frond Cyathea australis pinnae

preserving the wild

Commerce and Conservation

In 1939, according to what we've been told, extensive bushfires surged over the ranges to the west of Canberra, through the Eucalypt forest. In a decision that was not then seen to be short sighted, these ravaged areas were replanted with pine plantations, mainly of Pinus radiata, the Monterey pine. About ten to fifteen years ago, these trees were "harvested". "Harvested" is a euphemism. The mess made by the contractors is still evident.

Areas of the Blue Range have been particularly affected. One exquisite tree fern gully had been identified in the 1950s by research scientists as of unique importance. It was marked with an easily visible sign as of special scientific interest, with a request to contact authorities before any alteration to its immediate surrounds. Unfortuately these surrounds were pine plantations. The pines were planted on very steep terrain, raising questions about the wisdom of the original decision to put plantations there at all. It made harvesting the pine trees almost impossible without major disturbance to the fern gully.

In 1977, when some of the pine harvesting commenced in the Blue Range, we spoke with the people in charge of forestry operations about the fern gullies. We presented them with detailed maps of the occurences of rare species in the gullies at the top reaches of the pine planted areas. They undertook to try and protect these areas. They failed. We pointed out the special importance of the beautiful fern gully on Blue Range Creek. They promised that it would be kept safe. It wasn't.

We went back there in July 1996. There have been two consequences attendant on the harvesting. The first is the mess made in the tree-felling. Although this work was conducted in the early 1980s, the hillsides and gully are still a wild jumble of bits of pine log. Clambering over, through and around them is to risk breaking a leg. The second is the vastly increased light to which the fern gully was exposed, with the (inevitable) removal of the overcanopy.

Sadly, part of the exquisite fern gully has been obliterated. Where once a small clear stream trickled down over rocks from the mountain tops, through tree ferns twenty feet tall, under huge logs covered thick with moss and bright fungi, there is now an impenetrable tangle of bramble and bracken. The tree ferns that had survived the bush fires decades before, fell to the contractor's chainsaw. The warning sign beside the forest road was removed by the contract workers and the tree ferns all cut down and taken away, or drowned in bramble.

In an adjacent fern gully, another clump of the rare (in the A.C.T) Todea barbara tree ferns also seems to have gone with the pine harvesting. However there is at least one fine specimen in the wild forest higher up in the mountains that will provide spore for future generations.

Despite these losses, I can sympathise with the quandary the foresters faced. To be fair, the fern glade flourished as a direct consequence of the overcanopy provided by the pine plantation, and may have been in part an artefact of it. The economic imperative to get value from all the trees led to a decision on the economic cost of preserving the tree fern gully. Political decisions perhaps outweighed environmental ones. I disagree with the decision they took. There was surely little to lose by leaving some of the pines in place. Now, one small forest gem is gone. Though the damage was done nearly twenty years ago, it will take generations to repair.

The good news is the glade above the pine plantation seems to be intact, though this was not the most beautiful part of it. The bad news is that they have replanted the hillsides with more pines. The same thing will happen again in another twenty years or so - just as the glade is beginning to recover.

In other areas of the Territory, the early pine-planters had less opportunity to plant the Bush with foreign species. There are doubtless many other fern gullies that are safe. But one small, beautiful work of nature is gone.

In the memory of this faery dell there is a moral for all who value nature and her work. We must at all times be on guard to defend the wild places against those who would seek profit there. Governments must learn to value aesthetic as well as economic values.

A way must be found to include the real value of the environment in profit calculations. We have to work with the foresters on this, not against them. We will continue to try.

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