"The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do."
Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia, Inaugural Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, August 1996.

Evolution of the Forests Commission Victoria

This article is still being developed.

The first Parliament of Victoria met in November 1856. The Land Act 1862 was Victoria’s first legislation to create reserves for ‘the growth and preservation of timber’ to prevent their alienation (conversion to private ownership) and to provide for future timber supplies. The Act was strengthened in 1865 and, within a few years, more than 400,000 hectares of land in the colony had been set aside as permanent forest or timber reserves (by 1926 this had risen to more than 1,752,500 ha).

However, the forestry question had been a topic of some controversy from the mid-1860s for it became manifestly obvious that the demands of mining, construction, domestic use and the myriad other requirements that wood could serve in a pioneering society were denuding the colony of Victoria of its timber. Commenced in 1871, a Royal Commission on Foreign Industries and Forests, which surveyed rural councils and agricultural societies in the colony, recommended in its first progress report that “some reserves for tree culture should be made in unwooded districts in the west and north-west parts of the country, for the purpose of demonstrating what kinds of useful trees would thrive on open plains, such as, for instance, the basaltic plains of Grenville and Hampden. By similar means we might also learn what trees would succeed on the arid, waterless plains in the Wimmera and Murrav districts.”

The Royal Commission’s second progress report, in 1872, recommended that the State forests should be placed under the charge of local boards of management to ensure that regulations concerning timber conservation were enforced and stated that “We consider this (the timber question) of such vital importance to the mining, industrial, and rural prosperity of the colony, that we strongly recommend the formation, at an early date, of a Central Forest Board.” Further, it recommended the establishment of a State nursery near Macedon railway station “with the object of raising useful timber trees for distribution to selectors, and for the planting of reserves denuded of indigenous timber”.

In response to the Royal Commission’s reports a number of local forest boards were created and, on 6 March 1874, a Central Forest Board was established to oversee the entire system. The Board comprised Robert Brough Smyth, W. H. Archer (the new Secretary for Lands), A. R. Wallis and W. E. Ivey as secretary. Operating from within the Department of Agriculture and through a network of local caretakers and the regional boards, the Board tried to bring some semblance of order to the disorganised forest system.

Alexander Robert Wallis was foundation Secretary to the Victorian Department of Agriculture (established in 1872). His annual report to the Minister in 1874 included a report on the Victorian State Forests (for which he had been given responsibility).

When the government decided to legislate on the matter of forest management, Wallis, in 1876, wrote a draft Bill “to deal with the complicated question of the conservation and better management of our State Forests and timbered lands." He outlined in detail the kinds of regulations he thought would be needed, the gazettal procedures necessary to ensure proper methods of definition and alteration to state forest and timber reserve boundaries, the hierarchy of field staff and their powers, the connection between town development, soil and water conservation, and the absolute necessity of permanently reserving the colony's timber resources. Most importantly, he urged that a separate Department of State Forests, led by its own minister and staffed with its own personnel, be established. Sadly, Wallis' influence was already in decline and his ideas, some of which were many years ahead of their time, were ignored.

While the Land Act reserved many forested areas, this afforded them little protection from exploitation other than clearing for agricultural use. A series of reports from the 1870s detailed huge waste in the timber industry and irresponsible and ineffective management of the forest resource. Forests Bills were drafted regularly but were ‘usually consigned to oblivion’. A short Forests Act was put into operation in 1876 but this did little more than formalise the existing system of local forest boards. Bills were presented to Parliament in 1879, 1881 and 1892, but none was enacted, although a royalty system was adopted in 1892.

Between 1876 and 1908, administration of Victoria’s forests shuttled eight times between three different state departments. In 1879 the forest board method of timber management was scrapped. A Conservator of Forests had been appointed in 1888, but his superiors treated him little better than a "subordinate clerk of the Lands Department useful to give information and advice on forest matters of detail" and his efforts at forest conservation were constantly thwarted.

The inaction eventuated in a Royal Commission on Forests, which sat from 1897 to 1901 and produced 14 reports. It drew attention to the anomaly of having the forests controlled and worked under laws primarily designed for the alienation and settlement of Crown lands. It reported that massive timber cutting was occurring under a ‘vicious system of indiscriminate licensing’ at ridiculously low prices.  The Royal Commission led to the Forests Act 1907, which established a Forests Department under a Minister of Forests in 1908. It was not until 1919, however, with the establishment of a separate Forests Commission, that management stability was achieved.

In 1984, the Forests Commission became part of the new Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands. Management of the forests was subsequently undertaken through divisions or services within the new department and its successors, currently the Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning.

Peter McHugh has put together a wonderful history of the Forests Commission Victoria, and it is available on Wikipedia.

See also this induction document from 1960.

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