In an area approved for national park status, bulldozers cleared swaths of forest, destroying vital ecosystems. Now VicForests is accused of exploiting traditional owners in a propaganda war against scientists. By Katherine Wilson.

Loggers accused of Wombat forest ‘smash-up operation’

Excavators in the Wombat State Forest, north-west of Melbourne.
Excavators in the Wombat State Forest, north-west of Melbourne.
Credit: Wombat Forestcare

Last month, as bushwalkers ascended Babbington Hill, on Dja Dja Wurrung Country north-west of Melbourne, they were shocked by what they encountered. Hectares of Wombat State Forest had been razed. A vital ecosystem of trees had vanished, leaving no understorey of ferns and sedges, no rare fungi. Debris sat in piles on the denuded forest floor, cut through with compressed tyre tracks.

Months earlier, the Andrews government had approved the area for national park status. This would give it protection from logging. But a convoy of heavy machinery – a bulldozer, two Traxcavators, a log hauler, 30-tonne CAT trucks and a Tigercat harvester – had moved in before the protective status took effect.

“Seeing that devastation is like looking at images of Ukraine bombed,” said Gary Murray, a human rights activist and respected Dja Dja Wurrung Elder. “What the hell’s that about?”

Getting in front of the legislation, VicForests, the state-owned logging company,  scheduled 175 logging coupes in the area – a manoeuvre the Victorian National Parks Association described as “unprecedented”. VicForests, however, announced the coupes were for “forest recovery” and “salvage logging” following extensive damage from a storm last year.

According to local conservationist David Stephens, these claims were made “under the guise of reducing fire risk, for a heavy industrial log grab”. The executive director of the parks association, Matt Ruchel, agrees: “This is not a clean-up operation, this is a smash-up operation.”

Ten metres from the razing was an eagle’s nest. That eagle – Bunjil to Dja Dja Wurrung – soon became the locus of a dispute that saw conservationists labelled “racist” and VicForests accused of exploiting traditional owners in a propaganda war against scientists. It was close enough to interrupt logging – in timber harvesting law, a 100-metre buffer from protected wildlife is required.

But before national parks laws were passed, VicForests announced a “historic” deal with Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, trading as Djarra, to “restore Country” by “reducing fuel loads and reducing the fire risk to communities”. Djarra confirmed the deal involves payment for logs, although the exact terms are commercial-in-confidence. “The state always intended to do this for community safety reasons,” says chief executive Rodney Carter. “We have just inserted ourselves into the process to assert our rights to our timber and to manage our Country.”

“Salvage logging” is frequently promoted in the name of bushfire prevention. According to VicForests, “recent scientific studies” showed that the practice may “reduce bushfire risk”. Citations include a handful of articles by foresters.

Yet many uncited ecologists’ studies – in Science, Conservation Biology, Forest Ecology and Management, Conservation Letters and International Journal of Wildland Fire – find salvage logging increases bushfire risk by drying the forest mid-storey, removing fire-resistant hardwoods and leaving flammable slash – bark, leaves, debris – as kindling on the forest floor. In their 2012 book Salvage Logging and Its Ecological Consequences, three senior ecologists found salvage logging also accelerates biodiversity loss and will “rarely, if ever, contribute in a direct or positive way to ecological recovery”.

Curtin University fire-behaviour scientist Professor Philip Zylstra, who recently analysed fire risk in Australia’s south-eastern forests, said this kind of machine disturbance “will likely make fires both more likely and more severe”.

VicForests declined to comment. Facing nine lawsuits, it is under investigation by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission and the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner for allegedly spying on its critics, including scientists. In a 2020 study published in Conservation Letters, a third of surveyed Australian scientists said they were silenced or practised “self-censorship due to fear of retribution” when discussing the impacts of logging, land management and climate crisis. Zylstra said: “It’s part of why I have an adjunct role instead of a paid role. It’s very difficult to get long-term funding because most funding comes from agencies such as VicForests.”

When conservationists found the eagle’s nest, accusations of racism were hurled by lobbyists including Forest & Wood Communities Australia and publications including Timberbiz. The shadow assistant minister for Public Land Use, Melina Bath, said: “Salvage harvesting commissioned by traditional owners has been at a standstill” because of “green protesters who think they know better than traditional custodians”.

But some traditional custodians say they never gave logging proponents permission to speak for them, and weren’t told of any deal. Gary Murray says he does not support the deal in Wombat forest nor another development deal in a nearby forest in Boort. “Most owners don’t know what the latest Djarra deal is.”

He forwarded an email Djarra sent to members “after the fact”. In the email, Carter wrote that some members “have expressed opposition” to logging but “we are doing today what our ancestors had done in caring for Country”. Carter wrote that the corporation was developing a “forest gardening strategy” in logged areas.

“It’s bullshit,” says Murray. “I call it ‘recent-invention practice’. Our ancestors didn’t use bulldozers. It’s not custom. A tree, living or dead, has thousands of living species in it. It’s habitat, and we’re clearing it out.”

Greens senator Lidia Thorpe, a Gunnai, Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman, tweeted: “Don’t try to Green-wash native logging and deforesting by calling it ‘forest gardening’. That’s rubbish. Native logging is Destruction of Country. It’s cultural genocide.”

In a statement, Carter said: “We are modern people … at times, a sensible and efficient approach requires the use of modern equipment.”

Traditional owners who oppose such deals include Dja Dja Wurrung and Wurundjeri woman and Vic NAIDOC chair Stacie Piper and Elders from the Victorian Traditional Owners Land Justice Group. In 2019, they sent a letter to Victorian Premier Dan Andrews and 11 ministers, objecting that Country and culture “have been handed over to VicForests for logging without our consent … We never gave permission to VicForests to destroy our precious forests.” They demanded the Aboriginal flag be removed from its communications.

Their letter remains unacknowledged, said Thorpe. The Andrews government remains accused of “black cladding” – a practice Murray describes as “abusing First Peoples’ cultural and environmental practices by cladding their commercial activities with First Peoples”.

Established under self-determination ethics, Aboriginal corporations represent traditional owners’ rights of authority and agency, but they can also function as state instruments. Governed under overlapping laws, they’re pulled between cultural pressure to decolonise, and their realpolitik obligations to the state’s economic agenda.

“The native title system needs a complete overhaul because it prioritises corporations over people,” Thorpe told the National Indigenous Times.

“A royal commission into native title and cultural heritage needs to be established,” Murray said.

In a 3100-word response to The Saturday Paper’s questions, Carter wrote that critics had “no evidence” and they “will, for their own reasons, seize on opportunities to criticise the corporation”. He told ABC Ballarat that Wombat forest would suffer “if we lock it up and leave it”.

Gary Murray disagrees: “Restoring and keeping habitat for the survival of animals, ecotourism and native land use is not ‘locking up’.”

Ruchel, from the Victorian National Parks Association, says: “National parks are open 24/7 to everyone [and] actively managed. Victoria is the most cleared state in Australia, with very high numbers of threatened species.”

Although on Dja Dja Wurrung Country, Wombat forest intersects Taungurung, Wurundjeri and Wadawurrung Countries, and other traditional owners are voicing opposition. For example, Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Ringo Terrick has expressed “grave concern”.

Meanwhile, the Andrews government has proposed laws that criminalise protest at logging coupes, with fines of up to $21,000 or 12 months’ jail. “Rather than moving promptly to ensure loggers act within the law,” says Environmental Justice Australia senior lawyer Ellen Maybery, “the Andrews government is trying to vilify concerned citizens while vital ecosystems collapse before our eyes.”

Agriculture minister Mary-Anne Thomas, whose electorate covers Wombat State Forest, said: “Every Victorian has the right to be safe at work. Protests are becoming increasingly dangerous – particularly for workers – which is why the Forest Legislation Amendment (Safer Timber Harvesting Zones) will support them to get on with their job and minimise disruption to the industry.”

In Wombat forest, snig tracks – routes along which logs have been dragged – now carve up the bush. Botanists worry about the rare Sarcodon “wombat” mushroom, which is living in coupes scheduled to be logged.

As logging escalates, the mushroom awaits endangered listing. Conservationists await legal advice.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "Wombat forest fight".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription