Using forestry to repair our degraded landscapes: What will it take?
Corangamite Farm Forestry Project,
Department of Natural Resources & Environment,
PO Box 103, Geelong, Vic. 3220. Australia.
Australian forestry has traditionally been concentrated on our best land – the deepest soil, the highest rainfall and the flattest land is best. The challenge we face environmentally is that our most degraded landscapes are urgently in need of reafforestation – but with lower rainfall, shallow soils, steep or rocky terrain – this land is at the bottom of the forestry development list.
Drive around Victoria and it isn’t difficult to spot the non-agricultural parts of our landscape. Some parts turn purple, others go yellow and some turn faded bronze – in other words Pattersons Curse (Salvation Jane), Ragwort and Serrated Tussock … all noxious weeds (which cost our communities more than $10 million annually) that love land that is not under intensive agricultural use (land too steep/rocky or unmanageable for traditional pastures and crops). Of course forestry is not to blame - but forestry is arguably the only commercial land use that can save these degraded portions of our landscape. Critically, it is often these same portions of our landscapes that are priority areas for salinity, nutrient, pest plant/animal and water quality strategies (few of which have ever considered funding farm forestry development).
Weed infested land near Bacchus Marsh – traditional agriculture has failed the test. Can farm forestry provide the answer? … or will traditional plantation paradigms restrict forestry’s role in meeting the challenges these landscapes offer?
Fifty kilometres west of Melbourne is the Bacchus Marsh region, complete with a mix of rugged, wild and degraded landscapes. Landcare Foundation Victoria’s Rob Youl describes the damaged part of this landscape as “probably the most degraded in Victoria. Poor soils, steep valleys and lower rainfall (450-600mm per annum) predominates – with subsequent land degradation issues such as major erosion, salinity, rabbits and a myriad of pest plants such as Serrated Tussock. All of these are symptoms of land screaming out for a new and sustainable landuse” – but it’s not only the land that is screaming. Landholders in the area are desperately seeking support to help them cope with the huge Serrated Tussock problem. Many properties are spending from $5000 -$40,000 annually on Serrated Tussock weed control costs – only to turn around and do it again the following season. It is breaking them - economically and psychologically. These communities urgently want to see a light at the end of the tunnel – and landowners themselves have already identified at least 3000 hectares of infested/degraded land that they wish to revegetate – with either forestry or native vegetation - but can forestry solve their problems?
The weed - Serrated Tussock (a native to south America) is weed of national significance and currently infests130,000 hectares in Victoria with the potential to spread to over 4.6 million hectares in this state alone. With single plants producing up to 100,000 viable seeds which can then be blown across farms downwind for many kilometres – Serrated Tussock is widely regarded as the greatest weed threat to grazing lands in Australia.
Serrated Tussock can generally be controlled on arable land. However, huge areas of non-arable land is being invaded by Serrated Tussock (valley slopes, stony areas). Landholders are desperately seeking a new land use for these non-arable landscapes which can provide long term control options.
Farmers within the worst affected areas have observed that farm forestry can assist in reducing the impact of Serrated Tussock. Examples include:
Sugar Gum (Eucalyptus cladocalyx) - Sugar Gum has long been observed by farmers as a strongly competitive and drought tolerant species which does not allow grass or crops to grow near existing stands of trees. This trait makes Sugar Gum an excellent species to plant on Serrated Tussock infestations within the drier areas (<600mm) of Victoria. Observations show that 10 year old Sugar Gum plantings located within the heart of Serrated Tussock infestations have drastically reduced the incidence and growth of Serrated Tussock underneath dense woodlots. The ability of Sugar Gum to produce high quality hardwood timber plus the potential use of thinnings for fuelwood/pulpwood is creating much renewed interest in this adaptable species.
We keep hearing about all the great roles farm forestry can play in beating land degradation – often from those who are paid to do so. But in this case, it is landholders who are pushing for farm forestry. “It is the ability of forestry to provide longer term control of Serrated Tussock which is the greatest driver for farm forestry development and land use change in our area” says local land manager David Watson. “We have woodlot plantings of both Pine and Sugar Gum which have successfully replaced Serrated Tussock infestations on some of our sloping country – all in less than ten years!” he says. “We know forestry can fix it – we just need to work out how we get all the key ingredients together to make it happen on a larger scale”.
Forestry can offer so much for these landholders – by turning a degraded paddock (that is a liability on the farm from both a cashflow and asset value) into a venture that at least provides a commercial return in later years. The returns may not be huge – but even low returns are a better proposition for landholders than the annual losses that they currently experience from their degraded lands.
Forestry is a critical player for a number of reasons. Landholders explain that they lack the funds, skills and experience to successfully undertake the larger scale of planting that is now required on their farms. Farm forest industry development can potentially fill all of these gaps – forestry development is in itself a professional landscape change industry - but how do we make it happen within these degraded areas.
The Bacchus Marsh region is currently the focus of a new and exciting approach which is aiming to coax forestry into the region as one of a number of longer term solutions to the regions environmental problems.
David Buntine of the Port Phillip Catchment & Land Protection Board explains “Grow West is all about developing a supportive framework to assist the Bacchus Marsh community to undertake a major landscape change program. It’s only early days, but Grow West aims to develop improved links and partnerships between all stakeholders (all government agencies, local communities, business, corporates, investors, forest industries, etc) to build one of the largest integrated landscape restoration projects in Victoria – and private forestry development has a big role to play” David says. “The result will be a single landscape project that will deliver outcomes for pest, salinity, nutrient and water quality strategies – and giving landholders and the local community what they want at the same time!”.
The key is to develop new and innovative partnerships between all key players – and when issues approach a crisis level such as that in the Bacchus Marsh region – that is where we are possibly most likely to find a solution first.
The following details current thinking, activities and discussions within the project to date:
It is this type of thinking, discussion and compromise that if matched by all stakeholders will see some major changes in how we restore landscapes. Grow West could be a pilot for the nation – where forestry becomes the environmental saviour – only time will tell!
So … will future generations inherit a landscape where forestry and agriculture have battled to secure their rights over our best and most productive land … meanwhile vast areas of low productivity & increasingly degraded landscapes remain untouched, unwanted and not contributing to our communities? Many would argue that is where we could be heading …
… will innovative use and development of forestry systems and partnerships enable large areas of degraded landscapes to once again contribute to our triple bottom lines. Here lies the challenge … and it’s up to us - foresters, landowners, investors and governments - to collectively and cooperatively make it happen.