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The battle for the red gum forests

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Monday, 1 September 2008


There are two competing plans for the management of the red gum forests along the Murray River in north-western Victoria.

Recently, the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) handed down its report recommending that large areas of State Forest be converted to National Park. The VEAC plan would in effect mean the end of grazing and timber harvesting in these iconic forests and more restrictions on camping and recreational activities.

When the idea of converting more state forest to national park was first mooted a couple of years ago, 25 community groups representing over 100,000 people got together to develop an alternative plan which was launched on July 31, 2008, at State Parliament.

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The Rivers and Red Gum Environmental Alliance (RRGA) wants 104,000 hectares of land declared Ramsar Reserve which would allow for the continued “wise use” of the forest by woodcutters, graziers and campers while also providing for the conservation of important wetland areas.

The two plans represent two competing concepts of wilderness.

The VEAC plan is based on a Romantic and European notion that excludes people: but for many Indigenous Australians a tract of land without custodians is something to lament - certainly not to celebrate.

The third and fourth generation woodcutters, cattlemen and fishermen that now live along the Murray River also believe that the river red gum forests need to be “looked after” and that the VEAC plan will result in uncontrolled wild fires that will eventually destroy large tracts of forest as happened at Top Island in the Barmah State Park in 2006.

Interestingly, forests like the Barmah - the largest river red gum forest in Australia - were once regularly patch burnt and this resulted in a more open environment than now exists. Indeed some Aboriginal elders call river red gums “white fellas weed” because with European settlement trees were protected, fuel-loads kept very low, and a network of rural fire fighting brigades now stomp out fires started from lightning strikes.

Late American writer John Brinckerhoff Jackson wrote about the Romantic concept of wilderness describing it as “the domain of the nobility”, and a place where they alone can “develop and display a number of aristocratic qualities” and how this can result in friction with “the peasants”.

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Many ordinary people along the Murray have a similar animosity towards VEAC because they see the Council as wanting to exclude them from the forests they know and love. Furthermore, they see VEAC as a small group of outsiders appointed by government and without any particular expertise and they argue the current problems in the forests are a result of a lack of water not the presence of ordinary people and traditional industries.

Certainly, the VEAC proposal to change land tenure will not solve the water problem.

The RRGA plan, in contrast, proposes to alleviate the water problem by piggybacking environmental flows on to managed flows for irrigation. The RRGA plan explains that it is possible to push water down creeks using on-river regulators in conjunction with the distribution works located on flood runners through the forests, and in this way deliver small quantities of water efficiently to the most stressed part of the forest.

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This is an edited version of the speech given at the Legislative Council Committee Room, Parliament House on Thursday, July 31, 2008.

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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