Leviathans of the land Old growth forests

Imagine a massive tree, its huge buttressed trunk so enormous it would equal the weight of a blue whale, the base would fill the floor space of the average lounge room. Imagine this tree’s smooth grey-blue trunk towering up though a dense understorey of tree-ferns and blanket leaf, through a middle canopy of sweet-scented sassafras and mountain plum pines – the remnants of ancient forests which grew here before humans had fully evolved. Finally its upper-most branches disappear into the mist. In immediate contrast to this leviathan of the land, is its lower cloak of dainty mosses, tiny ferns and liverworts which cling to its buttresses. Their delicate leaves are just one cell thick. For centuries this tree has provided food, shelter, nesting hollows, seed for the forest’s next generation and leaf litter for the soil’s myriad of micro-organisms, which will one day return its bulk to the earth.

Contrary to the name, old-growth forests are not decaying or in decline – they have not reached the end of their useful life. In fact old growth forests have reached the height of their existence; a flourishing, perfectly balanced and self-renewing ecosystem. They are a vital store-house of diverse genetic material which is still continuing the process of evolution. The antiquity of such delicate and complex ecosystems is almost incomprehensible. The Earth’s first forests began their development about 180 million years ago. We humans only began our bipedal ascent about 2 million years ago.

There have been many attempts to describe old-growth forests using technical definitions. However, the essence of an old-growth forest goes far beyond these dry definitions. Intangibles are much less easily defined by science.

To stand alone in these ancient and pristine sanctuaries is a moving experience for many people. Our arrogance as a species can be humbled by a sense of awe, beauty and spiritual uplifting. The grandeur of the forest is unpretentious; the atmosphere speaks of millennia of uninterrupted co-existence, it functions as a complete and perfect organism, every species dependent on others in such sophisticated and intricate ways, it almost appears there is an intelligence linking the profusion of species.

Some of the more ancient eucalypts are believed to be well over 300 years old, with the occasional forest forebear reaching 400 years. Other smaller tree species such as sassafras and black olive berry can be over 200 years old. What’s even more astonishing is that previously unstudied species of the lower stratum can be older than the towering giants. Recent research has shown tree ferns and the humble musk daisy bushes to be between 330 and 520 years old. These smaller plants may have outlived several generations of tall eucalypts, bushfires and storms. However, they can be almost obliterated during a clearfell logging operation.

The tall mountain forests described above are only one type of old-growth. Equally important forests are the drier stringybark and peppermint gum forests. In all of these forests a multitude of species and ecological processes have thrived for the past 50,000 years under aboriginal management; management which did not include clearfelling, incineration or scraping the forests back to bare earth in an effort to regrow them.

The south eastern corner of Australia supports one of the country’s largest remaining tracts of forest cover. The Victorian section is mostly represented in the 4% of the State known as East Gippsland. But even here we still see European impacts of clearing, grazing, burning and clearfell logging. Few of these areas remain in their pristine condition as reservoirs of forest biodiversity with unaltered natural processes. Indeed, about 10% of the region survives as old growth and of this much is still within logging zones.

Old growth forests provide habitat for the species which have evolved with them. Many of East Gippsland’s 45 threatened animal species rely on old and unaltered forest habitat. The large hollows in trees are necessary for the possums, gliders, cockatoos and the Sooty and Powerful Owls. Large hollows only begin to form in trees which are 150-200 years old. One of these giants can support many hollow-dependent species within its dozens of nooks and crannies. They are the forest equivalent to a block of high rise flats. Sadly, just one of these grand 600 year old trees can take just an hour to fell and make up a log truck’s entire load. However, due to their craggy nature, twists and hollow trunks, many are felled and left amongst the other logging debris to be burnt as “waste” in the government’s “management” burn.

Present forest management of 50 to 80 year clearfell rotations ensures trees never form hollows. The species dependent on them for shelter and nesting never return.

As our appetite for paper and timber increases, the area of forests worldwide is not only being reduced in size but also fragmented. In Australia, the pressure on our remaining forests is as great as in any developing country. Those which are left to grow back after clearfelling lose their complexity and viability as a true forest. The original, healthy and diverse forest becomes a simplified wood production “crop”, tailor-made for human needs.

Since European settlement, half of this country’s forest cover has been destroyed. Australia now has only five percent of its land area forested and most of this is still being degraded by extractive industries such as woodchipping and mining. Both State and Federal Governments continue to allow clearfell logging and woodchipping which destroys much of what remains, despite the knowledge that Australia’s tiny skerricks of old growth are being targeted by the logging industry. The logging plans for East Gippsland allows most of its annual 4-5,000 hectare cut to be sourced from mature and old growth forests. The Victorian Government has planned for the logging and woodpulp industries to exploit these forests for at least the next 30 years.

Economist, Dr Judith Ajani, has identified over 1 million hectares of plantation forests in Australia. Right now, the logging industry could begin the move out of our native forests and into plantations. Instead, the governments allow the logging industry to cut down forests which have known conservation and old growth values. Whatever the reason for the barbaric treatment of our public forests, whatever the terms given to it, legal or illegal – the end result is the same. Such destruction is unforgivable in terms of past experience, current knowledge and the alternatives available.
Jill 20.11.95

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