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Saving The Great Forest

David Lindenmayer is a forest of a man. A world-leading expert in biodiversity conservation and natural resource management, he’s published forty-eight books and more than 800 peer-reviewed scientific papers. He’s a professor of ecology and conservation biology at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, an Officer of the Order of Australia, and a fellow of both the Australian Academy of Science and the Ecological Society of America.

Public accolades and global renown mean little in the forests of Victoria’s Central Highlands, on the lands of the Gunaikurnai, Taungurung and Wurundjeri Peoples. These forests cover over 710,000 hectares and are home to some of the tallest trees on Earth – mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans). Some, still living, are over ninety metres (the height of a twenty-five-storey building). Others, long ago turned into timber, were reputedly more than 120 metres tall.

When David Lindenmayer speaks of these forests – globally and nationally significant for their biodiversity and conservation value – his words come from the forest itself, a place he’s spent forty years recording, monitoring and studying. When he suggests there needs to be an extended reserve system – the Great Forest National Park – to protect the remaining forests in the Central Highlands, his words come from long-term research projects documenting the impacts of industrial logging and fire on the region’s ecology and biodiversity.

When the forest speaks through a man like David Lindenmayer, we’d do well to listen.

GR: You’ve spent nearly forty years looking, walking and thinking in the forests of the Victorian Central Highlands. How did you get there and what’s kept you there for so long?

David Lindenmayer. Photo: Sammy Hawker

DL: I started in July 1983, working for a very bright, very innovative scientist called Andrew Smith. Andrew had done his PhD there, working at a site that had Leadbeater’s possum on it. He got a grant to identify its habitat requirements across the whole forest environment.

In a forest, no species occurs everywhere all the time. The idea was to try to work out where Leadbeater’s possum occurred and why. And what the effect was of disturbing the forest, through logging or fire, or both. I never thought like that until I started to work for Andrew.

The first three months were full-on – every single day putting out traps, catching animals, walking through the forest. It rained the entire time and by the end of the second month, everything was mouldy, including my sleeping bag.

When it’s wet down there, there are literally millions of leeches everywhere. For the first day, you don’t realise. Then you come out of the forest, jump in the shower and you’ve got this black necklace on, and you think, what the hell is that?

I thought, there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this for a year. It’s amazing what human beings get used to.

After a while, I started to appreciate what an incredible place it was. Even though I live in Canberra now, one of my favourite things is to go to those forests, count birds and have that quiet time. The more you get to know a place, the more you want to know, and the more you resonate with how amazing it is.

GR: Is there one particular place that calls you back?

DL: Yeah. O’Shannassy water catchment has never been logged. It’s got a special atmosphere. You don’t have all the log trucks, the people on their motorbikes and all the other crap that goes on. It’s where I do some of my best thinking.

I take my son there, and he walks up and down the tracks while I walk into the forest and listen for birds for fifteen, twenty minutes. It’s cathedral-like – the resonance of the calls between the massive trees gives a sense of amphitheatre you don’t get elsewhere.

GR: For someone like you, who’s spent your life researching forests and being embedded in them, I guess it comes down to relationship with a place as much as numbers and statistics?

DL: Yeah, it’s more than numbers. There’s an excitement in numbers because you don’t know what the intensive research is going to bring until you work with a statistician, and they pull out some of the results. But in the O’Shannassy forest, there’s a strong sense of place. I’ll hear a superb lyrebird running through a string of calls, and I know it’s either the same male bird I’ve been hearing for years, or its son. The sons learn the calls from their fathers. There’s a couple of places where I know that that bird’s going to be calling. It’s been the same since July 1983. I have bird plots from then.

Old growth mountain ash with snow and lichens on Gunaikurnai Country. Photo: Chris Taylor. From The Great Forest, by David Lindenmayer. 2021, Allen & Unwin.

 GR: Can you speak to the Great Forest National Park vision and why you’ve been championing it for as long as you have?

DL: There’s several angles. First, there’s the science on biodiversity, which indicates quite clearly that we need a greatly extended national park. Most of the populations of threatened species are not viable in the current reserve system. The area of protected forest needs to be much larger.

The second thing is that the economics indicate that the value of the forest for water and carbon way exceeds the value for woodchips. Economically, it’s stupid what’s going on.

The third thing is we’ve discovered that the more forest is logged, the more it’s likely to burn, and burn at high severity. There’s a really nasty feedback between human disturbance created by logging and natural disturbance associated with wildfire.

The vision, then, is an area that would have many more economic benefits, as well as biodiversity and environmental benefits, than what’s happening at the moment.

GR: How much has already been cleared and what is planned in the Central Highlands?

DL: About fifty per cent has been clear-felled in the last thirty years. About twenty per cent of it is in water catchments and won’t be available for logging. The remaining twenty to thirty per cent will be cut in the coming ten to twenty years. The Victorian Government say they’re going to exit the industry in ten years, but I think that’s rubbish. There is no hard evidence the industry will actually cease.

When you cut a forest down, after about a year all the logging slash – the tree heads, lateral branches, understorey, bark and ground cover – dries out. Then you burn it, and burn about half of the biomass. That becomes a deep bed of ash and you parachute-in seeds collected from the cut-down trees and regrow your crop. After about twenty years, most people can’t tell the difference between a place that’s been logged and one that hasn’t.

But if you know what you’re looking at, you can see a forest that’s been highly simplified by the logging process. If you work through a natural forest on a cutting cycle of about fifty to sixty years, after about three to four of those cycles, the forest is highly simplified. Many elements of the biodiversity that should be there are missing. Some of the key plants, many of the animals. The forest becomes very fire prone. Then you need to think okay, if it’s employing lots of people and there’s lots of money involved, that’s the price we have to pay for a wealthy industry.

But in fact, native forest logging loses large amounts of money for the state, both in New South Wales and Victoria. And you’re not producing high quality timber from it. You’re producing almost all paper pulp and woodchips.

If so much of the forest is going into woodchips and paper pulp, do you need to cut down native forest in the first place?

 GR: It seems like a no-brainer …

DL: A complete no-brainer, yep. The Victorian Government’s forestry policy is one of the most stupid policies in natural resource management. Why would you keep pushing a loss-making industry that employs just a few hundred people whilst screwing over the water supply, boosting carbon emissions, and making places more fire prone?

Industrial logging on a hilltop near Warburton. Wurundjeri Country. Photo: Sarah Rees. From The Great Forest, by David Lindenmayer. 2021, Allen & Unwin.
Cool temperate rainforest on Wurundjeri Country. Photo: Sarah Rees. From The Great Forest, by David Lindenmayer. 2021, Allen & Unwin.

GR: You’ve been working with Leadbeater’s possum for so long, it’s still critically endangered, and the greater glider has just been listed as endangered.

DL: It’s been uplisted. Yeah.

GR: You’re in this space, you’re watching these forests disappear and species shrink, and you obviously care deeply about them. How do you hold all of that?

DL: Because I know it’s the right thing to do. If it takes me another thirty years to fight to have it changed, then I’ll do that. It’s the right thing to do by climate, by biodiversity, by generations of younger Australians who have been let down by my generation.

It would be immoral to have this kind of knowledge and not do something about it. I love the forest and know there’s hope for it to recover. We just need to have some sensible policy, because at the moment, it’s disgraceful. And people should know about it.

Wollert, or Leadbeater’s possum on Wurundjeri Country. Photo: Steven Kuiter. From The Great Forest, by David Lindenmayer. 2021, Allen & Unwin.

GR: The place I’m most at home on the entire planet is probably the landscape I grew up on. It has a very strong pull on me. Where’s your heart landscape?

DL: Being in the forest is very spiritual for me, though I’m not religious. I love the mountain ash forest. But I also love the High Country. One of the things I love is being out on my cross-country skis. To ski beyond Charlotte Pass to where I got married – there’s a little snow meadow there. But the problem when I do those kinds of things is my mind is going with ideas. I’ve got to travel with my little yellow waterproof book.

I’ve got a real passion for this country. My son, he’s a wanderer, and said, ‘The great thing about wandering around the bush in Australia is there’s still so many animals calling.’ Yesterday, we would have heard about fifty or sixty things. I was trying to help him assemble the calls.

GR: That’s the thing isn’t it, you write in the introduction to your book that there’s so much beauty and wonder still present. It’s important that we see it, that we don’t think it’s all lost or broken. It’s still there.

DL: Yes, absolutely. The world is still a beautiful place and it’s still worth conserving. And there are lots of good people working hard to make a difference. I’ve had a wonderful life and I want other people and other people’s kids and their grandkids to be able to have those same experiences or something similar, and help contribute to keeping it as a beautiful place.

This post is an edited extract of a long-form interview with David Lindenmayer, published in Wonderground Issue Four. Read the full story online or in print now.

Find out more about David Lindenmayer’s vision for The Great Forest in the book, The Great Forest: The rare beauty of the Victorian central highlands, by David Lindenmayer. 2021. Published by Allen & Unwin.

David Lindenmayer. Photo: Sammy Hawker