The Otway Forests

The forests of the Otway Ranges have a story that is at least as complex as any in Victoria - from the early days of sleeper cutting in blue gum forests around Apollo Bay, to the inroads and uses, and misuses, by encroaching settlers, to a sawlog harvesting history of more than 150 years, to inappropriate and disastrous settlements inside the forest boundaries, to plantations developed on failed settlements and, in common with all of Victoria's forests, repeated and damaging wildfires.

This article is an attempt to provide the tools to let you begin to explore that story. It is based on the early records of visitors and government agencies, but the greatest input comes from publications by Norman Houghton and Roger Smith, and videos produced by Jim Speirs.

A map of sawmill sites, tramlines and other features is also available via the link below. It brings together the maps in Norman Houghton's books - Sawdust and Steam (2011) and Choppers and Chippers (2018). There is also a timeline map of sawmills present by 5 year periods. Neither map would be available in this form without Norman's initial work, but also his significant work to attribute dates to the occupation of the sawmill sites.


The table and other information below is taken from:

The Redwoods of the Otway Ranges. Roger Smith. 2015


"Of the 350,000 hectares of native vegetation that covered the Otways 150 years ago, only 160,000 hectares of public land remain as native forest. And of the 160,000 hectares of public native forest that exist today, almost all of the merchantable eucalypt forest has been logged over at least once, sometimes more often. The only exceptions are two small patches of Mountain Ash, one in the West Barham River and the other in Olangolah Creek."

"When the hands and feet of European man made their mark on the wet mountain forests, the changes in the way the forest was used to benefit the incoming communities were profound. These changes, over a period of 175 years, are summarised in the following timeline."

Pastoral development through clearing of forest in the northern foothills of the Otways.
Pastoral development through clearing of coastal forests in the southern foothills. Largest ever recorded wildfire in the Otways in 1851, caused by clearing operations. First sawmill opened at Apollo Bay in 1852.
Legislation enacted to allow 'ordinary' selectors - as opposed to the privileged agricultural class - to clear forested land and cultivate for agriculture.
Land selection and settlement through clearing of wet mountain forests. Early attempts at forest conservation through declaration of forest reserves.
Second wave of land selection and settlement, with further clearing of wet mountain forests.
Sawmilling industry expands from foothill to mountain forests.
Conservation of forest by permanent dedication as Reserved Forest. Continued selection and clearing of unreserved forest. Harvesting of logs for construction and mining timber for Ballarat gold-mining districts.
Start of boom period for sawmilling in mountain forest.
Settlements in mountain forest abandoned, many as a result of the 1919 wildfires. Dwindling forest resources and the Depression saw the end of the boom sawmilling period in forests.
Reforestation of abandoned farmland and commencement of softwood plantation program. Devastating wildfires in 1939 burnt 87,000 hectares of forest land.
Further increases in volumes of sawlogs harvested to meet post-war housing boom. In its annual report of 1941, the Forests Commission warned the government of the day that 'current concentrated exploitation will call for a specially sustained post-war effort to restore forest equilibrium'.
Major roading program to access remote hardwood timber resources; harvesting of hardwood sawlogs reached a peak of 120,000 cubic metres per year.
Expansion of softwood plantation program to supplement hardwoods and achieve self-sufficiency in timber and paper. Hardwood sawlog harvesting levels reduced by 40% to 72,000 cubic metres per year due to lower housing demand.
Conservation movement gains popular support. Hardwood sawlog harvesting levels further reduced by 25% to 50,000 cubic metres per year.
Conservation movement gains political support. Victorian State Conservation Strategy introduced. Hardwood harvesting adjusted to a sustainable level on a regional basis through the Timber Industry Strategy, resulting in hardwood sawlog output being further reduced to 40,000 cubic metres per year.
Further areas of forest withdrawn from harvesting as a result of state government policy changes incorporating initiatives such as Biodiversity Strategies, Flora and Fauna Guarantees and Rainforest Protection.
Hardwood sawlog harvesting phased out in most mountain forest. Declaration of enlarged Otway National Park. Tourism and ecotourism activities gather financial and popular support.

& beyond

The challenge exists for managers of public forests to continue to provide the range of goods and services required by the local and broader communities.



1 The Black Forest of Victoria. Extract from Vol 1 No 3 of "The Australasian Magazine, published on 28 April 1851 by John Pullar of Melbourne.
2 Cape Otway State Forest. Extract from Papers relating to Forest Conservancy Published by Dept Crown Lands, 17th Dec 1874.
3 The Otway Forest - Its Resources, Management and Control.Fifth Progress Report of the Royal Commission on State Forests and Timber Reserves. 1899
4 West Otway Plantations. N Houghton (2014). Newsletter No. 62, Australian Forest History Society Inc.
Choppers & Chippers A History of the Timber Industry in the West Otway Ranges. N Houghton. 2018
6 The Redwoods of The Otway Ranges. Roger Smith. 2015
7 Sawdust and Steam. A History of Sawmilling in the East Otway Ranges. 1850-2010. Norman Houghton. 2011


See Also

Old Beechy (Extracts) - N Houghton 1992
Timber Production in the Otway Forests. LB Williams. Abt 1976
Otway Timber Mills & Pioneering Days. GA Facey. 1977
Getting Logs to the Mill. N Houghton. 1995
Sawmilling in the Otways & at Tanjil Bren. J Mackie. 1980
Otway State Forest abt 1879.
East Otway Memories. Reg Wilson. 1994
Extract - Forrest Reminiscences. C Hutchinson
Beech Forest FCV Staff. N Houghton
Sawmilling in the Otways
Vacation in the Otways - 1968 
The Otway Forests - NRE 1998
Barongarook Sawmills - N Houghton
A Chronology of Forest and Land Use in Victoria