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In this first of a series of four articles exploring the beauty, pricelessness and political mismanagement of the old-growth forests of East Gippsland, Andrew Picone takes you on a journey into the region's natural flora values, and highlights why this precious area must be protected...In far eastern Victoria stands one of Australia's most precious tracts of pristine and ancient forest. These are the old growth forests of East Gippsland. They stretch from the coast into the dry foothills, on into the cool, moist mountains and tablelands of the Great Dividing Range and up into the sub-alpine regions of the Victorian Alps.

East Gippsland is the only place left in Australia - apart from Tasmania - where this occurs: an unbroken tract of forest from the coast to the Alps.The varying soil types, climate and altitude of the region give rise to a remarkably varied range of forests and other habitats. Many scientists regard this high level of diversity to be not only nationally significant, but globally significant. Professor David Bellamy once referred to East Gippsland as having "the most diverse range of temperate forest ecosystems on Earth...". Consequently, the region also harbours a great diversity of wild life: wetlands, lakes, pristine rivers, heathlands, forests and woodlands - and possibly the highest concentration of different eucalypt species in Australia - shelter many different species of animals, birds and insects. In some cases East Gippsland represents the last remaining habitat for species which were once widespread throughout southern Australia.For all these reasons, East Gippsland meets the criteria for World Heritage listing. These delicate forests, however, are now at risk of being lost forever. The Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) *  for East Gippsland will see up to 8,000 hectares of pristine old growth forest clearfelled annually for the next 20 years. By then there will be little left.

Australia - a land of diversity.

Australia is one of only twelve mega-diverse countries in the world. The Australian continent became separated from the super-continent, Gondwana Land, roughly sixty-five million years ago. Since then, what we have come to know as our unique native flora and fauna has been evolving and adapting to occupy every available ecological niche. Australia has undergone nineteen ice ages over the last two million years, the last ending roughly ten thousand years ago. Both plant and animal life has had to adapt and evolve in order to survive in a constantly changing environment.It is believed that the present day eucalypts of south-eastern Australia evolved out of East Gippsland's forests. There are, however, some plants which have changed little over millions of years. Scientists believe that the Errinundra region acted as a refuge for plants and animals during the last ice age. There are many relics of past vegetation types found throughout this region. For example, in the rain-shadow woodlands of the upper Snowy River valley the White Cypress Pine (Callitris columellaris), a native conifer, is found clinging to rugged hillsides and gorges. It is believed that this type of vegetation began to dominate large areas when the rainforests of Gondwana retreated with the onset of a drier climate.

The Rainforests of East Gippsland - rare, precious and beautiful...

As this drying out of the climate progressed, vegetation became more fire prone. The vast tracts of rainforest retreated to the most sheltered and moist corners of the continent. Rainforest in East Gippsland makes up less than 1% of the forest cover. It is found scattered throughout the region as thousands of tiny pockets along watercourses and in protected gullies, often surrounded by large expanses of majestic, old growth, eucalypt-dominated forest. There are three distinct types of rainforest found in Victoria: Cool Temperate Rainforest, Warm Temperate Rainforest and Dry Rainforest. Cool Temperate rainforest is the most widespread, being found in the Otway Ranges, Central Highlands, Strezlecki Ranges, Wilson's Promontory and East Gippsland.

The largest stand in Victoria and on mainland Australia lies within East Gippsland (and outside National Park boundaries!) Cool Temperate rainforest in Victoria is usually dominated by Myrtle Beech trees. This tree, however, is absent from East Gippsland, although pollen records indicate that it once grew here. Despite this, East Gippsland's Cool Temperate rainforests are rich in diversity with a higher number of canopy trees present, including the Southern Sassafras, Black Olive Berry and Privet Mock Olive. There are also wattles, waratahs and a wide variety of shrubs, ferns and mosses.Found at high altitudes in Victorian alpine regions is unique native pine known as the Mountain Plum Pine (Podocarpus lawrencii). While normally a low growing shrub of about one and a half metres, in sheltered pockets of rainforest on the Errinundra Plateau it has been recorded as growing to a height of over seventeen metres. This pine is Victoria's only pine which grows in a wet forest habitat, and only grows to such heights on the Errinundra Plateau. It is believed to have changed very little over time and is a direct link to the region's Gondwanic past. A majority of these trees are estimated to be between 500 and 1000 years old, making them the oldest undisturbed plant community in the state.

Warm Temperate Rainforest - its southernmost occurrence

Scattered throughout the dry forests of the foothills and lowlands are small pockets of Warm Temperate rainforest. This forest type is more akin to the tropical forests found further north, and so may appear to be out of place in Victoria. However, these tiny pockets of lush trees, vines, ferns and orchids are priceless relics of the once-great expanses of rainforest which are believed to have covered Gondwana Land. These rainforests represent the southernmost occurrence for many plant species, some of which are now facing regional extinction. Several plants found in East Gippsland's warm temperate rainforests are found along the entire east coast of Australia. A large shrub or small tree known as Bolwarra, or Native Guava (Eupomatia laurina), is found in rainforests spanning from Victoria, up into the wet tropics of north Queensland, and on into Papua New Guinea. Bolwarra, a very primitive flowering plant which has no petals and is pollinated by tiny weevils, is another significant botanical link to the region's Gondwanic past.

Goolengook: a rare ecosystem threatened by logging


On rare occasions, warm and cool temperate rainforest overlap. East Gippsland is the only place in Australia where these two forest types can be found growing together, creating the most diverse rainforest ecosystems in Victoria. Logging makes these isolated tracts of overlapping rainforest even scarcer. Goolengook forest, the site of massive public protests and media attention throughout 1997, once offered an excellent example of this forest type in pristine condition; recent logging of Goolengook forest, however, may have damaged the area beyond repair.Ironically, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment's (DNRE) own scientists recommended that the entire Goolengook forest be placed in the adjoining Errinundra National Park.

The DNRE ignored this advice. Over the next four years it plans to convert two thirds of this priceless masterpiece of nature into a biologically impoverished tree farm.The natural values which will be destroyed through this plan cannot be overstated. Goolengook forest contains one of the largest areas of overlap rainforest, thousands of hectares of mature and old growth forest, as well as at least two threatened species. Pandering to the pockets of foreign investors with an appetite for woodchips means that our government will replace these magnificent, old growth forests with evenly aged, evenly spaced 'tree-crops'. Such a plan reveals a one-dimensional and feeble understanding of the deep significance of old-growth forests to human and other life.

The birthplace of today's eucalypts

Surrounding each small and vulnerable patch of rainforest are vast expanses of eucalypt- dominated forests. These are referred to as Sclerophyll forests or woodlands, of which there are many different types reaching from the coast right up into the Alps. ('Sclerophyll' means a plant which has tough or leathery leaves.) On the Errinundra Plateau, Wet Sclerophyll forest dominates those areas not covered with rainforest, resulting in the largest tracts of old growth wet sclerophyll forests left in Victoria. Scientists believe that this region acted like an ark during the last ice age, and also believe that most of the south-eastern eucalypts of today evolved out of this area. Here, up to five or six different species of eucalypt can be found growing within one area.Eucalypts can live to a grand old age; logging, however, often means that they die young.

The oldest eucalypts in East Gippsland are likely to be between 400 and 500 years old. Girths of over 15 meters have been recorded in some places, and even larger stumps have been found in logging coupes. Sadly, the largest eucalypts in the region have more than likely been carted away on the backs of trucks.The Gippsland Waratah is also predominant in the region - often as an understory plant in wet sclerophyll, but also as a mature rainforest tree. Following the creeks flowing off the plateau are magnificent glades of tree ferns. Carbon dating has revealed some to be up to 1000 years old. Further studies have also indicated that many of the understory shrubs and trees can out-live the seemingly dominant eucalypts. Short logging rotations could have potentially disastrous effects on the diversity of these forests. For example, the Forest Geebung (Persoonia spp.) can live to at least 500 years old, but can only produce seed when very mature, at around 200 years. Frequent logging means that such trees will never get a chance to reproduce.

Fire: governing the struggle between rainforests and sclerophyll forests.

On and around the Errinundra Plateau there is a deep association between rainforests and sclerophyll forests. For roughly the last ten thousand years there has been a constant struggle between these two forest types. For eucalypts to regenerate they require fire, but this inhibits the spread of rainforest. The fire that the eucalypts need comes naturally from lightning strikes, which may only cause a significant blaze every two or three hundred years. Rainforest plants can eventually recolonise an area that has been burnt as they have adapted to live in the filtered sun of a eucalypt overstory. These forests are referred to as 'mixed forests': an overstory of emergent eucalypts cohabits with a secondary tree layer of rainforest species and a dense understory of ferns. The best examples of this forest type are on the Errinundra Plateau - but unfortunately most is outside the Errinundra National Park. If these mixed forests were to remain unburnt (and unlogged) for another two to three hundred years, they would eventually evolve into a pure stand of rainforest. These forests have been evolving for thousands, if not millions, of years - constantly changing and adapting to survive.

The end of the line...

The world's forests get smaller every day. East Gippsland loses on average 8,000 hectares of forest a year - or around seventeen football fields a day. The woodchip-driven timber industry is, it seems, largely responsible for this high rate of logging.East Gippsland is only one area of one state in Australia: such devastation is happening across the planet, wreaking both local and global damage to the delicate ecosystems which sustain life. Action needs to be taken now. Millions of years of evolution will be wiped off the face of the earth - within a few short years - if we ignore these precious forests and their inhabitants. Next edition: the fauna inhabitants of East Gippsland's forests. For more information on East Gippsland's forests contact:

  1. Jill Redwood, coordinator - Concerned Residents of East Gippsland (CROEG) on +61 03  5154 0145
  2. or Andrew Picone +61 03 9787 7931
*   RFA - Regional Forests Agreement: an agreement between
      the State and Federal Governments that sets out areas to be
      logged and areas to be preserved. REFERENCES
  • Redwood, J. East Gippsland's Forests - An overview of issues. May 1997
  • Redwood, J. The Forests of East Gippsland - Wild Magazine. Winter 1994
  • Nicholson, N.&H. Australian Rainforest Plants II. 1988




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