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.

Part 1 - Surrey to Foreman's School

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.