Trees on Private Land
Peter Langley (bio)
Peter was the Chief Forest Extension Officer in the period covered by this article.
In 1977 the Victorian Premier, Rupert Hamer, launched the Garden State Committee. The FCV had a seat around the table and John Jack, a forester and then Deputy Secretary of the Premiers Department, occupied the Chair. The Committee was charged with promoting trees and plants to enhance the environment, lifestyle and, over time, provide economic benefit to the State.
The initial focus was on metropolitan parks, the Yarra environs, urban streetscapes and award programs to acknowledge community, corporate and private landscape ventures. Publicity material and technical information was also distributed. Scant attention was paid to vegetation issues on privately-owned rural land.
In 1980 the Institute of Foresters publication, "Tree Decline in Rural Victoria", focussed attention on the problem, particularly in the north of the State. The Garden State Committee over the period 1978-1983 gradually turned their attention to Statewide matters, and was a prime player in Project Tree Cover and the Focus on Farm Trees Conference held in Melbourne in 1980. The Conference brought together many tree experts and interested landowners Australia-wide.
Project Tree Cover, with Forest Extension Branch staff front and centre, ran until 1983 and established areas of tree cover on conspicuous denuded landscapes on private property across the State. Proven FCV practice was followed in species selection and site preparation, including ripping, mounding, fertilising and weed control.
Further to the Focus on Farm Tree Conference the Premier, in 1981, acting on a joint submission from the Garden State Committee and the Farmers and Graziers Association, announced the formation of farm tree Groups in Hamilton, Rochester, Bairnsdale and Wycheproof to maintain enthusiasm for initiatives arising out of the Conference. The task of the Groups was to promote trees as an integral part of farm management.
During this era the FCV had beefed up its role in servicing the tree growing needs of rural landowners. The Plantations Branch in 1978 was split into a Forests Extension Branch and a Silviculture Branch. The aim was to spread the forest extension function to all tree growing enthusiasts, over and above that which had traditionally been afforded to some private forestry companies.
The Extension Branch retained the responsibility for administering the Farm Forestry Loan Scheme and became more involved in the marketing of FCV nursery stock. Liaison with other Government Departments and agencies increased. These agencies included the Country Roads Board (roadside vegetation), the Education Department (State School plantations), the Department of Crown Lands and Survey (vermin and noxious weeds) the Natural Resources Conservation League, the Agriculture Department (rural finance) and commercial nursery operators to appease any perceived threat to their livelihoods. Staff were also key players in the emerging interest in urban forestry, the setting up of the Urban Forestry Development Committee and vegetation management trials in the Western suburbs of Melbourne.
The Branch conducted Farm Forestry workshops and field days. Displays at rural shows and expos were arranged to capture landowner attention and broaden their understanding of the tree decline problem.Traditional farming practice and environmental factors, in play separately or collectively, can often go unnoticed for a long time. eg.dryland salinity, soil compaction and the impact of chemical use.
In 1980 the Chairman of the FCV, Alan Threader, on a trip to the USA took particular interest in Forest Improvement Programs (FIP) operating in several States (in particular California). Here the FIP program provided financial grants and technical advice to ranch owners, and other land managers, to address land degradation and conserve and extend tree cover.
After I had completed a follow-up study to appraise such programs in more detail, the FCV affected legislative and regulatory change to the Forest Act to set up the Tree Growing Assistance Scheme. Victorian landowners and managers could receive funding to offset the purchase of trees, the cost of fencing and, in some cases, works to prepare, regenerate or direct seed sites.
The scheme completely consumed hours of staff time, particularly as the FCV wanted to deal with each application separately. The absurdity of this approach was highlighted in one decision to 'Grant the Shire of Omeo $20' to assist with their request for some free trees. Scheduling of applications soon followed and the decision-making process was streamlined.
Over the years the Plantation and Extension Branch foresters (including myself, Ken Simpfendorfer, Bert Semmens, Graeme Morrison, Rob Youl and Arthur Lyons) were well supported by Keith Eames, Brigit Lafeber, Andy Macdonald and Russell Johns, together with regional staff Bill Middleton, Kevin Ritchie, Greg Wallace and David Buntine. These staff served the FCV well, not only for their public relations skills but also for the close friendships formed with many landowners. Some staff were called as expert witnesses in court cases, such as Toorak neighbours up in arms about invading tree roots and limbs impacting ornate boundary fences and manicured concrete driveways.
Mention should also be made of one individual contributor and of a collective staff effort to the forest extension service. First and foremost Rob Youl, described by Andrew Campbell as 'an idiosyncratic and effervescent cross pollinator and a great networker with a genuine interest in people who live and work on the land'. I would describe Rob as a champion of forest extension, land protection, Greening Australia and national and global Landcare. He has left his imprint both inside and outside the public sector.
The collective effort was provided by foresters and support staff, particularly in the Central and Northern Divisions of the old FCV structure, who embraced tackling the tree decline issue, and used their forest management skills and relationships with rural landowners to make significant progress.
In the period 1977-83, when the Australian Conservation Foundation and regional environment groups were strutting their propaganda, it was nice to have someone onside. The FCV through its forest extension service had solid rural support both as land managers and tree growing experts. This was important in a State where 90% of tree cover is on public Iand. Compare this with the United Kingdom where well over 50% of the national tree cover is in private ownership and the forestry lobby is very active.
It is now a pleasure, 40 years hence, when driving through the drier parts of the State to see the windbreaks, shelter belts, roadside vegetation, farm planted bush blocks and areas of natural regeneration originating from this era. The good work is now carried forward by Landcare Groups
In 1983 the amalgamation of the State agencies involved in natural resource management, to form the Department of Conservation,Forests and Lands, morphed the soil conservation, pest plants and animals and farm tree growing functions into a Land Protection Division. Along with multi-skilled staff based in regional centres, a more integrated extension service to the public was guaranteed.