The state government logging agency, VicForests, intends to log a total of 11 “coupes”, or sections, of mature forest, dominated by Alpine Ash, in the headwaters of the Little Dargo River, an area of state forest that lies right next to the Alpine National Park. These coupes are located in a series of clusters, where separate sections of bush will be harvested, creating a large zone of cleared land over time. One coupe has already been logged. The remaining coupes have not yet been scheduled for harvesting, and are yet to be surveyed. There is still time to stop this ecological disaster – if we act now.
The Little Dargo is roughly 15 kilometres south of the Mt Hotham ski resort in the mountains of north eastern Victoria. Background on the logging can be found here.
What is happening in the Little Dargo catchment is emblematic of a much wider threat occurring across the mountain environments of south eastern Australia.
The mountain forests have been terribly impacted by fires in recent years. There is no doubt that our fire seasons are getting longer and more intense and this is starting to have potentially landscape changing impacts. There is concern that Alpine Ash forests could be wiped out in some areas where fire comes in multiple waves before the recovering trees can set seed. Alpine ash requires a minimum of 15 years between intense fire in order to be able to produce seed. Parts of north eastern Victoria have been burnt three times in a decade. Mountain Ash forests face similar threats.
It is tragic that fires are becoming so frequent and intense that we face the prospect of seeing these vegetation communities collapse.
Craig Nitschke is an Associate Professor in Forest and Landscape Dynamics at Melbourne University and has a long connection with forests and fire in the high country. He says “some areas have been burnt up to four times in a short period and the impacts in some areas are absolutely shocking. The Upper Ovens Valley and the Carey State Forest (just north of the Avon Wilderness) and surrounding Alpine National Park areas are priority areas for reseeding, as is almost anywhere along the spine of the Alps where the ash grow.”
The mountain forests, which are dominated by Alpine Ash trees are now so threatened by fire that the state government has an aerial seeding program to stop the collapse of these forest systems. Owen Bassett, one of the people involved in the seeding program has said “With no intervention, these ravaged forests would eventually turn into a different type of ecosystem, like savanna or grassland”.
We don’t know how much old Alpine Ash forests still exist. In the Central Highlands, closer to Melbourne, it is estimated that only 0.47% of old growth Ash remains. The figure is unknown in the mountains of the north east, but we do know that large areas of burnt forest face the prospect of ecological collapse and very little old forest remains.
The forests currently being targeted by VicForests in the Dargo High Plain are especially important because they are mature and largely unburnt. Investigations by community activists such as the Gippsland Environment Group have documented the enormous ecological value of these stands. They are also home to a range of threatened plant and animal species.
They should be removed from the logging schedule.
There is also a disturbing precedent that would see an unacceptable impact on the Alpine National Park. VicForests have been planning to construct a logging road from the Dargo High Plains road along Kings Spur track and then Long Spur track right through the Alpine National Park to access the northern end of the coupes of the Jones Creek Track cluster in the Little Dargo catchment.
This would be a 70 ha ‘linear’ coupe (number 535-501-0003) and road through the Alpine National Park to access the coupes in the upper Little Dargo River. Under state legislation, it is allowable to approve new roads in National Parks.
Following a public outcry and good coverage in The Age newspaper, VicForests announced in March 2021 that they “will not be constructing roads, including (535-501-003), through the Alpine National Park.”
However, as of 31 March, the road remains on VicForests maps as an ‘approved roadline’, with it’s status given as being an ‘active coupe’ of 72 hectares. The map also shows an ‘approved driveway’ on the entry point to the coupes, just inside the national park with the coupe ID of 535-501-0002.
A rumour in the area is that VicForests now intends to do a minor upgrade of the tracks along King and Long Spur, and use smaller trucks to transport logs up to the Dargo High Plains, to be transferred onto larger trucks.
Large areas of forested country were logged under ‘once only logging’ provisions before being placed in the Alpine National Park. These forests have been slowly recovering in recent decades but now face grave threats posed by climate change driven fire seasons. It is completely unacceptable for the government logging agency to consider destroying any part of a national park in order to access logging coupes.