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.
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”.
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.
The RRGA plan is in part-based on the rich oral history within not only the Indigenous, but also the white-fella communities along the Murray.
But the potential for this efficient within-forest water management has been ignored in the VEAC plan that advocates overbank flows; a mechanism that will require much larger volumes of water which some consider unrealistic and inefficient given these dry times.
Commercial timber production is currently permitted within less than 45,000 hectares of state forest which represents just 16 per cent of the total area of public land in the VEAC investigation area. VEAC proposes an 80 per cent reduction in the area of state forest effectively wiping out the timber industry.
In contrast, the RRGA plan, which many locals want to see implemented, proposes continued timber harvesting and also thinning of trees under the concept of wise-use as explained in the Ramsar Convention of 1971.
Ramsar is the name of a town in Iran where this international convention was signed. Ramsar allows industries in forests and wetlands of international significance under best practice guidelines and appropriate regulation. The Ramsar Convention recognised that the social and economic benefits derived from the sustainable use of wilderness areas can provide incentives for the people to conserve them.
The recommendation by the RRGA, if adopted by government, would create the largest Ramsar reserve in the world and let people continue to work, live and play in the river red gum forests of the mid-Murray under a more contemporary notion of wilderness, where use of the forest resource is not banned, but rather regulated so no one group is allowed to dominate - because a wilderness can not sustain those that seek to dominate it.
This is an edited version of the speech given at the Legislative Council Committee Room, Parliament House on Thursday, July 31, 2008.