Casterton Pine Plantations 1967-69

David Buntine (bio)



‘..As David Williams in his background article (Victorian Governments’ Plantations Enterprise) and the 1986 Victorian Government’s Timber Industry Strategy  explain, Australia in general, and Victoria in particular, were short of native softwood species for timber production. In the late 19th century and in the early 20th century, NSW, South Australia, and Victoria trialled different kinds of softwood; identifying Radiata pine as an ideal forest plantation species.

Following trials, Victoria established a few plantations in the 1920s and 1930s prior to the Second World War. With the creation of an Australian Forestry Council in 1964, a plan was drafted to meet the Commonwealth’s objective of achieving self-sufficiency in the majority of forest products by the year 2000.

To assist in achieving this national objective, the Commonwealth, between 1967 and 1977, provided long-term loans to the States.

Below, David Buntine outlines his related experiences as a recently appointed forester in Western Victoria, in the late 1960s. A situation that was to see an interaction between a national self-sufficiency goal, and a local Drought Relief Scheme ....’

David's Story 

In 1967 after graduating from Melbourne University, I was posted to Casterton Forest District as a replacement for my predecessor Tom Sloan. No accommodation was provided, so I boarded for a few months at a guest house in Casterton before my marriage, when we moved into a soldier settler farm house near Henty.

The DFO at that time was Len Laing and Overseer Murray Martin was at Casterton with a crew of 4-5. Overseer Gordon Fulton had a crew of 2-3 and was OIC of the subdistrict at Edenhope.

Although Casterton at the time was not on the Forests Commission agenda as a pine district, private investment companies were establishing plantations, often on totally unsuitable deep sand sites. I remember visiting one such investment plantation near the SA border. It was planted on deep sands and the only surviving pines were those planted in the burned windrows. Our FCV ownership was limited to one small pine sample plot, but we did actively encourage Farm Forestry Loan plantations on suitable sites, one of my duties.

Local staff had hopes that the hierarchy of the FCV would make a decision to expand plantations into the Casterton District, as this would secure employment and underwrite the budget. Such a view was not supported in Melbourne, so track clearing, some sawlog production, sleeper/post cutting, fire wood collection, apiary and various fire related duties remained the order of the day.

But Len Laing was not to be deterred, and he directed me to commence pine appreciation surveys to identify potential pine sites in the District in the fond belief that it was better to be ready, rather than languishing should the opportunity arise.

This work was part of my District duties and I commenced pine site appreciation surveys initially targeting the Bahgallah and then Mocambora crown lands. On pine site work days I would head out equipped with a soil auger, spade, a pH kit and the Geoff Shepherd card system. Transport was either the Casterton tanker or, if I could convince Murray Martin to help me, his land rover. Occasionally if I could wangle it, depending on who was the DFO at the time, the DFO car. The tanker had its advantages as I could stand on the high back platform and operate the soil auger quite effectively, which was great when using multiple extensions on deeper sand sites.

The guidelines for my surveys followed on the work of Geoff Shepherd who had made a study of site indicators for land suitable for pine plantations. He recognised a range of suitability site characteristics namely, indicator native plant species, soil/sand colour, acidity and the depth to the soil impeding layer. With guidance and enthusiasm from Russ Ritchie, these recommendations were translated into a set of cards whereby once the indicators had been identified, suitability and site index for P. radiata or P pinaster could be keyed out.  

My arrival in Casterton also coincided with the start of an extended period of serious drought in western Victoria, and unknown to us at the time, would cause a dramatic change to the usually peaceful Casterton District. In September 1967 Len Laing was moved from Casterton, and as his nominated replacement was unable to move there for personal reasons, I was appointed as Acting OIC Casterton District.

The seriousness of the drought in western Victoria was such that the Victorian Government financed and promoted a Drought Relief Scheme as an employment bolster for those in hardship. In the Casterton area the most affected persons were the farmers and many had watched their pastures dry off, blow away and in some case literally convert to sand dunes. Casterton was one centre given approval to employ suitable persons under the Drought Relief Scheme, and initially we absorbed them into our normal forest works program. The process was quite simple. Our office would receive a phone call from Melbourne with the direction “You are approved to employ xxxxx persons under the Drought Relief Scheme” and so we did, and I held the first interviews for this employment in December 1967. Similar employment opportunities were offered at other forest districts on a range of projects. Early in January 1968 Hugh Brown was appointed as District Forester and we continued to push for pine plantations at Casterton.

I believe the Chairman of FCV, Alf Lawrence, was one of the first to actively promote the idea of using drought employment at Casterton to manually clear land for plantations. My ongoing site appreciation surveys had already identified land suitable for this at Bahgallah so we were ready to go and Alf became its main proponent.

But obstacles were in the way as rumour reached us that a Casterton pine plantation was not supported in the plantation hierarchy ranks below the Chairman and any application to do such a thing would be buried in the  administration system. The land at Casterton that was identified as suitable for plantations was unoccupied crown land and not reserved forest, and there were limitations on what FCV could do on such land. Clearing crown land for plantations was not an approved use under the Forest Act and Lands Dept - approval needed to be obtained first. The normal authority granted to FCV was a Lands Dept Permissive Occupancy. This potentially was a massive stumbling block because if the application for a PO could be held up, then so would any plantation development. The plantation power brokers in Head office had both the will and the means to hold up such an application indefinitely. Consequently our initial approaches for a PO and commencement of clearing for a pine plantation got nowhere. The Chairman heard of this inaction and we were delighted to receive his direct instructions that thereafter copies of all correspondence on these plantation matters were to be sent direct to him.

With the Chairman on our side we had a powerful ally. Local rumour was that when the Chairman was told about the PO hold up, he personally took the PO application file across to the then Minister of Lands, “Black Jack” Macdonald, and returned with the approved PO in his hands. Even if the rumour stretched the truth a bit this was still a record for the issue of a PO by the Lands Department.

With all approvals now in place and the suitable land identified we received directions to take on extra crew under the Drought Relief Scheme and we commenced manually clearing land for plantations in late February 1968.

One problem was transporting these workers to the plantation area. Someone, I think it was Hughie, had noticed a recently retired school bus behind a local garage. This was checked out, found to be still serviceable, and brought back to action. A drought relief employee with suitable licences was appointed as the driver.

The workers were subdivided into two shifts and the bus made two trips to the plantation in the morning and two returns trips at night. Our employment numbers swiftly grew to about 70 persons and they were allocated into the two shifts and into crews of about 6 persons. Each crew had a nominated leading hand and a chainsaw (Solo brand) operator. The balance of the crew was issued with axes. My main role was to mark out the plantation boundaries for clearing and fencing, firebreaks and internal tracking plus continue my site appreciation work. The fencing part of the work was easily achieved as many of the employed were farmers very skilled at post cutting and building a fence.

I also had responsibility for the ordering and allocation of the stores needed for all the crews and helped out our clerk Frank McEwen with the wages when required. The stores job had some learning moments as the only axes on the order list were shown as 3 ½ lb (used for pruning pines) and one had to be more specific when ordering the required 4 ½ lb axes. One of my early orders produced boxes of 3 ½ lb axes that, to my embarrassment, had to be returned. But I hijacked one and still have it today.  

The initial clearing was for the Bahgallah plantation. Crews felled the trees, cut them into burnable lengths and manually heaped them for burning later. When the available area at Bahgallah was cleared we moved the operation to Mocambora until the Drought Relief Scheme concluded in June/July 1968. By June parts of the Bahgallah plantation had been burned in preparation for planting and 72 acres was planted in 1967/68 and the balance in 1968/69.

In May 1969 Hugh Brown departed and was replaced by Tom Chambers.

Machinery in the Casterton District included a LeTourneau-Westinghouse rubber tyred dozer and a light CAT grader. Hence we had the equipment to do the machine work for roads and firebreaks needed in the plantations. This dozer was a very suitable machine for the sandy sites of the Casterton district and had ended up there because other districts had turned it down. I remember watching it dig a dam in the centre of the Bahgallah plantation. The dozer operator was Les Twigg, one of the regular crew, and at the bottom of the dam the dozer got bogged. Les did not bat an eyelid as the dozer had very effective blade and ripper hydraulics. He proceeded to “dozer jack” himself out of trouble with his hydraulics and nearby timber for support. The dozer was quite mobile on the open roads and on another occasion it was located at Rennick when I recalled it for fire duties near Chetwynd. Les got impatient waiting for the required end load float so hopped on and drove the dozer direct up the main road to Chetwynd.  

In June 1969 we had a visit from Chairman Alf Lawrence on his farewell tour of the Western Division. He strode very authoratively across the newly planted Bahgallah plantation offering both advice and criticism as was his nature. For this inspection Graham Pavey came along as did Tom Chambers. I accompanied Mrs Lawrence (Flo) like royalty in the second car, so was out of the front line and had lovely inconsequential chats with her.

Casterton had only the one very small established maturing plot of pines. For reasons unclear to me this plot was the final stop for the day. Alf marched off through the pines and his professional eye was not happy with the thinning regime and so, as was his style, he had found a perceived fault and let fly at the assembled personnel. Graeme Pavey rose to the occasion and proceeded to cool Alf down. I subsequently learned Graham had been a senior at VSF in 1922 when Alf was a lowly junior cadet, hence his calming influence. Tom wisely stayed out of the debate.

Shortly after Graham Pavey retired as Divisional Forester at Horsham and his assistant Russ Ritchie became the Acting DF until Jack Gillespie was appointed DF and Bill Edgar as his ADF.  

In that era, sites were identified as either suitable for radiata, pinaster or unsuitable for both. Both species were planted in 67/68 and 68/69 years. In later years the pinaster plantings were seen as a failure and these sites converted to radiata.

Something like 1100 acres was cleared, burned and planted under this Drought Relief Scheme and brought plantations to the Casterton Forest District.

Unfortunately I have no photos nor have I been able to access any documentary records to augment this article, which is based solely on distant memories supported by Russ Ritchie and some of my limited diary entries. Other members of the Association may be able to add further information about the overall success of these plantations or maybe comment on other programs undertaken in other Districts under the same drought relief funding. The 1967/68 Annual Report of FCV states that the maximum number employed on drought relief at any one time was 676. Employment was mainly in the western parts of the state so significant works must have been carried out of which Casterton was only one part

David Buntine with thanks to Russ Ritchie for his recollections, May 2020