As a result of pressure from environment groups, including GECO’s campaign to save Kuark, in early November 2019 Daniel Andrews made the completely false post election declaration that 100% of old growth forest would be protected. It accounted to 90,000 ha at the time.
Amongst other post-election commitments relating to forests, hearing the announcement was hugely relieving. GECO has for decades campaigned to end old growth logging. We thought the trauma of seeing these ancient and complex ecosystems reduced to slash, woodchips, and pulp was ending.
We were so wrong.
Old growth forest in 'No Rush' coupe Swifts Creek, Feb 2022 (before). Photo credit Friends of Bats and Habitat Gippsland
The slow creep of reality…
By November 19th, 2019 GECO and 5 other major environment groups pencilled a letter to the Premier requesting that in line with the announcement - no logging occur in the 90,000ha of mapped Modelled Old Growth. It should have been a no-brainer right? They committed to protecting it, so why wouldn’t they just do that? However by the 26th of November GECO was in the media exposing that old growth logging was still occurring in East Gippsland. Our campaigner at the time Ed Hill states:
“They’ve told Victorians that 90,000 hectares of old growth will be protected and they can’t tell Victorians how that’s going to happen. They announced an immediate ban on old growth logging and in East Gippsland we’re seeing old growth logging occurring right now in areas mapped as old growth that should be protected.”
They lied to our faces. And then came the big reveal…
The Environment Department closes it’s eyes to old growth.
The groundbreaking court case of Fauna and Flora Research Collective Inc (FFRC) v The Secretary to DELWP and VicForests initiated in 2017 argued the state government failed to protect 60% of wet and damp old growth forest in East Gippsland, as the law requires , and until they do, further logging in old growth forest should not proceed. The court case came off the back of GECO’s campaign to save the Kuark forest - beautiful old growth forest just south of the Errinundra Plateau in East Gippsland. 34 areas earmarked for logging were included in the case, including Kuark. We worked closely with FFRC for many years resourcing, fundraising, and promoting the case. The industry, threatened by the possibility the case may actually prevent them from illegally logging old growth, started making other plans…
Previous GECO campaigner Ed Hill in Kuark, 2017. Photo credit Rob Blakers.
Despite the trial having finished in early 2019, after the old growth announcement the case was reopened by the Environment Department to include evidence relating to a new tool ‘they’ had created - one that essentially declassified old growth areas by manipulating the definition. The tool was literally cut and pasted from an earlier one made by VicForests themselves…
GECO supporters sent a number of submissions to the Office of the Conservator Regulator (OCR) about the inadequacy of the tool, the need for verification only outside of the 90 000 ha, and that VicForest could not be trusted to verify if or not old growth was present.
The reality was the government never had any intention to protect these areas. The entire 90 000ha was now suddenly subject to this new tool which in affect erased the very presence of old growth forest. It was business as usual.
Why keep it a secret?
It has only been through Freedom of Information requests submitted by previous GECO campaigner Chris Schuringa that we were able to understand the full extent of how much old growth was being logged. She went through 3 years of assessments, carefully adding up each parcel, doing on the ground scouting and monitoring logging. She uncovered that more than 100 ha had already been logged in East Gippsland, with thousands more still on the current logging schedule. It was an utter travesty - it had to go public. With the help of ABC’s national environment journalist, Michael Slezak, she was finally able to reveal the old growth lie via the national news.
Coupes on the schedule in Swifts Creek, Nunniong, and parts of Bendoc all contain rare mature and old forests, as well as providing critical habitat for threatened species through tree hollows post Black Summer.
Old growth 'No Rush' coupe Swifts Creek, May 2022 (after). Photo credit Bats and Habitat Gippsland
For an announcement they were ostensibly proud of, the question begs - why are we having to pursue FOIs at all? Secrecy and duplicity plague the Dan Andrews government. At the 5 year review of the Freedom Of Information (FOI) laws not only was it found that less people were getting full access to FOIs, but delays, complaints and rejections had increased as well. Government owned industry, like VicForests, and government departments must be accountable to the communities they serve. This information must be made freely and readily available.
Old growth fucken oath.
Since our genesis in 1993, protecting old growth has been central to GECO’s work. Iconic forest blockades at Goolengook, Sellers Road, Combienbar, Yalmy, Mt Jersey, Centre and Survey Roads, and Kuark were all to protect old growth forest as an urgent priority.
In 1994. A blockade was established to protect the old growth forest of Hensleigh Creek. The arrests of two GECO activists resulted in setting a precedent for bail conditions, following a five day jail sit.
In 1995, the old growth forest and cool temperate rainforest of Yandown and Dingo Creek were protected by a blockade of Sellers Road. This area was subject to multiple blockades over the years, and after much of it was logged, some was added to the Errinundra National Park in recognition of its “icon” status. As recently as 2022 what little remains of this area was scheduled for logging.
Sellars rd blockade 1995
From 1997-2002 the old growth forests of the incredibly unique and biodiverse heritage of the Goolengook River was blockaded in GECO’s most well-known and longest running campaign. Old growth forests were the key to this campaign, and after multiple investigations and losing some of the heart of this forest to logging, the area was protected in recognition of its importance to Victoria. It was burnt in 2019, severely impairing its old growth values.
Goolengook arrests 1997
GECO blockade at Cann River mill, 1997.
The forest of Centre Road and Survey Road was once a huge swath of untouched massive old growth forest, and was subject to blockades between 2001-2004. Much of it has been logged, and many log loads were seen going down the highway from this area for many years. The catchment of the Bonang River is where the Big Tree was discovered.
The Old Growth walk
In December 2003 three of our collective members discovered what was to become the largest tree in Victoria - it had a girth of 18.5m. Surrounded by logging coupes, there were no protections for it at all. GECO member Rena Gabarov said at the time:
“Who knows how many more trees of this size are out there waiting to be discovered? It is time for the government to protect all old growth forest and ensure that trees such as these can remain as part of Australia's natural heritage.”
After relentless campaigning by GECO, that tree now sits in the Errinundra National Park. The 'Old growth walk' will take you to it.
The Big Tree on the Old Growth walk, 2018
In January 2018 GECO supporters initiated a 10 day blockade to protect old growth at Granite Mountain. A person was suspended under a tripod structure which was attached to a forestry road gate, preventing access. The campaign also initiated 5000 emails to be sent to relevant minsters. This action was just 10 weeks after the Supreme Court injunction by FFRC to halt logging in Kuark. GECO’s campaigner at the time, Ed Hill, stated:
“Logging of untouched old growth forests doesn’t belong in the 21st century. The logging industry in East Gippsland shouldn’t have to continue to destroy the last remnants of untouched forests that have never seen an axe. If the industry was sustainable it would not be logging pristine old growth, too much has already been lost and what remains must be protected for future generations.”
Granite Mountain blockade, 2018
While fighting for old growth has been GECO’s core business for decades, the Black Summer bushfires of 2019 - 2020 changed everything…
We need to protect all remaining native forests, not just old growth.
Old growth forests are vitally important - they store the most carbon, their forest biodiversity is unmatched, damp and wet old growth forests buffer against fires, and they offer effective filtration of our water.
However fires can severely impair and destroy old growth forests, especially those with species not adapted to fire, and the Black Summer fires of 2019 - 2020 ravaged 81% of native forest in East Gippsland. These fires also killed more than 3 billion animals nationally. What forest remains, both unburnt and recovering, cannot cope with anymore logging. Critical unburnt refuges must be retained for threatened species recovery and fire recovering forests must be left to allow for species recolonisation and climate adaptation. Any old growth remaining is just one part of this urgent demand for East Gippsland’s forests.
Previous GECO Campaigner Chris Schuringa in Kuark forest after the fires. Photo credit Rob Blakers.