Yesterday I was at the Victorian Parliament in Melbourne to launch a new plan for the management of the River Red Gum Forests of the mid-Murray in northern Victoria.
The comprehensive plan is contained within a 150 page report by the Rivers and Red Gum Environmental Alliance; a group of 25 community and environmental NGOs representing over 100,000 people.
This is what I said:
Ladies and Gentlemen,
What a privilege it is to be here today to launch a comprehensive plan for the river red gum forests along the Murray River; a plan put together with the aim of not only looking after the forests but also the communities who live, work and play in them.
There are some who argue that the only way to look after a forest is to exclude people. But they are wrong and particularly when it comes to river red gum forests.
Red gums are fire sensitive and the large forests along the Murray, including the Barmah Forest, have always been tended by people. The Barmah forest, the largest river red gum forest in the world, is only about 6,000 years old as it came about following a geological uplifting that changed the course of the Murray River.
The wood cutters and cattlemen who now live and work in the region have gone to great lengths to keep fuel-loads in red gum forests low through controlled grazing and the collection of firewood. This, combined with a network of rural fire fighting brigades, has made it possible to stomp out fires started from lightning strikes or camp fires.
And this may explain why some aboriginal elders call river red gums ‘white fella weed’ and why areas which were described by the early explorers as open woodland are now covered in trees including part of Barmah.
Whether open woodland from burning, or dense forest from fire exclusion, bush users, both indigenous and non-indigenous, know that the beauty of what many regard as wilderness is often the consequence of a particular approach to land management.
Indeed the idea of a forest without people is a Romantic European notion of wilderness.
In 1820 English poet and Oxford graduate Percy Shelley wrote,
“Away, away, from men and towns,
To the wild wood and downs,
To the silent wilderness,
Where the soul need not repress
For Shelley, wilderness was a place far away.
The late American writer J.B. Jackson has suggested that once upon a time wilderness was the domain of the nobility, an environment where they alone could develop and display a number of aristocratic qualities and that friction arose between the “peasants” and the “nobles” and persisted as long as the peasants felt excluded from that portion of the landscape they believed their right by heritage.
There are more contemporary notions of wilderness that include ordinary people.
A fellow who comments at my weblog under the pen name Travis has written,
“Wilderness has no gods or one almighty. All is equal in life and death and just simply being. The rich tapestry of a wilderness includes the naked ape – but does not sustain those that want to dominate it. It then becomes something else.”
And so the beautiful river red gums forests along the Murray can sustain the communities that currently harvest them, and graze them, and camp in them, as long as no one group dominates.
This is the big difference between the VEAC plan and the community plan; The Community Plan for the Multiple use of Public Lands in the River Red Gum Forests.
VEAC is the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council. The council is comprised of a small group of people without a mandate from the local community and without any particular expertise, who have decided, a little like the English Aristocrat of the 1800s, that the forest is best protected through the exclusion of people. Thus, their plan focuses on changes to land tenure, management and use.
But the problem right now for the forests is water, not ordinary people.
Indeed many of the problems facing the red gum forests along the Murray stem from a chronic lack of water from the protracted drought.
But VEAC, with their outdated European notion of wilderness, seem to think that by excluding people they can somehow make things better; that they can somehow save the forests.
But they can’t. Furthermore the people who know how to practically and efficiently deliver water to the forest are the very people who live and work in the forests and who understand how the forest floods.
Some of the locals know how to piggyback environmental flows on to managed flows for irrigation, they know how to push water down creeks when the Ovens River floods. They know where the on-river regulators are, and they know how the on-river regulators, in conjunction with the distribution works located on flood runners through the forests, can deliver small quantities of water efficiently to the most stressed parts of the forest.
There is a rich oral history within not only the indigenous, but also the white-fella communities along the Murray.
But this potential for ‘within forest’ water management, to efficiently distribute this increasingly precious resource is largely untapped. This is partly because organisations, including VEAC with their outdated European notion of wilderness, falsely assume they can save the environment “naturally” and want overbank delivery of water which is neither practical nor efficient – at least not in these dry times.
In November last year, I stayed with friends on the Murray River. I saw a lot of river red gums – I saw some beautiful old habitat trees, many thickets of young saplings, some healthy forests, some water-stressed forests, some bushfire-damaged forests, some trees ready to be made into railway sleepers, others into veneer.
Some of the forests were suffering from the drought and some of these forests really needed thinning.
Commercial timber production is currently permitted within less than 45,000 hectares of state forest which represents just 16 percent of the total area of public land in the VEAC investigation area.
Environmental flows require a water allocation and the possibility for this are limited until the drought breaks. In the meantime, there is evidence that some forests can be at least temporarily ‘drought proofed’ through thinning.
While VEAC proposes an 80 percent reduction in the area of state forest there is no scientific basis for such a proposal and the benefits of thinning to reduce competition between trees for the limited available water – the benefits of active management – have been ignored.
An Ecological Grazing Strategy was undertaken by the Department of Sustainability & Environment concluding in June 2005 – just two months after the VEAC investigation started – and determined that grazing could be managed to minimise impacts on native flora and fauna while controlling introduced weeds.
A key recommendation in the new community plan is the establishment of Ramsar reserves along the Murray River to provide for sustainable multiple use and bio-diversity protection under the ‘wise use’ principles of the internationally accepted Ramsar Convention.
Ramsar is a term for ‘Wetlands of International Significance’ following an international conference, held in 1971 in Ramsar in Iran. Ramsar provides a practical and internationally recognised mechanism for protecting forest and wetlands. The Ramsar convention endorsed ‘wise-use’ as a key plank in conservation whereby the use of wild, living resources, if sustainable, is an important conservation tool because the social and economic benefits derived from such use provides incentives for people to conserve them.
The recommendation by the Rivers and Red Gum Environmental Alliance, if adopted by government, would create the largest Ramsar reserve in the world; the largest Ramsar Reserve in the world – an area of 104,000 hectares.
In short the Conservation and Community Plan is a well researched and referenced document that provides a credible alternative for government to consider; particularly as it provides a strong focus on bio-diversity conservation and also community well being. In short, the plan is contemporary and practical and rejects outdated notions of wilderness where people are excluded.
The new plan assumes a concept of wilderness which includes people recognising we are a part of the landscape and we can live in harmony with the red gum forests.
So without further ado, let me declare
“A Community Plan for the Multiple Use Management of Public Lands in VEAC’s River Red Gum Forests Investigation Area” launched.
Members of the Rivers and Red Gum Environment Alliance Outside the Victorian Parliament House, Melbourne, Thursday July 31, 2008. Photographed by Jennifer Marohasy. Members of the Alliance in the photograph from left to right are: Jodie O’Dwyer, Paul Madden, Rod Drew, Max Rheese, Barrie Dexter, Ian Lobban, Sandy Atkinson, Marie Dunn, Colin Wood, Peter Newman, Shelley Gough. In the background you can see members of the Rheese family from Benalla – Kyra, Michael and Samuel – cheering.