My Forest Journey
Les Lasham (bio)
When I walked through the doors of General Steam Navigation Co at Tower Square opposite the Tower of London in early 1955 at age fifteen for my first full time employment, I had no idea that eleven years later that I would be walking through the door of the Forests Commission Victoria office at Powelltown, 70 kilometers east of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia which was the district office of the Upper Yarra Forest District.
Born in a 17th century cottage in a forest in central Surrey, I grew up surrounded by trees, both hardwood and softwoods. I had an uncle who was a logging and tree maintenance contractor and a grandfather who worked with trees on large estates.
Whilst toiling away at my work as a very junior clerk in the Cashiers department of General Steam Navigation Co, which was a subsidiary of the famous P&O Lines, I used to dream of emigrating to British Columbia with its’ iconic mountains, forests, rivers and coastline, a total package as it were to work in forests in some capacity. In the meanwhile I enquired of a private forest school for training but could not afford the fees at that time. So at age sixteen I applied at Canada House in London to emigrate to British Columbia but was deemed to be too young by the Canadian Immigration officials. But I experienced no such problems at Australia House, London which represented Australia in the United Kingdom. Australia of those days was largely unknown to many and was somewhat a ‘Big mysterious South Land’ then to me, not familiar as Canada was. I was accepted in November 1956 and sailed for Sydney in February 1957.
Many adventures followed with twists and turns in my journey for the next few years. My father knowing of my deep desire to work in forestry in some capacity, sent out from England several books on the life and career of Richard St. Barbe-Baker, the noted British Commonwealth Forester. ‘Green Glory’ was one, also a book called Eucalypts by Penfold & Willis, which helped to keep my interest in forests alive. But working in the Riverina, Northern Victoria and the Sunraysia area, I had scant knowledge of Australia’s forests, only the Red Gum forests along the mighty Murray River. My quest and forest destiny seemed to be a non-existent and fruitless aspiration at the time.
One afternoon when I was living in Echuca, in northern Victoria, I had my big ‘lucky break’ as it were. I read a copy of the four page local Echuca newspaper “The Riverine Herald”, a very basic paper indeed. But at the back were advertisements and one read “Applicants required for the 1966 Forest Foreman’s Training School of The Forests Commission Victoria”.
Kelly McCann, Forest Overseer based in Echuca was the very first person from FCV that I met when I applied for a firewood permit. Keith Jerome, District Forester based at Nathalia was the second person when he interviewed me in the first stage of applying for the 1966 Forest Foreman’s School. Fortunately, and my eternal thanks to Keith, I passed that interview enabling me to go on to the Divisional Office at Bendigo for the main interview by the Chief of Division of Operations Ted Gill, who I later learned had a formidable reputation as a fair but tough leader. Fortunately I passed that tough hurdle enabling me to attend the school along with 41 other men.
The 1966 Forests Commission Victoria Forest Foreman’s Training School was held at No 1 Camp, Broadford State Forest where the previous 1962 Foreman’s School had also been held. The camp was basic but that was usual for the times. It had had many different roles over the years.
Of the 42 students, 35 were employees of the Forests Commission, Victoria, and two from APM Forests. The remaining 5 included two bank clerks, a wheat farmer, a businessman and myself, an office clerk, station hand, and shearer. Thirty seven of the students were dozer and road grader operators, Leading Hands, or experienced forest workers looking for a new role.
The 1966 Forest Foreman’s School was staffed by OIC Max Boucher, an experienced District Forester, Darren Gribble, Forester and Dennis O’Conner, an ex-Primary School teacher and Forest Overseer from the Mt Cole State Forest.
Subjects taught were Silviculture, Systematics, Botany, Mensuration, Arithmetic, English Expression, Surveying, Forest Engineering, Fire Protection, Fire Management, Forest Law, Forests Commission Organisation and Structures (with six Head Office Divisions & six Field Divisions, a hierarchal structure with a diverse range roles responsibilities and functions). On the second day of the school we were addressed by the Chairman of The Forests Commission and senior staff to officially open the school and camp. This emphasised the importance of the training. We were also given a talk on motor vehicles by the Chief Transport Officer.
During the six months training we had many field excursions across the state visiting and experiencing various hardwood and softwood forest districts with hardwood forests and softwood plantations and we were addressed by various divisional and district staff and other Government Departments in camp and on excursions. Sometimes we were actually engaged in plantation establishment, undertaking manual planting in softwood plantation areas. The staff addressed various subjects from vehicle types and operations to aircraft use, administration, land management, silviculture, fire management and the myriad complexities of the ‘Department’. As only two to three of the trainees had finished HSC, it was quite a new challenge to be back in a school environment after a seven to ten year absence. Most evenings were spent brushing up on various subjects. Friday afternoons were welcome as trainees travelled back to homes all over Victoria. With my mate Keith from Nathalia, we took it in turns to drive back on Sunday evenings. Negotiating the twisting winding track on top of a spur in the thick fogs up to No 2 Camp was quite a feat after a drive from Echuca and Nathalia. A relief when the camp came into view.
The camp was very basic. But no different for myself who had for the past nine years since arriving in Australia lived in many basic huts on farms and stations. On cold evenings with the aid of a roaring fire and a few drinks with mates, it kept the cold at bay. For some the Sunday Creek Pub beckoned. Formal classes started at 8am after a hearty breakfast in the camp kitchen/mess hall. Max, Darren and Dennis were good tutors and kept the classes interesting. I used to ask many questions as I loved the learning experience again. It was better as I was more mature than when I went to secondary school in Surrey. Mates would groan sometimes as ‘Lasho’ asked another question. Smoko and lunchtimes were at good set times. In true Aussie style either cricket was played on the sports oval or kicking a football around, letting off steam as it were. The camp had a male camp cook and it was a rule of thumb to try and ‘get on well’ with the cook as some could be ‘grumpy’. They invariably were single and liked a drink as it were. I had learned this at many other types of camps and shearing shed messes. But one evening I discovered a maggot on the meat amongst the vegetables on my dinner plate. So I just remarked on it to mates sitting at the same table and kept eating after brushing it aside. I did not complain to the cook as everyone knew how temperamental camp cooks were and could get in a huff and leave. So I just got on with eating my meal.
For transport the school had two old Commer 20 seat buses. I believe they had travelled many, many kilometers while at the School of Forestry at Creswick. But they would generally limp along taking us to excursions to working forest districts around the state. Each trip was a revelation in how busy, successful and well run forest districts operated including those in Central and South Gippsland, North East Victoria and the Midlands area.
The North East was my favorite area - Myrtleford, Ovens, Bright, Mt Beauty, Tallangatta, Benalla and Mansfield - where we went for four weeks of working and learning. These excursions and work placements included a mixture of practical on ground hands on planting of pine seedlings in areas cleared of natural eucalypt forest, many tours of sawmills, various harvesting operations both softwood and hardwood, meeting many experienced Forest District staff, from District Foresters to bulldozer operators, all performing vital roles in a busy forest districts operation and management.
My very first impression with softwood plantation establishment was a big exciting operation with two large Allis-Chalmers HD16 bulldozers dragging a ships anchor chain between them, with a third dozer, an Allis Chalmers HD15 assisting by pushing at the rear apex of the chain. However, I also had a feeling of “Why do we have to clear healthy native forest to plant the ubiquitous Pine Trees”. My impression was formed because I found that in Australia there was generally fewer trees and tree cover than in my native Surrey. District Forest Overseers and Foresters explained the scope of these operations which were in an expansion phase. We were also shown around a large softwood sawmill, the Porepunkah Pine Mill with a 7 million super feet allocation. The impression gained was that in 30 years or so time, pines that we had planted would be being converted in a pine sawmill like this. It gave a sense of worthwhile work.
I had been used to contract type work like shearing. Others at the Training School were also competitive. When pine planting with some of the slopes up to 30 degrees we would race to see who would make it to the top first. My other motivation was that as a cigarette smoker, if one was say in the first half dozen to reach the top track, one could roll a smoke and maybe have a quick sit down, whilst watching the others make it to the top. My personal best was 230 pine seedlings planted by mattock from 9am to 11.30 am. The technique was three good paces, strike the ground with the hand held mattock, make a slit, and place the open rooted pine seedling in the slit, firm down with boot, three paces and so on. If rain led to cessation of planting we retired to the huts that we were staying in. We also carried out work pulling pine seedlings at The Ovens Pine Nursery. Most were Pinus radiata. Many trials had been carried out in earlier years and P. radiata was selected for all round best performance. The other main species trialed were P. nigra and P. ponderosa. Additionally, we had tours of various stages of plantation establishment with Research Officer George Minko. And we also were able to practice surveying, with chain and compass, areas that had been planted. This was all practical and useful work which was a theme conveyed throughout the six months we spent at the Foreman’s school.
We also carried out similar work at the Shelley Plantation and camp at Shelley on the Corryong Road. Shelley was a large smart looking and well equipped camp. After settling into camp we began a week of planting pine seedlings and working in the Shelley pine nursery. We were shown clearing of native forest for pine plantation establishment, this time with Caterpillar D7E’s with tree pushers, given talks by Bob Allen on burning operations and various methods for plantation establishment. We undertook more surveying work, surveying areas for new plantations, again giving the sense of useful work even though we were in training.
After four weeks in the North East learning the myriad of different operations in these very busy forest districts, it was back to Broadford and back to the classroom as well. Lessons resumed. Botany, Mensuration, Silviculture, Surveying, Arithmetic; for example working out saw log volumes from basic measurements. At times we had various Departmental officers speaking to us on specialized subjects, including Rex Philpot from the Radio Laboratory in Surrey Hills, Geoff Marks the Forest Pathologist from Head Office, and the Chief Fire Management Officer on the vast subject of Fire Management and Fire Protection.
Regular tests were conducted throughout the course. We settled down to a regular routine of class work mixed with practical work on the subjects where appropriate – such as measuring tree girths and heights, using fire equipment and checking our vehicles.
Visits to other Forest Districts and areas followed at intervals; these included Wombat State Forest, Mansfield, Mt Buller and Mt Stirling area, Taggerty District, an extensive visit to Gippsland, visiting Nowa Nowa District, Mirboo North District, Erica Forest District, Boola State Forest and Upper Yarra Forest District. These visits included various forest harvesting and silvicultural operations in hardwood mixed species and Mountain Ash forests and softwood plantation forests, sawmills and forest nurseries.
By early November 1966 we were having tests on all subjects taught. So heads down in study and exams after evening revision classes. We had to entertain ourselves usually by stoking up the fire in our small huts and having a drink or two with mates. Bluey Bettles from the North East used to bring down a really good wine which was novel as in those day it was beer that was the popular drink. Smokey Sawyer from the Latrobe Valley would play his guitar and sing in quite a reasonable act. During daylight hours, say at lunchtime after a cooked meal in the dining room, we would play cricket on an oval near camp in a forest clearing. Simpler times I now think on reflection.
As we were nearing the end of the school and time to think of postings to positions across the state of Victoria, OIC Max Boucher circulated a form with a list of requirements that attendees wanted or required when posted to a Forest District which was very democratic. For my list I wrote … 1. Forest type - Mountain Ash Forest, 2. Where - no more than 200 km from Echuca, as my only relations in Australia, my in – laws, lived in Echuca/Moama, 3. Facilities - A school close by as my wife was a trained Primary School Teacher, 4. - A Departmental residence attached to the Forest District to rent. Amazingly all these requests were met by Max Boucher and the Department, for which I have been eternally grateful. On Friday 11th November 1966 we had our final exams, Entomology and Pathology, which was a seminal moment for everyone, students and staff.
November 17th 1966 was an important day when the Forests Commission, Victoria Chairman, Mr Alf Lawrence, and Commissioners Dr Frank Moulds and Mr Charles Elsey addressed the gathering of students and staff. Also attending were Mr Jack Gillespie, Marketing Officer, Economics & Marketing Division, Mr Russ Ritchie, Assistant Divisional Forester, Western Division and then President of the VSFA, Mr Phil Garth, Broadford District Forest Officer, Mr Herb Beetham Divisional Forester, Central Division, and Mr Chandler, Chairman APM Forests as two of the trainees were APM employees. All this illustrated how important the Forests Commission regarded the training of Technical & General Supervisory and Operational staff. At that time we were classified as Probationary Forest Foreman and later classified as Forest Overseers with authorization as “Forest Officers” under the Forest Act 1958. These new Forest Foremen/Overseers tended to remain in Forest Districts across Victoria providing a continuity for the respective Districts with many eventually buying their own homes. In contrast professional Foresters were relocated every 3-5 years ostensibly for their professional development. The term “Professional Forester” was current in these times up until the FCV was morphed into Conservation Forests & Lands under major Governmental changes begun in 1983 and enacted in 1986. While some foresters left the new Department and set up their own businesses and consultancies, most remained to become managers or forest planning and management officers with the new organization.
Before the important visitors arrived we cleaned up the camp and handed in any issued gear and equipment.
Next day, 18th November 1966, we were paid our salary. Then we were addressed by OIC Max Boucher on final report forms and our results, and had a final lunch before heading off to our various homes across the state at 12.45pm. We were granted a week’s holiday before we were to take up our new positions. I, like many, felt inspired by the six months training which, may I say, was thorough and reasonably intensive. We were in no doubt what the Forest Commission required of us. Our training covered what is really a very diverse range of skills and subjects required to be a future Forest Overseer/Forest Officer for a wide variety of different roles and skill sets required to perform in the many situational circumstances in the field. I was due to move on Tuesday 29th November 1966 to my new posting to Upper Yarra Forest District with the District Office in the iconic timber town of Powelltown. But first a final drive out on Main Mountain Road and then down The Spur Road for the final time. I reflected as I drove that it was not like in winter time when one drove up the narrow Spur Road in a thick winter fog crawling along as visibility was minimal.
This part covers the period from 30th November 1966 to April 1986 from when I first started work at the Forests Commission Victoria (FCV) Powelltown Office in the Upper Yarra Forest District through to the transition of FCV to the Department of Conservation Forest & Lands.
As I start to write this second part of my recollections of my 37 years served with the Commission, I can hear numerous helicopters taking off and landing from the helipad at Wesburn Park between Yarra Junction and Warburton. They are engaged in battling the 3,000 ha wildfire in the Upper Yarra catchment in the Yarra Ranges National Park. The other large fire in the Bunyip State Park is quieter now but has been very active recently. These fires bring back memories but this was the unimaginable distant future on Tuesday 29th November 1966 when I moved from Echuca to Powelltown to start on my career posting to The Upper Yarra Forest District. My posting at Powelltown followed my successfully passing of the 1966 FCV Forest Foreman’s Training school held at No 1 Camp Broadford State Forest.
It was satisfying to actually be moving to live in the Upper Yarra Valley area as when we were returning from our visit to Gippsland whilst at the Foreman’s Training School, we drove back to Broadford via Neerim Junction through the lovely Mountain Ash forest of the Upper Latrobe Catchment, over ‘The Bump’ into the Little Yarra River Valley, then through the iconic timber town of Powelltown. Continuing through the changing landscape of Manna Gum to Messmate and then Mealy Stringybark to Yarra Junction the view opened up to show the beautiful Mt Donna Buang, Mt Bride and Britannia Ranges. I was captivated by the sight not knowing at that time that I would be spending the rest of my life with those views and that I would be posted there on completion of the training school. After living in and then moving from Powelltown after eight years, I bought land and built my own house in Yarra Junction. My house looked directly at those ranges and now in another house I have those same views. So I feel truly blessed as I can still see those views after all those years I worked in those forested mountains. When I first arrived in Australia and worked in the Southern Riverina, the flat plains and few trees felt quite alien to me so I have always felt the instant appeal of the Upper Yarra area which stayed with me over all these years.
My wife and I arrived in Powelltown sometime before the removalist truck, so I took the opportunity to go to the District Office to report in to District Forester (DFO) Frank May. Frank was an ex-RAAF man who completed forestry training after discharge from the RAAF like a few other ex-serviceman. We chatted for about two hours and he invited me to go fuel reduction burning at Britannia Creek with him and other staff the next day. Wanting to make a good start I accepted. So I did not get my allotted three days off to move. This set the pattern for my next busy 37 year time at Powelltown. My wife drove back to Echuca to finish up her high school teaching job leaving me with a bicycle to cycle down to the town store and post office.
My wife and I settled into the old timber cottage beside the main road into Powelltown less than 100 metres from the office. The house had seen better days and we missed our brand new flat in Echuca down near the Campaspe River. But it was somewhere to live and very convenient for my work and only 16 km for Shirley to travel to Yarra Junction to teach Mathematics & English at the High School. The District carpenter built an outside toilet at the rear of the house. One night Shirley walked out in the dark to visit the toilet and tripped over a large wombat on the path. She was in her second trimester of her pregnancy with our daughter Marissa but luckily Shirley, bub and wombat all survived okay.
During this time I learned that Ted Gill, Chief of Division of Forest Operations was due to visit. I mentioned the poor state of the house to Forester Gary Waugh. Gary suggested I talk to Ted Gill about it but I had to get that request past DFO Frank May. That done, on the day I earnestly showed Ted Gill the house and how sky could be seen out the corner of the ceiling which would be Marissa’s room and other ‘features’. The result was that Ted Gill said “You will get a new house but someone else will miss out this year”. I expressed gratitude. Frank was surprised and so were other District staff living in Departmental houses in Powelltown. I spoke to each as I was well aware I was newly arrived and the most junior staff member. But everyone declined the offer of the new house. So Shirley and I moved in with new daughter Marissa. A brand new substantial District Forester’s house was also built later on a patch of forest nearby that I was responsible for clearing with our CatD6 dozer operator Ted Hansen.
My work fell into three main areas. Working with the DFO Frank May and his Assistant District Forester Gus Geary as well as working with Forest Overseers Henry Herrod, George Mortimer and the field crew at Powelltown. I also worked with the Forester in Charge and the two Forest Overseers at Warburton East Sub-depot.
I was tasked to work with the Forest Overseers on many varied tasks learning the District operations. I was quite amazed by the variety of work. Much of this work involved preparations for the fire season including checking on fire lookout towers and the equipment including radios. Another job was a fuel reduction burning around fire towers and also checking on fire dugouts to make sure they would be operational in a fire emergency. As one the local Forest Overseer’s main duties was supervising forest harvesting, I was able to observe those roles. My own roles were predominantly aligned to all aspects of forest silviculture, road and bridge maintenance and construction, all aspects of fire management, Forest Crew supervision, Powelltown depot maintenance, supervision of the eucalypt nursery, vehicle fleet maintenance, assisting the District Forester & Assistant District Forester, and assisting other Forest Overseers when required. I also periodically assisted Research Branch officers from Melbourne with their research work and projects.
I was surprised at the variety of the various tasks and roles that my new position required. I had quite broad working experience in big city commercial offices, industrial factories, the pastoral industry in England, the Riverina Goulburn Valley and Sunraysia area in Australia including dairy, fruit and general farming, and as a station hand, roustabout and shearer. But most of these jobs were routine except for my time as a station hand near Wentworth NSW which was very enjoyable work in the wilder country of Mallee scrub and sandhills alongside the Darling River system.
This wide experience stood me in good stead for my forestry role as I was used to working with many very individual types of rugged hard working men and women across a broad spectrum of positions and roles, city and country. Adding to my job satisfaction was the fact that finally I was working in forestry.
The forest office at Powelltown was surrounded by densely forested hills with beautiful strongly growing 1926 Mountain Ash fire regrowth to the north and on the south side Silvertop/Messmate Stringybark regrowth. So the awareness of the forest was present in every action in the Office and Depot. Even when performing routine tasks like timesheets, mapping or preparing annual report data for the DFO to submit to Head Office the forest so close by was exerting its influence.
The Field Crew were all experienced forest workers mainly coming to the Department from sometimes remote bush forest sawmill settlements or from working on the extensive timber tramways hauling the sawlogs and sawn timber. One such field crew person was Jack Gunther an experienced ‘powder monkey’. Come January 1967 and I was tasked with working on road construction on Ada River Road. I was supervising the experienced field staff and learning from them at the same time. One highlight was while I was assisting Jack drilling a shelf of rock on Upper Ada River Road for a fortnight with Jack and I taking turns on the jackhammer. When all had been drilled Jack prepared the ammonium nitrate and gelignite plugs and detonators and wired everything up for one huge blast. Jack invited me to press the button on the Brahms dynamo device. One wound a handle to generate the electrical charge that would carry through the wires. Jack said press the button. I did and nothing happened at first, then a massive blast as the fortnight’s work went up in a huge shower of rocks which we had to dodge.
During this summer a memorable job was working with Geoff Gribble, the carpenter and road grader operator, to check the 12 mile phone line to Mt Beenak fire tower. The phone line consisted of no 8 gauge fencing wire on conductors, sometimes on poles and sometimes directly attached to tree trunks with insulators hammered directly onto tree trunks. These sorts of on the job training were inspirational as I was technically the supervisor but also learning much from the crew on the job. Their extensive prior experience made them good all round and valuable crew members.
Much of my own work was focused on various silvicultural aspects including eucalypt seed collection of mainly Mountain Ash but also some Eucalyptus nitens (Shining Gum) for sowing in the nursery. Seed extraction occurred firstly in adapted steam kilns at the local Victorian Hardwood Company sawmill in Powelltown then in purpose built igloo type extraction shed in the Depot yard. Only much later was the modern tumbler and electrically heated seed extraction shed built. I learnt and initiated many aspects of the District nursery operations.
An extensive eucalypt reforestation program had been started back in the days of DFO Jack Gillespie. That first winter for me at Powelltown entailed planting Mountain Ash seedlings in areas dominated by Silver Wattle which regenerated naturally following wildfires in 1926, 1932 and 1939, and also planting some harvested logging coupes.
Another reforestation project involved a large block of land had been purchased from local biodynamic farmer Alex de Podolinsky. It was a very steep south facing slope on the north side of the Little Yarra River just west of Powelltown. The area was fortunately mainly bracken fern which made for easy site preparation by front mounted rippers on a Cat D6 bulldozer blade. Contour tracks were also constructed with a main track going straight up the slope. This made it very challenging for me as my vehicle at the time was an ex-army white scout car, a very heavy vehicle with permanent four wheel drive. Sometimes I was able to borrow a Land Rover or Toyota Landcruiser from other staff members. This area was mainly planted with Shining Gum, but also included a trial of Eucalyptus delegantensis (Alpine Ash) sown on a scarified steep slope on the western side. This was also an important site for Eucalyptus species provenance trials, including Shining Gum carried out by Research Branch Forester Leon Pederick. As we did not have a large workforce all the field work crew were roped in by myself on a daily basis to plant trees regardless of what classification or skill crew members had. Only heavy rain or snow stopped us with the planting program. The planting season ran from May to late August and the trees needed time before the occurrence of sometimes unseasonal early warm weather. Everyone bought a packed lunch from home and vacuum flask for smokos and lunch which were often lively affairs with much discussion of current and political affairs with many strong differing opinions.
I also started working in the eucalypt nursery assisting the nurseryman George Green. I had been told by DFO Frank May that when George retired I would be required to run the nursery. I said “How do I go about that”? Frank said “Ask George and learn from him”. When I asked, George said “It’s all in me head and I can’t really tell anyone.” So I started observing and learning and the next season actually employed two local ladies to do the pricking out of seedlings into tube stock.
During that first summer of 1967 we were aerial spraying a large infestation of phasmatids that eventually covered about 5,000 hectares of prime Mountain Ash regrowth forest. The phasmatids would defoliate large areas which were plainly visible including on the slopes of the Mt Donna Buang Range. We had an aircraft unit headed by Con Wood from Head Office and many young foresters living in a temporary camp in the District works yard. We had to fly balloon markers for the planes to be guided with the aerial spraying. At either end of a planned spray run we put up a balloon marker using long nylon fishing line on hand made reels, then move one spray width and so on. I was tasked by Gus Geary, Assistant District Forester, to go to designated areas to read the weather conditions (eg fog level, wind conditions) and to radio back to the office if conditions were suitable for flying. This meant rising at 3 am to send the message as early as possible. Radio reception was patchy for voice transmission so the method was one press of transmission button for ‘go’ and suitable and two presses for not suitable. The whole day’s operations depended on this. I was conscious of the number of staff involved so I had to make the correct judgement. One time when we had one small area to spray on Britannia Range that only required marking with a smoke flare, I clawed my way down through the thick scrub of the 1939 Mountain Ash stand try to save time as the Piper Pawnee plane was close overhead. I accidentally knocked the flare on a log, it shot up through the tree canopy and went close by the plane’s engine cowling and the left wing. Gave the pilot a bit of a scare I think! Following trials with the use of aircraft for particular forest management operations, such as firebombing trials at Benambra, extensive use of aircraft for aerial phasmatid control was a natural development. Later in 1969 an early trial of aerial seeding of eucalypt seed was carried out in the Upper Bunyip Area on areas after wattle stands were sprayed with desiccant and cleared by bulldozer. Eventually we had a eucalypt seed coating centre set up at Powelltown. I was trained in the techniques by Hans Kosmer from Head Office. Eucalypt seed was coated and bulked up for Central Division Districts (Powelltown, Toolangi, Marysville, Taggeerty, Broadford), and at times for Erica other Gippsland Districts as required.
One epic task was helping two Central Division Assessors with assessment of the future potential of the Mountain Ash stands on the southern slopes of Mt Donna Buang. Starting on the O’Shannassy Aqueduct Track we would use compass and chain on a northerly bearing, establishing plots every 100 metres, with a plot size of one tenth hectare. We would measure each tree for height and girth at DBH noting data on our survey sheets. The very steep slopes and thick scrub of Prostrantha and Correa commonly called ‘Tanglefoot’ made progress very slow. We carried our lunch in backpacks. Working up the slope until we came to the road to Mt Donna Buang and then moving a couple of hundred metres at right angles to our upward traverse we would proceed down the slope to the O’Shannassy Aqueduct Track. Following a trial harvesting of an area off the APM track, the decision was made by Divisional Forester Ken Harrop and DFO Frank May that the terrain was unsuitable for extensive harvesting of the Mountain Ash resource. Over the years as I have and still do daily look at the Mt Donna Buang mountain range that is now the Yarra Ranges National Park, I reflect on this work and the fact that it was foresters who made the decision to preserve this wonderful asset.
From time to time ‘The Boss’ would feel the need to escape the report writing and confines of the office and ‘go bush’. Many times he asked me to offside him because he sometimes wanted to look at plantation establishment or experimental silviculture trials or road works. The DFO’s vehicle was a new two toned 1966 HR Holden ‘hydromatic’ station wagon, reasonably novel for the time, as most vehicles were manuals. With the high rainfall many roads and tracks in those days were challenging with lower maintenance standards, but Frank was an excellent driver. One time he drove up the bottom part of Mt Bride fire line, me hanging on to the door handle, but Frank’s ability matched with the auto got us up the steep bottom part to the mid-section before it got really steep. Frank turned around on a slope most people would need a four wheel drive to do safely. Occasionally I would have to earn my keep by getting out into the mud and pushing to assist Frank’s excellent driving. I think this is one reason why Frank took me with him on these outings!
One time we visited a local logging contractor who had a nervous disposition and would stumble over his words, who complained that “F… F...Frank the timber is not much g…g..good” Frank replied, “Stan that’s because you’re in the wrong bloody area”. I think that’s one example why coupe boundary marking later became the norm. Good stands with trees suitable for timber harvesting were sometimes hard to find because of the devastating impact of the 1939 wildfires so the areas of timber were quite scattered. As harvesting of 1926 and 1939 stands increased, coupe boundary marking was a required practice. As indicated above I used to like going out with Frank and sometimes Divisional staff would accompany us. There was the odd field day or demonstration, like one of the first aerial seeding trials of coated eucalypt seed which took place in the Upper Bunyip area in 1979. Head Office staff also attended.
Ken Harrop was the Central Divisional Forester based in Healesville and periodically visited the Powelltown office. It sometimes was a really friendly affair. I remember when it was someone’s birthday and Frank’s wife Lucy had baked a nice cake and bought it over to the office for morning ‘smoko’, so it was a relaxed atmosphere. With District clerk Harry Hill, who being an ex-Queenslander, felt the cold and had a sort of chip on his shoulder about having to live down south for some obscure reason. It seemed this coloured his sense of humour. When Clerical Assistant and local girl Esme Parker reached 50 years old she counted backwards every birthday so she became ‘younger’ every year. I never did learn her true age but she was meticulous at paperwork. Jenny Adams, whose family were all working in the forest industry, provided a young vibe in the office. Later Irene Mitchell, also from a local timber industry family, provided a good steady presence. I can recall many experiences working with Assistant District Forester Gus Geary, with his fantastic memory for scientific names and with other staff like Gary Waugh (later Dr.) and Leon Bren (later Associate Professor). Ken Harrop was a keen Collingwood supporter so everyone was careful to not knock the Divisional Forester’s beloved team too much or said what a great team they were, (everyone knew how tribal this is). When Ken had everyone’s attention and a jovial atmosphere, as it were, he would become serious and home in on something he wanted to get off his chest. For example, “What are you doing about finding more supplies of timber for the local sawmills?” or some such subject. It was a great management technique, in true Aussie fashion.
Operations employing aircraft became more common usage, namely phasmatid spraying, aerial seeding of coated eucalypt seed, and desiccant spraying of silver wattle stands with 2,4,5-T and some survey work using aerial photography. The airstrip used by Upper Yarra Forest District was a fairly flat farmers paddock just to the east of Yarra Junction. At ‘Adams Paddock’ I had watched heavily laden planes, usually Piper Pawnees, flying up the valley eastwards and then circling westward to gain height. I mused “wouldn’t it be an advantage if we could find somewhere to have an airstrip that did not require all that time and fuel climbing up to the surrounding mountains”. Eventually I found an area on Sumner’s Spur in a north easterly direction at an elevation of 600 metres, half the height of Mt Donna Buang. This site at a higher elevation and covered in bracken fern with some Silver Wattle could be easily cleared by bulldozer. Everywhere else was dense regrowth forest. I put the idea to DFO Frank. Frank, in his usual direct supportive manner, liked the idea and said to go ahead with it. Eventually in early 1970 we began operating from the Sumner’s Spur airstrip. It was not completely flat as it had a downhill run before flattening out and then dropping away at the end of the strip. But the pilots seemed to approve. However, conditions could be challenging and one afternoon I watched a Piper Pawnee emptied of its load of malathion and diesel phasmid spray come in crabbing sideways.
John Hirchfelder, one of the pilots, one day talked me into flying with him with only room to sit between his legs, but the flight was worth it. Years later as an OH&S representative I would have frowned at this and not done it. Unfortunately, John was later killed in an aircraft accident whilst on operations in the Victorian North East Region. Later all around the airstrip we carried out pushing of desiccated wattle using CatD6 dozers and ripping rows to plant eucalypt seedlings, keeping in mind and leaving space for aircraft operations. Aircraft operations always had a risk element. I was saddened one day whilst working in the nursery to be informed by then DFO Ken Morison that a helicopter had crashed at Bright with three fatalities, Forest Overseer Stan Gillett, Forester Peter Collier and the pilot. I had led a crew to Bright Forest District only weeks before and we had been under Stan’s supervision in the pine plantation fire. These are still sad memories.
One day on an inspection of Seven Acre Rock, I slithered down the steep track down from the saddle below the rocks themselves and then down onto the switchback corner of Bunyip Road East. I thought this is not a very safe track even for those days. So when I went back to the District Office I mentioned this to Frank May and he asked “How could it be improved?” My reply was there was a flattish spur that ran to the base of the rocks from below the junction with Learmonth’s Creek Road. So Frank said “Well go ahead and see what can be done”. So I ran a new grade at 1 in 20, I then had the crew cut the alignment. We also built a carpark and a bush toilet near the start of the new track. Back in those days life was simpler with more direct action and not with the planning that is required these days.
Building the bridge over the Latrobe River for the new Ada River Road was the first bridge I worked on with the crew who were all experienced. Usual method was to seek out bed logs and stringers and suitable sawlogs for the decking and running boards as close as possible to the site from mixed species bush, then fall and snig the logs. The decking and running boards were sawn at a local sawmill. On this particular job Ashley Green the bulldozer operator needed some time in the river itself with the Cat D4 dozer to place the bed logs into the sides of the river banks. DFO Frank was aware of this and said he could only spend half a day in the river with the dozer as he was acutely aware of water quality issues downstream as properties at Nayook and Noojee drew water from the river. Well the D4 became stuck between two very large granite boulders for hours and hours. It was a relief late afternoon when Ashley was able to manoeuvere and winch the machine out of the river. When we arrived back home late that afternoon at the Powelltown depot we didn’t widely advertise the problem we experienced.
We were so short of field staff in those days that everyone had to be multi-skilled even though most had a main skill set. For myself when necessary I even doubled up as a truck driver as I had my Heavy Vehicle Licence for the fire tanker. One memorable day I drove the tipper truck all day carting rock from a quarry up the Donna Buang Road and then up the very steep Mt. Victoria track for road surfacing. The work I was involved in was very diverse. Next day I may be extracting seed in the seed kiln or in the office as extensive record keeping and also data was needed for the Annual Reports. Other days I would be assisting other Forest Overseers with their work. I can recall periodic trips to Melbourne for stores or a new slip-on-tanker unit from the Altona North Fire Protection Depot and meeting with Chief Technical Fire Equipment Officer ‘Rocky’ Marsden. Catching up on state wide news was always a pleasure. Other tasks included collecting parts from William Adams Caterpillar dealers at Clayton (and seeing first hand various earthmoving machinery in their huge factory), planting trees, fuel reduction burning and aircraft operations as previously mentioned.
Many log trucks pulled into the Log Checking Station opposite the Forest Office. When the Storeman/Log checker was on his lunch break if I was in working in the Office or Depot I would be conscious of the truck drivers not wanting to wait around too long as some had travelled from as far as Matlock (after the Warburton East Forest Office & Depot closed). The measurements in the drivers log book were checked for girth and length measurements with a tape, and if correct, the log book entry would be signed. Even though this was not my main area I was very conscious of doing it correctly as such emphasis and practice had been given to this at our Foreman’s School training. The largest single load was on a Mack truck owned by a ‘Plugger’ Trewin of Traralgon and came from one of Doug & David Silvester’s coupes (they were also from Traralgon) and measured 8,300 super feet (19.6 cubic metres).
I was responsible for sivicultural operations including the regeneration of harvested coupes. I remember a positive change in coupe design and efficiency. One particular coupe on Oat Patch Spur, high up off Big Creek Road was in fire regrowth. At this time regrowth forest from 1926 and 1932 wildfires started to be harvested and later harvesting of 1939 regrowth increased. Rather than the selection harvesting methods previously used when timber had been hard to find and tended to be in scattered stands because of those past catastrophic wildfires, clear felling became the recommended harvesting and silvicultural practice. This enabled more effective and efficient coupe design to be implemented with proper coupe marking with taped boundaries even with tracks on the edges. Site preparation by burning was also much improved. The clearly marked harvested areas made it easy to calculate the area and amount of seed or plants required to regenerate the coupe. Some years we had twenty coupes. The largest coupe was fifty hectares but usually averaged about fifteen to twenty ha. Once seedlings had established regeneration surveys were carried out and submitted to Silviculture Branch at Head Office. A minimum 78.2% survival rate was required and the whole seasonal cycle of seed collection and nursery would start over again.
Management of recreational use of forests was also a large activity. We had several great walking tracks. A long established one had been ‘The Bump Tramline’, another the famous ‘High Lead’ which also went all the way through Starlings Gap to Big Pats creek and Warburton East. These tracks were maintained in summer time by using Summer Fire Crew with the added bonus of keeping them ‘fire fit’. One day whilst on a recce in the Latrobe River area, bashing my way through the thick scrub, I explored part of the hidden and mostly forgotten tramway that had run from the east end of the Bump Track to the bottom of the High Lead Track, roughly paralleling the Noojee Powelltown Road. It became obvious that it would make for a unified track system if they were joined. On return to the Office, I discussed this with Assistant District Forester Geoff Evans who could also see the merit in taking that action and was keen to see it implemented .This was part of Geoff’s portfolio so he included it in the overall planning. It was not difficult in tasking summer fire crew to reopen the track. This later became ‘The Walk into History’ running from Powelltown to Big Pats Picnic Ground Warburton East. As I said before, they were simpler days when decisions could be made locally. But it all fitted into a larger Divisional and Head Office framework, just less bureaucracy.
Fire management and fire protection were always a major part of my work. This involved monitoring the availability and training of the forest crew, maintaining fire equipment, buildings, fire towers and dams. Deployment to fires in other Districts occurred and normal works had to be put on hold or various arrangements made. In my early years I attended fires in places like Broadford, Corryong, Bright, Taggerty, Briagalong, Heyfield, Bairnsdale, Orbost, and Cann River. One memorable time I had to take a crew of six to Bright Forest District, arriving at Bright Forest Office about 1900 hours. I received orders and a map to proceed to the fire area on top of the Ti-Tree Range. I was told that there was a base camp there. So we set off as the sun was setting and negotiated our way correctly on the twists and turns and junctions of the very dark Selwyn River Logging Road, then up the Switchback Road to the top of the Ti-Tree Range which is on the divide with Gippsland. Arriving at the top we located ‘the base camp’ which turned out to be an older Bright crew member with an open wood fire, a frying pan and a great supply of eggs. After a feed we spent all night working our way down the fire edge to the valley below. By the time we set up our camp on at level spot on the bank of the Buckland River it was 1400 hours the following day. The camp consisted of one large 12x12 tent, everyone finding space, and we had our special fire trailer with cooking equipment. This was long before the days of base camps or even later motels. We had to be self-sufficient when the situation required it.
At a fire at Zeka Creek off the Snowy Plains in the Heyfield Forest District our base was the Surveyor’s Creek Camp. It was a long drive from base camp to the fire area. We were there over three days with no communication with the Fire Boss as radio communications were difficult. We had to walk into the fire area down a steep ridge with mini cliffs and at its longest it took us two hours to walk back out to our vehicle. The previous crew had been rake hoeing under the fire edge on the contour roughly. But hot rocks were dislodged when the fuel burned and rolled down the steep slope causing fresh outbreaks so I and my crew rake hoed straight down the spur to the creek at the bottom. Democratically I asked their advice on back burning off our raked trail and so we did which was a calculated decision as we had no backup anywhere nearby and we contained the fire. We eventually reported in by radio to the Fire Boss located in Heyfield . Communications were patchy to say the least.
As senior staff moved onto other postings I was called on to engage more in public relations, including assisting with enquiries from the public. I also assisted with presentations on Mountain Ash silviculture to the ANU or Creswick School of Forestry, led sometimes by Dr. Kevin Tolhurst. One memorable visitor was a Chinese Major General from Outer Mongolia who commanded 55,000 troops of The People’s Armed Police which amongst its many duties included land management and fire protection.
Many other experiences could be recounted but for me this all led up to the ‘Big One’, the Warburton Fire No 16 on Ash Wednesday, February 16th 1983. Fortunately during the 1970’s fire training had improved skills considerably.
At Powelltown, like elsewhere, we were on a high state of readiness due to the severe weather forecasts. When DFO Ray Baker had a call to investigate a strong smoke sighting on the lower northern slopes of Mt Little Joe between Millgrove and Warburton, Ray told me to accompany him and directed me to drive to where the smoke could be clearly seen from the Warburton Highway pluming up in a strong column. Ray’s exact words on radioing the District Office at Powelltown were “I want twenty dozers at least”, which raised some eyebrows in the Office. But Ray’s assessment was on the mark as fifty two bulldozers were eventually employed on the 44,500 hectare fire as well as some hundreds of fire fighters and many tankers and slip-on units. The fire was driven by a strong south westerly wind which later changed into a north easterly sending the fire away from more settled areas but into valuable Mountain Ash and mixed species forests. Such was this wildfire’s prominence in the national press, that later Prime Minister Malcom Fraser and wife Tamie flew in a RAAF Chinook Helicopter into the Wesburn Oval for a visit, meeting local officials and residents. In fact, I have a photo of my two youngest children waving from the front door of the chopper. Initially I was on the fire firstly as a crew leader saving houses with our units and the CFA on Hooks Road just near the fires source. This was important as it helped slip the fire away on the south side of Warburton when it reached there that evening. Then on the first night Ray had me undertaking liaison duties at fire HQ which was a new role for me as I was used to being on the fire ground. However, it was fascinating liaising with CFA, MFB and Military Units to be deployed. From then on the fire control system took over with incoming staff and resources. For the rest of the three and a half weeks on the fire I was a Sector Boss. Finally with my District fire protection role and as other personnel had resumed their normal duties, I was patrolling the fire edge daily to make sure there were no flare ups, before I was finally able to telephone fire management in Head Office that the Warburton Fire No 16 was safe.
Then came the post fire salvage and regeneration of burned areas right at the time that meetings were being held relating to the change from Forest Commission Victoria to what would become the Department of Conservation Forests & Lands. Harvesting contractors were moved from their home Districts mainly in Central Division and West Gippsland to harvest as soon as possible the stands of dead Mountain Ash. Eleven contractors were deployed along Dowey’s Spur Road in autumn of 1983 to salvage the regrowth from the 1939 wildfires. Large log dumps were established at the Victorian Hardwood Coy Sawmill at Powelltown and the Pioneer Road regular log dump for pulpwood so as to enable a steady supply to the APM Mill at Maryvale and for any excess sawlogs that could not be stored at sawmills. I worked extensively with Assistant District Forester Paul Mainey on the issue of keeping Dowey’s Spur Road operational and liaised with cartage contractors. We eventually allowed wet weather carting to keep up production and worked in to winter weather whereas this would not normally happen. Eventually we had up to twenty eight harvesting contractors employed across the whole forest district. Also Paul and I surveyed many areas of burnt young regeneration on harvested coupes and plantations on previous areas that that had burned in mainly 1926 and 1932 and 1939. We had to plan to regenerate hundreds of hectares. Every now and again we also attended meetings, mainly at Traralgon, on the Departmental re-organisation.
The demise of Forests Commission Victoria which started in 1983 came to a conclusion in early 1986 when it was incorporated into the new Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands. I became Work Centre Supervisor, then Works Co-ordinator, and reported to an Operations Area Supervisor based at the previous FCV Central Division Office at Healesville. I was saddened to witness the loss of so many experienced professional staff from all levels from the ranks through middle management to top levels. I could say more on this but that would be opinion.
So this was ‘My Forest Journey’ Part 2, which covers my time with the FCV. This is the scope of what I was encouraged by FCRPA President Brian Fry to write. I could mention many names of good people that I worked with during that time but in reality there are literally too many to mention and not in the scope of what I was asked to complete. But that said, two names that stand out for me and who are the longest that I have been associated with in any parts of my life are Peter Ford and Mike Leonard. Both were Planning Officers at FCV Central Division Office at Healesville. I was on the Victorian State Foresters Association with them, then they were later in Regional and Head Office various roles and positions where we had contact and so also today on the FCRPA.
Working in The Upper Yarra Forest District based at Powelltown was an absolute privilege with such varied work and the chance to meet so many staff from Central Division and also to work with many Forest Researchers and personnel from Head Office in Melbourne.
District Foresters that I worked with included Frank May, Ken Morrison, Doug Stevenson, Andy Banks and Ray Baker.