1874-The State of the Forests of Victoria


As a result of recommendations from the reports of a Royal Commission in 1871 and 1872, a number of regional forest boards of management were created to ensure that regulations concerning timber conservation in Victoria’s State forests were enforced. On the 6th March 1874, a Central Forest Board was established to oversee the entire system. The Board operated from within the Department of Agriculture through a network of local caretakers and the regional boards. It comprised Robert Brough Smyth, W. H. Archer (Secretary for Lands), A. R. Wallis and W. E. Ivey as secretary.

Late in 1874, the Minister of Lands and Agriculture presented to Parliament a ‘Paper relating to Forest Conservancy’. While describing the status of forest conservancy across the globe, the paper included a scathing report on the state of the forests of Victoria.

The following extract from Melbourne’s The Argus newspaper of 24th December 1874 paraphrases that report.

The State Forests of Victoria

Some important information in regard what is being done with respect to the care and management of state forests in different parts of the world was presented to Parliament last week in the shape of' "Papers Relating to Forest Conservancy”. The information is of a very extensive and exhaustive character, not only showing how matters stand as regards forest conservancy in Victoria, New Zealand, and South Australia, but giving copious information as to what has been and is being done in this respect also by most of the nations of Europe, as well is the United States and India.

As to us, however, by far the most important portion of these papers is that relating to Victoria, we propose at present only summarise the information here given by Mr. Ivey, the secretary of the Forest Board, in regard to the present state of the forests of Victoria.

The system of dealing with timber that is now in vogue in Victoria is one that has existed in the colony from the date its existence as a separate community, the addition of a few conditions of licence being all that distinguishes legislation upon the timber question at present from that of the earlier period mentioned, so far as the liberty to procure timber is concerned. The raising of some small amount of revenue from timber has always been accomplished by the issue, for a specified sum, of a licence to cut such timber as was required under by far too lax conditions, and the probable future value of timber would seem to have been altogether overlooked. The regulations now in force (which were made on May 26, 1873, rescinding all previous regulations on the subject) are merely a development of the old license system, the same principle of indiscriminate licensing being the basis upon which they were founded. In fact, as is here stated, a license at 10s or £1 per quarter is a legal instrument giving authority to any person to cut any quantity of timber he pleases, and, virtually, from any Crown lands he pleases. To show what revenue the state derives from this indiscriminate destruction, taking the financial year 1873-4 ̶ during which period it must also be remembered that some attempt was made to protect the revenue from this source ̶ we find that for the 12 months ending June 30, 1874, for splitters’ and saw-millers’ licences, the state only received £2,412 3s. 2d., and for wattle bark and firewood licences £2,021 10s., or a total from all sources of only £4,433 13s. 2d. for the many hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of timber annually drawn from Crown lands, with the destruction of an amount of perhaps almost equal value.

That both the regulations and the number of officers employed in their administration are ineffective for the preservation of the forests is shown by a continuance, to a greater or less extent, of all the old wasteful practices, while the scheme of creating local forest boards, and giving them charge over specific areas of the state forests, proved most disappointing. So much so, indeed, was this the case, that it was decided to place the whole of the forests in the hands of a central board, and Messrs. Clement Hodgkinson and R. Brough Smyth were appointed 6th March, 1874, but soon after (11th May, l874), Mr Hodgkinson resigned, and Mr W.H. Archer and Mr A.R. Wallis were appointed, 29th June, l874. It is hoped that the efforts of the present board will result in some sensible plan of management.

Mr W.E. Ivey, as secretary to the Central Forest Board, has forwarded an elaborate report on the Cape Otway State forest to the Minster of Lands, and reports also on the Victoria, Dandenong and Bullarook forests. It will be remembered that Mr. Casey[i] visited the Cape Otway forest some months ago with Mr. lvey, and shortly afterwards we published some information with regard to the inspection, the result of which is here given in detail. Mr. Ivey, after the Minister’s return, made a careful examination of the country at Cape Otway with the object of ascertaining:

1. What portions of the reserved area were absolutely forest.

2. What portion thereof ̶ though it would be desirable to retain it within forest boundaries ̶ might be occupied under licence.

3. What portion it was desirable to excise as of no value as state forest.

Of the timber of this forest Mr. lvey states that no estimate approaching correctness could be made until the country is properly opened up. The blue gum is the prevailing tree, and exists throughout the greater portion of the forest, while the stringy-bark and messmate hold a secondary place. Other sorts of eucalyptus, especially the ironbark, exist but comparatively to a very insignificant extent, while there must also be reckoned extensive beds of blackwood in most of the gullies, and other trees of small relative bulk, the timber of which is of great use for many particular purposes.

Bush fires have destroyed the timber over many square miles: it may be said generally that the fire has swept over the whole of the country from a point between five and six miles from the coast to the Mount Sabine Trigonometrical Station ̶ a distance of six miles. The approach to the forest from the north, Mr. lvey considers is not difficult. At present there are no roads beyond the roughest bush tracks, but there is no obstacle in the way of the construction of tramways to connect this magnificent forest with the line of railway now being completed between Geelong and Colac. The gradients are favourable the whole way, and 20 miles of tramway, Mr. Ivey considers, would not discourage any company when its construction would enable them to tap a supply of timber equal in quality and accessibility to any in the colony, not even probably excepting the red gum of the Murray flats; while the bringing into competition with the produce of other forests of the supply of timber in this forest, both from the north side by train, and from Apollo Bay by sea, would go far to relieve the excessive demands made upon the resources of the midland parts of the colony.

A feature of the Cape Otway Forests is the great abundance of blackwood. No other forests in the colony, Mr. lvey says, contain such a wealth of this valuable timber, and the number and size of the trees in the gullies is surprising, though, unfortunately, upon the large areas over which the fire has swept the blackwoods are more or less destroyed. As unfortunately is usual in all the forests of the colony where there is unexceptionably good timber readily accessible, men do their best to destroy it. Mr. lvey states that the quantity of blackwood timber lying in the small valley to the north-ward of Apollo Bay, about one and a half to two miles inland, would surprise anyone who was not familiar with the reckless destruction carried on by men cutting where there is no restraint and plenty of timber to pick from. Blackwood trees, 2ft. to 3ft. 6in. in diameter, which in Melbourne would be worth something considerable, lie in numbers one across the other in the valley. Out of some of the logs cuts have been taken, from many not a foot of lumber has been removed. As regards the chief objects of his inspection, Mr. lvey concludes his report by saying:

"After such an inspection as it is possible to make without penetrating – with the aid of a properly equipped party – such portions of the forest as have not been visited by Europeans, and which it would appear to be unnecessary to attempt for the purpose in view, it would seem that there is no portion of the area reserved that is not absolutely forest, except such portions along the coast towards Cape Otway and beyond the Cape to the western boundary as have been described.

“Occupation under licence might be allowed along the coast line and along the banks – for a short distance – of the creeks to the east of Apollo Bay, due care being taken that there is no interference with probable lines of route for tramways which will be required in the future to be laid down for the carriage of timber to the shipping port. Licences might also be granted to men employed in the forest to occupy small pieces of land in certain spots throughout the forest to be chosen according to their position with respect to the saw-mill where the men are employed.

“Those portions now included, but which might with advantage be excised, are confined entirely to the sea coast West of Apollo Bay. The whole land along the coast line, excepting that portion lying between the spurs east of the Elliot River and west of Blanket Creek, is of no value, and might with advantage be excised on the conditions already suggested. But, without proper survey and the cutting of boundary lines, no line, even approximately correct, could be laid down.”

In the Victoria forest, it appears from Mr. Ivey’s report, the same wanton destruction of timber has been going on for years as in the Cape Otway forest. The choice of trees here is so great that only those best suited for splitting are used up after they are felled. As there is endless choice, and trees the growth of centuries, hardly to be matched elsewhere, are plentiful, are the property of the state, and cost nothing, this practice obtains, and the result is to be witnessed in the vast number of the finest trees of the forest lying rotting on the ground. Trees that would each cut many thousands of feet of sawn timber lie about in numbers, and it is painfully evident that reckless destruction of a valuable asset of the country is taking place, which would not have been perpetrated for the sake of a few palings – the greater part of the cost of which to the consumer is made up of carriage – if the men were forced to pay for each tree they felled. There would then, Mr. Ivey says, be some check upon the enormous waste and the in discriminate destruction of the largest timber trees of Victoria, which trees once cut will naturally require centuries to replace, and the selfish indifference to the wants of future generations displayed by timber cutters would not be exhibited as at present.

Unfortunately the Dandenong and Bullarook Forests have also suffered from this same "wilful waste," the latter, however, to by far the greatest extent. It is fire that has caused the greatest havoc among the Dandenong Ranges, and it is only where neither fire nor the splitter has been enabled to approach that any country exists that could be pronounced heavily timbered. Such spots, however, do still exist to some considerable extent, and contain a fair amount of timber, though the quantity is small when compared with the areas of equal quality in the Victorian Forest.   The great fire of 1851 cleared large areas of every kind of vegetation; but these are now covered with a thick growth of fine young trees, from 80ft. to 100ft. in height. Very different to this exuberant growth is the appearance of those parts of the forest thinned by the hand of man. Here seedlings do not, as a rule, take the place of the felled trees, but the forest is left open with an appearance of bareness. Mr. Ivey suggests in such places as these the expediency of assisting nature’s efforts to renew the original tree growth, or of attempting improvement of the forest production by the substitution of improved species of trees. Some such spots on the higher ranges seem favourable to the trial of the best species of eucalypti which are suited to elevated volcanic regions, as, for instance, the Tasmanian blue gum, while other places on the lower ranges are well adapted for a trial plantation of some species of the coniferae, if at any time it should be deemed advisable to attempt to create a local supply of the soft woods now so extensively imported.

The Bullarook Forest, Mr. Ivey says, presents, undoubtedly all the phases through which timbered country in Victoria seems at present certain to pass. Sooner or later, and within its boundaries the whole of the difficulties of the management of the state forests may be recognised at a glance. Its central position has caused it to be greatly drained for years, while the evil practices of certain classes of timber-cutters have also resulted in the usual large amount of destruction. There, however, a portion of the land has also fallen into the hands of the selector who has, says Mr. Ivey, “rung the trees over thousands of acres, and succeeded in a majority of cases in exhibiting a disgraceful state of cultivation between the whitened trunks of a crop of timber that was worth to the state much more than the value of the gross produce of all the grain crops produced, or likely to be produced.” Truly from all these reports, the state of affairs in connexion with forest conservation in Victoria can hardly be said to be satisfactory.


The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) Thursday 24th December 1874. See - National Library of Australia
James Joseph Casey (1831-1913). From June 1872 to August 1875 he was Commissioner of Crown lands, President of the Board of Land and Works and the first Minister of Agriculture in Victoria.