The Dargo High Plains are a much loved part of the Victorian high country, with extensive open plains surrounded by eucalypt forests, much of which is dominated by Alpine Ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis). Alpine Ash is one of the iconic trees of the Victorian mountains, where it is widespread and often dominant in grassy or wet subalpine forests, in deep fertile soil, often on slopes, and where it commonly forms pure stands. In Victoria it occurs at altitudes between 900 and 1,500 m (3,000 and 4,900 ft). The high points of the Dargo High Plains sit roughly between 1,300 and 1,500 metres above sea level.
Only 0.47% of old growth Alpine Ash still exists in the forests of the Central Highlands. In the mountain ranges of north eastern Victoria and East Gippsland, old growth Ash is now rare, and ‘tens of thousands’ of hectares of forest are on the verge of ecological collapse.
Sections of the Plains have burnt several times in recent years, including the summer of 2018/19. Considerable sections of the Plains Ash forests have been logged in the past. Now, the state government has scheduled a number of logging coupes of long unburnt forest, which threatens to devastate the fringes of the high plains.
The logging program in the High Plains area appears to include roading through the Alpine National Park to access the coupes on the east side of the plateau.
Alpine Ash is already in decline
We know that Alpine Ash forests throughout south eastern Australia have been badly impacted by wildfire in recent decades, well beyond the traditional impacts of fire. Climate change is making fire seasons more intense, and fires more frequent, which is impacting Alpine Ash because it requires at least 15 years between fires to be able to regenerate. We know that Alpine Ash forests burnt during the 2019/20 ‘black summer’ are struggling to recover. We also know that as a vegetation community, Alpine Ash is facing the prospect of ecological collapse.
What’s happening on the Dargo High Plains?
The following is a quick look at some of the logging proposed and already underway on the Dargo High Plains. Many thanks to Friends of Bats and Habitat Gippsland for some of these images (FBHG facebook page here). The group has been highlighting the ecological impacts of fire and logging across East Gippsland.
Despite having announced an end to Old Growth logging in late 2019, and committed to end all native logging by 2030, the key issue is what constitutes ‘Old Growth’. Much of the high country has been heavily burnt, and now surviving older Alpine Ash (eg, forests that regrew from the 1939 fires) are as significant as trees that meet the government’s definition of ‘old growth’. In a fire impacted landscape, the state government intends to clear large swathes of this essential habitat, setting back the recovery of these ecosystems for decades.
Below are recent images from within the Jones Creek coupes as shown on the map above. Jones Creek is on the eastern side of the Plains. Photos courtesy of Friends of Bats and Habitat Gippsland.
This coupe is Jones Creek 535-503-0008, which has now been logged. This coupe included a section of modelled old growth (as shown on the map below) and is unburnt. Old growth is protected under the 2019 announcement. There are a significant number of Alpine Tree Frog records in the vicinity of the coupe.
A logging coupe within the Alpine national park? A small win!
VicForests are planning to construct a logging road off Kings Spur track right through the Alpine National Park to access the northern end of the coupes of the Jones Creek Track cluster (as per the map above).
[ABOVE: the map shows the blue ‘linear’ coupe, which will allow access from the Dargo High Plains Road to the coupes in the bottom right corner. It follows the existing route of the Mcmillans walking track for some way].
What is especially concerning about this proposal is that VicForests’ plan a 70ha linear logging coupe (535-501-0003) and road through the Alpine National Park to access other coupes. Under state legislation, it is allowable to approve new roads in National Parks. For this consent to be given, the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change must be satisfied that the road creation will not ‘substantially affect the park’. It is hard to understand how any logging might be allowed inside a national park.
The Secretary of DELWP (or CEO of Parks Victoria, exercising delegated power) must consent to a public authority doing things like building roads through a park. For this consent to be given, the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change must be satisfied that the road creation will not substantially affect the park.
However, the Governor in Council can determine that consent should be given, irrespective of whether the road creation will substantially affect the park as per section 27(2) of the National Parks Act 1975.
Following a public outcry and good coverage in The Age newspaper, VicForests announced in March 2021 that they “will not be constructing roads, including (535-501-003), through the Alpine National Park.”
However, as of 25 March, the road remains on VicForests maps as an ‘approved roadline’, with it’s status given as being an ‘active coupe’ of 72 hectares. The map also shows an ‘approved driveway’ on the entry point to the coupes, just inside the national park with the coupe ID of 535-501-0002.
A closer look at the Jones Creek Coupe 535-503-0008, showing the dark green ‘modelled’ old growth:
Unfortunately, VicForests says: Modelled old growth is present to the north west outside of the coupe. The area of modelled Old Growth within the harvest area has been field assessed and does not meet the specifications for Old Growth Forest.
The cluster of coupes shown on the map runs off Jones Creek Track into the fall of the Little Dargo River and up the other side to Long Plain Track on the boundary of the Alpine National Park.
Galaxias mungadhan, the Dargo galaxias, is a member of the genus Galaxias and is found in the headwaters of the Dargo River. It is not clear whether the species is also found in the headwaters of the Little Dargo River, which is where these coupes are located.
We understand that one of the last old stands of Alpine Ash is in that area. As noted above, Victoria has very little old growth Alpine Ash remaining.
UPDATE – Jones Creek logged
Friends of Bats and Habitat Gippsland report (March 1, 2021):
Vicforests has recently logged this 17ha coupe on the Dargo High Plains that was beautiful old growth, long unburnt Alpine forest. Vicforests say they dont log old growth, but that’s because nothing meets Vicforests specifications for old growth. And definitely not old, hollow bearing trees that are at least 3 times as old as you or I will ever live to.
This is only 17ha of around 700HA more forest that is approved to be logged here.
You can see for yourself the majestic old trees and the beautiful intact Alpine forest adjacent this coupe that will be logged in the next cluster of coupes
This is the water catchment for the Dargo and Mitchell Rivers and is adjacent to the severely burnt Alpine National Park. This precious old growth unburnt refuge is surrounded by forest to the north, south, east and west that has been repeatedly burnt in past years, that in many places, the forest is completely dead.
See below for where the trees went that were taken from this 17ha of long unburnt forest refuge. MOSTLY PULP AND PALLETS!!!
Jones Creek Coupe #535 503 0008
297 cubic mtrs B Grade Alpine Ash – B Grade sawlogs
161 cubic mtrs C Grade Alpine Ash – C Grade sawlogs
32 cubic mtrs of D Grade Alpine Ash – D Grade sawlogs
1988 cubic mtrs of R Grade Alpine Ash -– Pulp and pallets
6 cubic mtrs of D Grade Broad leaf peppermint – D Grade sawlogs
97 cubic mtrs of R Grade Broad leaf peppermint – Pulp and pallets
6 cubic mtrs of B Grade Mountain Gum – B Grade sawlogs
19 cubic mtrs of C Grade Mountain Gum – C Grade sawlogs
6 cubic mtrs of D Grade Mountain Gum – D Grade sawlogs
226 cubic mtrs of R Grade Mountain Gum – Pulp and pallets
There are also coupes planned for the western side of the Plains.
This photo is an example of previous logging on the north side of the Dargo High Plains. Clearly regeneration has failed. Some sections of the old logging coupes have re burnt.
Allowing further logging when so much of the nearby vegetation is in a state of collapse is negligence of the highest order.
Snow Gums at risk
There are similar issues with snow gum woodlands in the Dargo High Plains area, where multiple fires led to the death of trees. Snow Gums can regrow via seed, by epicormic shoots below the bark, and from lignotubers.
However on some sites that have been burnt multiple times, it appears that options for regeneration are running out. The former mature woodlands have been replaced by grasses, shrubs, dead trunks and a handful of seedlings or regrowth from the base of parent trees.