"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.

The Forests Commission’s Role in Catchment Management

David Williams (bio)

"The Commission repeats its contention, stressed in previous reports and endorsed by authorities all over the world, that a permanent solution of water conservation and erosion problems is fundamentally dependent on the systematic and strict management of vulnerable highland catchments under effective forest vegetation. The natural protection so afforded is a prime factor in soil stabilization, in the control of surface run-off, and in the encouragement of maximum absorption of water into the soil to feed natural underground water storages." FCV Annual Report. 1938/39

The Forests Commission Victoria (FCV, hereafter termed ‘Commission’) took a close interest in catchment management and erosion control from its very earliest days. It advocated for the permanent reservation of mountain catchments to provide for utilisation of the timber resources and water conservation from as early as 1922. It raised concerns about the detrimental impacts from uncontrolled grazing of mountain forests in the following year, proposing that it should be given authority to regulate forest grazing to protect against significant erosion that was occurring at the time.

As well as supporting proper management of mountain forests for water conservation, the policy also supported its major objective of permanent reservation of the valuable timber resources from the substantial mountain forests in Eastern and North East Victoria.

The Commission was successful over a period of time in achieving the reservation of vast areas of mountain forests and utilising the timber resources from those forests as well as implementing practices to protect water conservation thereby supporting water supply to much of rural Victoria.

The key catchment management question from the earliest times was whether timber utilisation in catchments was compatible with water conservation. The resolution of this question was to have a significant impact on the Commission. The Commission contended that closely controlled timber utilisation was compatible with water conservation and so adopted a policy of timber harvesting in water supply catchments. In contrast Melbourne’s water supply authority, Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) maintained a ‘closed’ catchment policy which stated that public access is to be strictly controlled and economic, commercial, urban and recreational use or developments are to be prohibited.  Accordingly, the MMBW’s position was that timber harvesting in Melbourne’s water supply catchments was incompatible with providing high quality water for Melbournians.

The policy differences represented a major point of conflict between the organisations for a number of decades. The conflict was ultimately adjudicated in favour of the MMBW and Melbourne’s extensive forest catchments remained closed to timber harvesting. This outcome was one of the Commission’s major disappointments.

The Commission’s interests in catchment management were advanced at two levels which warrant separate consideration. The two levels of interest were:

  1. Permanent reservation of catchments predominantly in Victoria’s mountain areas in North Eastern and Eastern Victoria, and
  2. Specific case for timber utilisation in Melbourne’s water supply catchments.

1. Carron, LT 1985. A History of Forestry in Australia. Australian National University Press.
2. Forests Commission Victoria 1928. Handbook of Forestry in Victoria.
3. Empire Forestry Conference Australia and New Zealand 1928.
4. Forests Commission Victoria 1959. Evidence Presented to the State Development Committee on its Enquiry into the Utilization of Timber Resources in the Watersheds of the State. Bulletin Number 11.
5. Frost, Lionel and Shanahan, Martin P 2021. Domesticating Water: How Initial Choices Shaped Water Networks in Three Australian Cities. Australian Historical Studies, 52-2, 171-188.
6. Hopkins, Edwards 1954. Journal of American Water Works Association. Vol 46. 5, 1954.
7. Royal Commission 1939. Report of the Royal Commission to Inquire into The Causes of and Measures Taken to Prevent the Bush Fires of January, 1939 and to Protect Life and Property and The Measures to be Taken to Prevent Bush Fires in Victoria and to Protect Life and Property in the Event of Future Bush Fires. Government Printer, Melbourne 1939.
8. Royal Commission 1946. The Report of the Royal Commission to Inquire into Forest Grazing 1946. Government Printer, Melbourne 1946.
9. State Development Committee 1960. The Utilization of Timber Resources in the Watersheds of the State - Final Report. Government Printer, Melbourne 1960.
10. The Gippsland Times 1944. Waters of Thomson River. The Gippsland Times, 25 September 1944.
11. Weekly Times 1953. Forests Needed to Protect Melbourne Water Supply.
12. Werdiningtyas, Rr Ratri 2019. Understanding the Co-evolution of Land, Water, and Environmental Governance in Victoria, Australia during 1860-2016. Doctor of Philosophy Thesis, Department of Infrastructure Engineering, The University of Melbourne