After the 2009 bushfires tore through forested communities in the Central Highlands of Victoria, the land, people and wildlife were devastated. While the forests were still smouldering, bulldozers and chainsaws started felling trees, leaving fire-surviving communities grieving ever more deeply. What was best for people, wildlife and the ecosystem was not questioned by the government of the day who had big woodchip contracts to fulfil. People who had risked their lives to protect the forests from fire, now saw the same trees carted out on the back of log trucks.

Protests ensued and eventually a court case unearthed an out-of-date system of care and an inadequate reserve for wildlife. The case resulted in the first comprehensive review of the land after the fires, but was it enough? The scientists and grieving community didn’t think so, and so the fight for a new 500,000-hectare park to protect, restore and celebrate the tall wet forests north-east of Melbourne/Naarm began. From Kinglake to Eildon, from Baw Baw to the Bunyip, the Great Forest National Park was proposed as a playground for the people and a ‘keeping place’ for biodiversity.

Just 50km northeast of Melbourne/Naarm grow the mighty mountain ash forests. These tall forests cloak the blue rim of the Great Divide and are prominently defined by two extinct volcanoes. The ash forests have evolved over 20 million years and flourished in locations of high rainfall. These forests are also Melbourne's water supply. These trees are the tallest flowering plants on Earth and their ecosystem supports gullies of remnant Gondwanan rainforest, capped by snow gum on the alpine plateaus. The tall ash forests would have qualified for World Heritage status, but successive state and federal governments have prioritised them for wood-chipping rather than safe-keeping.

The Victorian Central Highlands are home to the largest forest of ash left on mainland Australia. According to government analysis, these forests rate in the top 10 per cent of most biodiverse areas in Victoria. The tall ash forest also boasts sites of global significance in its wildlife diversity, supporting high levels of endemism and rarity. These forests house Victoria’s faunal emblem, the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum, the Baw Baw frog and a tiny fish called the barred galaxias. Some of its rainforests are nationally significant making the region a rare jewel in the biodiversity crown of Victoria.

The mountain ash forest is a globally unique ecosystem. The trees grow in a cool climate terrain, their growth cycle rapid, with the tallest ash tree measuring more than 120 metres in height. The soil beneath the ash forest is metres deep in a rich, organic biomass that stores enormous volumes of carbon. However, the wood from the ash trees is mainly used as fibre for pulp to make low value paper products.

Despite presenting such value as a natural asset, the ash forests are being managed to extinction. Unsurprisingly, science is now telling us that the forests are in big trouble. The mountain ash forest ecosystem has been rated “critically-endangered”, one step before the “extinct” category. In 2015, scientists and government analysed the parlous state of the mountain ash ecosystems after successive fires and heavy logging resulted in just a little over one per cent of the forest remaining “old-growth”. The overall age of the forest is getting younger due to stand-replacing events like logging and fires. The forest is at risk of failing to regenerate or grow old again. Our management of this forest has left the most important ecosystem to Melbourne, crippled.

The mountain ash forest grows in Melbourne's water catchments in the regions where its wettest. As they grow old they release more water, but if they are maintained as young, they are perpetually thirsty. Young forest, regenerating by fire or logging, is thirsty forest, and as the trees grow skywards to reach their epic heights, they transpire more, using the water that would otherwise flow into our streams and dams. Published science has shown that younger forests are also more vulnerable to the severe fire impact, and logging resets the trees to an age more likely to burn severely. This is resulting in a perpetuating landscape trap where young and highly flammable trees may eventually fail to reseed – we are witnessing this already in logged and burned sites. We are priming the system for inevitable collapse and that is a big problem for the five million people of Melbourne whose water comes from these catchments.

Melbourne’s water catchment starts in the highlands, where the old growth forest releases more water than young, regenerating forest. Photo Sarah Rees

Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires took the lives of 173 people, burned 450,000 hectares of forest, and in that, razed 72,000 hectares of some of the best mature ash forests left. Historical assumptions, on which the government established logging quotas, were now obsolete. Continued logging in remaining threatened species habitat was being called reckless by leading ecologists, especially as more fires were predicted and logging appeared to be making fires more severe. But the state government prioritised logging contracts. The industrial scale logging contracts with Nippon Opal mill in Gippsland, and the (now) partly government owned Heyfield ASH mill, had to change as the number of trees being clear felled in these forests vastly exceeded the timber yield capacity of the unburned areas. Salvage logging in burnt areas destroyed a further 4000 hectares of forest but when the timber from these burned stands started to split, the government hastily moved the logging back into the ‘green’ and unburned forests, ignoring extinction risks.

On that Saturday afternoon, February 7, 2009, the Leadbeater’s possum lost half of its best habitat in a few short hours, yet logging plans were not altered. Logging proceeded in burned and unburned patches of the animal’s prime habitat. A large group of American scientists; ecologists, archeologists, hydrologists, and fire specialists flew to the Central Highlands to conduct intensive Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) reports that analysed the conditions of the forests from the fires. The BAER team partnered with 12 government agencies and among other things, identified the extinction risk to a number of arboreal and aquatic species. Their reports recommended that logging be kept out of the ‘green’ habitat areas pending further analysis… but no further analysis was generated. Instead the government shifted its focus to continuing forestry in the ‘green’, unburned areas.

The BAER reports were hidden from the public and logging was recommenced. Gates were erected to stop people from entering the forests and loggers from all corners of southern Australia were assembled in the mountain ash to ‘salvage’ the standing timber. This impatient desire for woodfibre resulted in species such as the greater glider and Leadbeater’s possum being pushed closer to extinction. Fragmentation now also posed a threat. With no area of state forest more than 71 metres from a road or firebreak or logging coupe, feral animals like deer and cats became widespread in these once flourishing and unbroken forests.

By 2011, key ‘green’ areas critical to wildlife were being clear-felled at alarming rates. The largest of these contracts were for Japanese pulp buyers Nippon Paper Industries, who bought the Gippsland Mill (Maryvale) just days after the Black Saturday fires ravaged its long-term supply of forest. The logging in the ash trees has always been driven by contract volumes to this mill. The contract has enjoyed periodic upgrades, the last one being 1996 under then Premier Jeff Kennett. It stipulates that the ash forest must be logged for a fixed price with volumes exceeding 14 million tons to be delivered between 1996 up until 2030. A failure of the government to deliver these volumes from this area incurs compensation payments to the mill, and any threats to wood supply historically inspires a brutal union response to ensure the mill is well-fed with cheap native forest logs. To challenge the native timber supply of this mill was to risk political bloodshed.

The fires opened a window in the Act that could have freed the forests from unsustainable harvesting. Clause 32 of the Agreement provides for the suspension of both parties' obligations where fires impact supply. But a second condition had been stealthily crafted for the Japanese buyers that allowed them to be compensated for any undelivered supply. Conflict then arose around how to turn down the contract volumes in light of diminished wood supply while maintaining the mills prospects for its new owners. The government opted for continued logging. Public protests began in response. In one coupe called South End on Mt St Leonard, nearly 50 arrests took place and a public call for ‘time-out’.

Sydney enjoys over a million hectares of reserve surrounding the city, while Melbourne has just 168,000 for a comparable population. The Great Forest national Park would add greatly to that. Photo Sarah Rees

In August of 2011, Central Highlands conservation organisation, MyEnvironment took the logging issue to the Supreme Court. The case was for the preservation of three logging coupes in Toolangi State Forest that contained the Leadbeater’s possum. As there was no law able to save the animal specifically from cutting machines, the case was taken on whether the habitat met criteria for protection from logging. The individual animals were not protected but the habitat was, if it contained more than 12 large hollow-bearing trees.

Meetings and scientific submissions failed to stop the logging of these sites, so a community-led protest was mounted to stall the logging long enough to count the trees. After six weeks of daily arrests, the police arrived with dogs, forcing the community and MyEnvironment to take legal action. The group successfully won a Supreme Court injunction to halt the logging with the presiding judge making the comment, “Is there any forest left up there?”

The work to legally demonstrate the case for conservation was all-consuming. Without any targeted species data, the case relied on experts and mapping to show how degraded the forests were, how young they were and therefore how few hollow trees were left for wildlife to live in. It takes more than 120 years for a hollow to develop in a mountain ash. If the forests are younger, the hollows upon which the Leadbeater’s and greater glider need to survive are no longer there at scale.

After 10 days at trial, and a discovery process that revealed a woeful system for the protection of the mountain ash wildlife, the state government created the first Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group, a dedicated team to explore the conservation needs of the animal and recalibrate the system to protect it. Although logging was still strongly supported by government, a handbrake was placed on areas with a 65 per cent or greater chance of the possum being present. Buffers were awarded to living animals and considerable funding went into a captive breeding program. It was a start.

The Leadbetter’s possum – Victoria’s state faunal emblem – lost half of its habitat during the Black Summer fires. Native forest logging in the years since has pushed the possum to the edge of extinction. Photo Sarah Rees

But Justice Robert Osborn, presiding over the case, found in favour of the government’s logging company, VicForests. He ruled that the law around the narrow definition of habitat did not protect this rare patch of multi-aged ash. The case however modified policy for possum conservation, inspiring a review of reserves and the three logging coupes were saved. The case went some way to saving the possum as it was then upgraded in its listing from ‘endangered' to ‘critically-endangered’ and its public recognition blossomed.

Several years after the fires, it was becoming evident that the system was already tipping. The possum was a canary in the coal mine for the ash forests and its trend toward extinction heralded a bigger message – the old-growth, and the hollow-bearing trees on which the possums depend – were disappearing. The science on old-growth trees is compelling. Around the world these ageing ‘mother’ trees are collapsing at an alarming rate. In the Central Highlands, small cohorts of old trees are scattered across more than a hundred sites, collapsing at an increasing rate of over seven per cent per year. Unless we end logging, reduce fires, and lessen activities like the construction of roads, firebreaks and the impacts of feral animals, the old forests will perish, and with them their animal communities and the ecosystem functions.

So, on one cold and misty Yarra Ranges morning, a small group of fire survivors and scientists gathered around a breakfast table and discussed the idea of a park to protect it. That was the birthplace of the nominally named, Great Forest National Park.


The concept for the Great Forest National Park was born from the 2009 fires. Like a phoenix, the park was a social response to care for a severely damaged landscape. The grief from the fires forged a science-based plan for a large, protected area reserve system that would enjoy well placed investment so that local economies could recover. Rather than cut the trees down, a plan was hatched to use their magnificence as a drawcard to the region and restore damaged areas.

Data was gathered and this informed the lines drawn across different tenures – from Kinglake to Eildon and Baw Baw to Bunyip, lines on a map cradled the forests like a cold gauze on a weeping burn. The scientific report into the park was publicly released by community groups, along with an economic assessment into a tourism plan for the park.

State polling revealed that 89 per cent of Victorians agreed with the creation of the Great Forest National Park. The plan also enjoyed support from environmental heavyweights like Sir David Attenborough, who said, “The maintenance of an intact ecological system is the only way to ensure the continued existence of biodiversity, safeguard water supplies and provide spiritual nourishment for us and future generations. It is for these reasons, and for the survival of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum, that I support the creation of the Great Forest National Park for Victoria.”

But the Andrews government responded with a taskforce – a battle royale for the union, industry and environmental representatives who would spend two years fighting over the forest. It was a flawed plan that resulted in the industry and union ultimately doubling down, convincing the state government to use taxpayers’ money to buy a closing mill… despite the fact the wood was gone. Protest action on logging sites and legal cases had been suspended in good faith by environmental groups during the two-year taskforce negotiation but when the logging continued, the cases and the protests recommenced.

Today, nine court cases are underway against the Victorian logging agency VicForests and despite recent government laws to prevent them, protests remain a common feature of Victorian native forest logging. It’s argued the Andrews government have progressively weakened laws to be able to access forest that would otherwise have been inaccessible. Passing laws to incarcerate protestors also means that citizen science volunteers risk fines and jail time.

However, in 2019, with a growing body of evidence that the wood was diminishing, the state government announced an end to native forest logging by 2030. The announcement came with a $125 million transition plan and $110 million in new trees for Nippon. The Herald Sun published that the Andrews government had also handed $250 million to Nippon for reasons unknown. The Andrews government also bought a declining mill and funded its rebuild. But the 2030 exit has not been legislated and despite hundreds of millions paid in exit money, it has now been openly promoted that Nippon don’t have enough plantations to substitute by 2030, so it’s likely the date will be extended. The opposition Coalition meanwhile intends to keep logging unconditionally. Another eight years of logging will decimate the forests anyway.

Meanwhile, visitation to the ash forests grows with more people exploring the region. In tourism industry surveys this year, the Yarra Ranges rated as the seventh best place to visit in Victoria and Parks Victoria have embarked on their first campaign to celebrate it. Trail running and bike riding numbers have also grown, but the few tracks available need investment. According to industry statistics, the number one reason people visit Victoria is for nature experiences and the creation of a Great Forest National Park on Melbourne’s doorstep would be a further boost to the state’s economy. Imagine a park with areas as beautiful as the Tarkine within public transport distance of the MCG?

It may also be the first carbon park in Australia and the largest carbon abatement project in Australian history if actioned now. The emissions from the logging of Victoria’s forests was calculated by Minister for the Environment Lily D’Ambrosio’s office in 2019 to be equal to 730,000 extra cars on the road each year. These emissions are substantial and can be stopped if the logging stops. The options for the Victorian state government could be to use the abatement from avoided logging to go some way meet their own target of 50 per cent reduction of carbon dioxide and equivalents by 2030. They could offer to sell the avoided emissions into the carbon market and generate hundreds of millions of dollars that could financially assist Nippon to secure more wood from plantations, create a First Nations fund, support employment for the restoration of vast areas of failed forestry regrowth, assist in the building of new fire response utilities and help upgrade and craft new, sensitively placed tourism infrastructure. There would be more employment opportunities for socio-disadvantaged towns like Powelltown, that are suffering a declining working population as its only significant employer is a mill they know is closing.

Native forest logging is declining, and it’s footprint erodes opportunities for other economies to flourish. In the Yarra Ranges, only 0.3 per cent of its working population is dependent on forestry whereas 7.3 per cent are currently dependent on tourism. Tourism contributes $550 million a year in local gross domestic product. The social and economic gains rest with conservation and recreation.

David Attenborough supports the creation of the Great Forest National Park. “The maintenance of an intact ecological system is the only way to ensure the continued existence of biodiversity, safeguard water supplies and provide spiritual nourishment for us and future generations.” Photo Sarah Rees

The park plan contains the blueprints for two overland-style hikes, replete with huts and an ecological story. The first would wander walkers for seven days from Healesville to Marysville to Eildon across an extinct volcano (Cerberan caldera), through snow gum and ash forests and end at the headwaters of Big River, Eildon Dam. The second hike traverses a path thought to have been walked by the First Nations people as a trade and travel route. This walking passage later became a feature of colonial travel paths, a nine-day hike from Warburton to Walhalla with huts and a journey through waterfalls and whale-back boulder country. There are a number of shorter walks proposed too and a tree-top fly walk with views into a rare patch of old-growth mountain ash overlooking Melbourne/Naarm. But the program lacks the final sign-off from the Victorian government and despite a strong support from the voting public, neither major party will pry themselves from a policy to instead woodchip the mighty mountain ash to collapse.

Sydney enjoys a little over a million hectares of reserves around its beautiful city, Melbourne just 168,000, yet Melbourne’s population has doubled since the creation of the last reasonably sized park was declared around the city in 1998. It’s time to complement the increasing population with increasing recreational lands. So much of this country has been reshaped by colonial agriculture, fire and logging and the last areas of ecological richness are the floristic arks of the forest’s future. The Great Forest National Park will be a park for the people and a keeping place for biodiversity. It’s time to make it happen.