outside the building.
In these early years, one of the highlights was the International Sculpture Festival in 1996, supported by UNESCO (Paris), the Australia Council, Victorian State Government, Arts Victoria, Sidney Myer Foundation and the Shire of Murrindindi.
Funding cuts at the end of 1998 caused the department to cease funding the staffing and management of the TFDC, although the education program continued as the Toolangi Forest Education Service (TFES), delivered under a three-year contract by the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (NMIT). Otherwise, the centre was sometimes open to the public on weekends and public holidays, depending on available funding. Problems were experienced with the arrangement, including the fact that the centre was not staffed during the week to make bookings for school visits.
In the early 2000s school education programs were being conducted by staff from the department’s Toolangi office, but the TFDC was generally not open to the public. In 2003 the Natural Resources Conservation League (NRCL) closed its nurseries in Springvale and needed a new home for its education program, including organisation of Arbor Week. It entered into an arrangement with the department to lease space on the Toolangi site, to which it moved its classroom, behind the Discovery Tree building. A term of the agreement was that the TFDC would be open Monday to Friday and for some time parallel programs were run out of the TFDC by NRCL and TFES.
During this time, the proprietors of the Toolangi General Store approached the Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning (DELWP) with a plan to convert part of the building as a coffee shop, the Crosscut Kiosk. The existing staff tearoom was extended and some of the displays were removed to make space for tables. However, the proposal did not ultimately succeed and the Toolangi Tavern was built instead, next to the site of the general store.
In 2007 NRCL left Toolangi, having decided to move its program to the Waterwheel Centre in Warburton. The TFES programs continued until June 2012, when the department decided that forest education was ‘no longer core business’. Activities based at the TFDC were discontinued and the building was closed. Eventually a temporary security fence was erected around the building, leaving it looking like a demolition site. Ironically, the security fence was later stolen!
Members of the Toolangi community continued to advocate for the re-opening of the much-loved centre and in June 2015 held a well-attended public meeting to discuss the future management and use of the building. In February 2016, DELWP called a more formal public meeting and invited community members to develop a business plan. Ten volunteers signed up and work on the plan began. It was completed in mid-July and by then DELWP had asked the group to become a Management Committee.
The keys were handed over to the Management Committee in September 2016 and work began to prepare the building, after several years of neglect, for the 20th Anniversary Sculpture Festival planned for November. A community working bee was arranged, and local residents arrived with their brooms, mops, dusters and cleaning rags, working like Trojans to bring the building back to life. After such a long period of disuse, the building was also checked for structural and electrical safety before it could be made available to the public.
After the festival, the building fell silent and empty once again, as further work was necessary before it could be fully opened. Other than minimal funds for essential repairs, DELWP was not willing to further invest in the building, so the committee decided to establish a coffee shop to generate income to at least cover running costs. This meant more work had to be done on the kitchen to satisfy council requirements. The Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre Committee of Management was incorporated in February 2017 and the Ecology Café opened in July 2017.
The café was originally established by a professional local chef and a trained barista, but without financial support and a regular clientele this was not sustainable and, over time, an army of volunteers provided the workforce. The gallery was used to display artworks and to host an exhibition marking 150 years since the scientific description of Leadbeater’s Possum, a resident of Toolangi State Forest and Victoria’s faunal emblem. When the Judith Eardley Save Wildlife shop in Healesville closed, books were donated for sale at the TFDC and helped boost fund-raising.
After its first year the TFDC was covering its costs and generating a small profit. Nevertheless, DELWP decided the time had come to appoint a new committee and advertised for applications. The remaining members of the original committee applied but were rejected. A new committee was appointed in August 2018 and the café, gallery and bookshop were closed.
As of November 2021, the Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre remains, sadly, closed and in decay.