Redwoods of the Otway Ranges
The trees, known by some as Californian Redwoods, were one of many conifer species planted experimentally at different locations in what was to become the fledgling Aire Valley Plantation.
The trees, planted in 1936 by the Forests Commission Victoria, were initially slow to establish but have thrived and grown to a height of over 60 metres (200 ft). Measurements in 2004 show the trees have the potential to reach as tall as their Californian counterparts if left undisturbed from bushfire, pests and disease, or trampling by tourism.
The site has become a popular tourist destination in the Great Otway National Park and has also been classified as a site of Biological and Cultural Significance.
Aire Valley settlement
Following the occupation of most of the fertile plains and foothills around Melbourne by early squatters, the forests of the Otways hinterland were progressively cleared and settled for agriculture beginning in the 1830s, and with a second wave of settlement into the higher and wetter mountain forests during the 1880s.
This region of the Otways is meteorologically famous, with an average of 235 wet days per year, and nearby Weeaproinah recording an average rainfall of 2010 mm to make it one of the wettest places in Australia. The climate has favoured the growth of the Redwoods in a suitable topographic site in the Aire Valley.
Clearing by John Gardiner began around Beech Forest in 1885, followed by settlers moving south into the upper reaches of the Aire Valley. Brothers Edward and Thomas Hall together with Charles Farrell took possession of heavily forested blocks in 1887.
Construction of the narrow gauge railway from Colac to Beech Forest commenced in 1900 and opened on 26 February 1902. The primary traffic was sawn timber and firewood, with many sawmills located adjacent to the railway.
Farming families toiled to clear the huge trees and sow pasture. Many had given up by the 1920s and 1930s because of wet weather, weeds, rabbits, scrub regrowth, difficult access to markets, impacts of the Great Depression and repeated and destructive bushfires in 1886, 1919, 1932 and finally Black Friday in 1939. It was a similar story in the Strzelecki Ranges over in eastern Victoria which became known as the Heartbreak Hills.
Much of the abandoned and degraded farmland was purchased by the Forests Commission Victoria and replanted from the late 1920s with either native species or exotic conifers to become the Aire Valley Plantation.
In 1869, Victoria’s first "Overseer of Forests and Crown Land Bailiff" William Ferguson was appointed and after spending some time at the Royal Botanic Gardens with Baron Ferdinand von Mueller established the first State Nursery at Macedon in 1872. Another early Victorian Forester, John La Gerche, established a nursery in sawpit gully at the rear of the Victorian School of Forestry at Creswick later in 1887 and also began repairing forests scarred by gold mining.
Both Ferguson and La Gerche experimented with a number of conifer species to determine their suitability and adaptability. These pioneering foresters discovered that the physical properties of native forest hardwoods were unsuitable for some applications and plantation-grown softwoods offered the chance to replace expensive imports of Baltic Pine, Oregon and other timbers with domestic supplies. Several exotic softwood species were trialled but Pinus insignis (later known as Pinus radiata) was found to grow well in Victorian conditions and was sufficiently promising for commercial planting to begin from 1880.
Planting was limited in the early years and focused on land rehabilitation but accelerated from 1910, but unfortunately, large areas of the early plantings established in coastal areas between 1910 and 1930 failed due to the unsuitability of the sites. Activity picked up once again in the 1930s with government-funded unemployment schemes during the Great Depression. The war years saw activity again fall away sharply while afterward there was a new focus on developing native forests in eastern Victoria owing to the conclusion of the 1939 bushfire salvage and to provide timber for post-war housing construction.
The plantation program in the Otways got underway in the 1930s and got a boost in the late 1940s, and became an important part of Victoria’s plantation estate of some 25,000 hectares. But the big step came in 1961, when the Chairman of the Forest Commission, Alfred Oscar Lawrence, attended the World Forestry Conference in Sao Paulo Brazil, and upon his return took a bold decision to commit Victoria to a massive Plantation Expansion (PX) program which initiated nearly four decades of rapid plantation establishment. At that stage, softwoods were still being imported in large quantities and it was also believed that softwoods could not only relieve the pressure on native forests but make Australia self-sufficient in timber resources.
Aire Valley redwoods
In addition to the more dominant Radiata Pine plantations, a number of small trial plots of different conifer species were tried in the Aire Valley during the 1930s including Sitka Spruce, Canary Island Pine, Bishop Pine, Corsican Pine, Western Yellow Pine, Douglas Fir and Coast Redwood.
Six trial plots of Coast Redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, were planted between 1929 and 1936. It was hoped that they would be useful in light construction, durable cladding, and roof shingles. It was known by local foresters that the growth of this species was slow but individual trees could reach prodigious heights and had the reputation, along with native mountain ash, for being amongst the tallest trees in the world.
The 1936 Redwood plantings at the head of the Aire River were established on two topographic units – the River Flat Unit and the Ridgetop Unit. The small half-hectare plot on the River Flat Unit was planted with 461 seedlings in 11 rows. Mountain ash and cool temperate rainforest would have previously occupied the site. This location proved to be ideal, with high rainfall, good soil on the river flats, cool climate, and summer fogs; very similar to its native habitat in California.
Aire Valley camp
Early during the development of the Aire Valley Plantation camps were built at a number of sites by the Forests Commission to accommodate workers. Forest camps were particularly important in an era before the state forest road network was well established and before reliable vehicle transport made daily commuting to a nearby town a possibility.
Unemployment relief camps in the 1930s provided an important pool of labour. By 1935-36 the Forests Commission employed almost 9,000 men in relief works and a further 1,200 boys under a "Youth for Conservation Plan". One success story was at "Boys Camp" near Noojee. Other camps followed including one in the Aire Valley.
Depending on the nature and use of the forest camp, workers could be accommodated for periods of several days, weeks, or months and in the case of refugee camps, even years.
The Forests Commission built a new camp next to the Aire Valley Redwoods in March 1948 which consisted of a kitchen cookhouse and mess, shower block, toilets, woodshed, and eighteen small two-man Stanley Huts.
The bulk of the planting work in the Aire Valley Plantation was then done by post-war immigrants and refugees from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. The first batch of "Balts" as they became known, arrived at Colac in April 1949 and lived in the Aire Valley Camp for up to two years as part of their government-sponsored resettlement program. It was reportedly a bleak existence, particularly in winter, but they made the camp comfortable. Other refugees and immigrants helped build projects like the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
Construction of an all-weather road network by the Forests Commission in the 1950s led to the closure of the camp.
The initial growth of the Redwoods at the Aire Valley was slow and disappointing, with the notable exception of the trees planted on the River Unit in 1936. After two years of growth, the trees were about 0.75 metres in height. In 1950, after nearly 14 years of growth, the local forester reported that the trees were only just beginning to appear above the canopy of scrub. While two years later in 1952 the maximum tree height was 10.5 metres with a diameter of about 25 to 30 cm.
In 1977, the Forests Commission remeasured the trees (then aged 41 years) with a height of 40.3 metres and a diameter of 85 cm for the largest tree. When last measured in 2004 (aged 68 years) the trees had reached nearly 60 metres in height and 107 cm in diameter. The largest tree on the plot being 184.9 cm. The initial plot of 461 trees had also thinned down to 220 stems since planting in 1936. Some had died, some struck by lightning, some removed or cut down, and others fallen down over the 68 years since planting. The planting rows where trees were originally planted at a spacing of 3.3 metres are still visible.
There has always been a recognition of the conservation and aesthetic values of Victoria's large forest trees. As early as 1866 Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller, the Government botanist published some astonishing, and probably exaggerated claims of a mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans - monarch of the eucalypts) on the Black's Spur near Healesville being 146.3 metres (480 feet) high. There were reports from nurseryman David Boyle and others of trees in the Yarra Valley, Otways and Dandenong Ranges reaching "half a thousand feet". Edward Snell, civil engineer and surveyor, made one of the earliest reports of hundreds of trees at least 120 metres (400 feet) tall on an overland trip across the Otways Ranges from Forrest to Apollo Bay in 1856. The tallest reliably measured tree in Victoria was a mountain ash near Thorpdale which in 1881 was measured by a government surveyor, George Cornthwaite, and his brother Bill, a farmer, at 114.3 metres (375 feet) after it was cut down to make fence palings.
Modern Lidar imagery of the forests is being used to find remaining stands of tall trees. The tallest regrowth mountain ash in Victoria is currently named Artemis which can be found near Beenak at 302 feet (92.1 m) while the Ada Tree at 72 metres (236 feet) is thought to be between 350 and 450 years old, but with a senescent crown and is a popular tourist destination in State forest east of Powelltown. Australia's tallest measured living specimen of mountain ash, named Centurion, stands at 99.6 metres (327.5 feet) in Tasmania.
Whether a mountain ash over 400 feet high ever existed in Victoria or the Otways is now almost impossible to substantiate but the early accounts from the 1860s are still quoted in contemporary texts such as the Guinness Book of Records and Carder, as well as being widely restated on the internet.
Around the turn of the century, Nicholas John Caire named and photographed many of Victoria's remaining giant trees. In the forest behind Apollo Bay in the West Barham River stands a small patch of about 80 mountain ash trees that are thought to be about 400 years old which have survived bushfires, storms, and landslides.
Currently, the world's tallest living tree is also a Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, named the Hyperion, that was discovered in California in 2006 in a remote section of the Redwood National Park. The measurement of this tree was undertaken by Professor Stephen Sillett, renowned tall tree and canopy researcher at Humboldt State University, who confirmed its status as the tallest living Redwood at a height of 115.55 metres.
While still only young, the Redwoods in the Aire Valley, if given enough time, protection from bushfires, freedom from disease and pests, absence of fierce storms may surpass the heights of Australia’s mountain ash and could even top the heights of their native environment of coastal California.
The Aire Valley Camp operated until the late 1950s but was demolished sometime during the mid-1960s. The site was then managed for the next 25 years by the Forests Commission Victoria as a small picnic ground with limited facilities. But after several departmental restructures including vesting of the softwood plantation estate with the Victorian Plantations Corporation in 1993, the site became neglected, the facilities vandalised and the ground scarred with vehicle tracks and littered with rubbish.
Apart from their outstanding beauty and botanical significance the Redwoods are a lasting memorial to the many foresters and forest workers who battled the weather, remoteness, and scrub to reclaim the land abandoned by earlier farming and return it to productive use. But two individuals stand out, Frank Smith, the District Forester and Officer in Charge of the Aire Valley Plantations from 1929 to 1955, together with Forest Overseer Stewart Cameron who worked from 1940 to the early 1970s. The largest Redwood on the plot is known as the Smith-Cameron Tree and is named after these two pioneering Forests Commission employees.
The Aire Valley Redwoods have also become a local tourist icon together with nearby sites like the Otway Fly and Treetop Walk, Beauchamp Falls, Hopetoun Falls, Triplet Falls, and magnificent stands of mountain ash and rainforest. As the trees grow and become more impressive they will attract increasing interest from local, national, and international tourism which presents a significant threat.
A small stand of redwoods was also planted as part of a revegetation program in 1930 by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) in the Cement Creek catchment near Warburton. The plantation provided small study plots to examine canopy interception of rainfall and for comparison with native forest in the Coranderrk area. The Cement Creek stand has also become a very popular tourist destination and is heritage listed. There are over 1476 trees ranging in height from 20 metres to the tallest being 55 metres on an even 3.3 m grid spacing. The stand has not self thinned like the one in the Otways and is not as tall. It is believed that the seed came from England and the seedlings were raised at the Forests Commission nursery at Creswick.
- Smith, Roger (2015). The Redwoods of the Otway Ranges. Lothian Custom Publishing. ISBN 9781921737138.
- "Victorias Forest Heritage".
- Noble, W S (1986). The Strzeleckis : a new future for the Heartbreak Hills. Dept. of Conservation, Forests and Lands. pp. 46pp. ISBN 0724147616.
- Moulds, F. R. (1991). The Dynamic Forest – A History of Forestry and Forest Industries in Victoria. Lynedoch Publications. Richmond, Australia. pp. 232pp. ISBN 0646062654.
- Carron, L T (1985). A History of Forestry in Australia. Aust National University. ISBN 0080298745.
- Doolan, B V (2016). "Institutional Continuity and Change in Victoria's Forests and Parks 1900 – 2010". Master of Arts thesis - Monash University.: 180 pp.
- "National Register of Australia's largest trees".
- Chris Pretlove (2012). David Boyle's tree The Baron. ISBN 9780646565255.
- Griffiths, T. (1992). Secrets of the Forest: Discovering History in Melbourne's Ash Range. Allen & Unwin, St Leonards NSW.
- Snell, Edward (1859). The life and adventures of Edward Snell : the illustrated diary of an artist, engineer and adventurer in the Australian colonies 1849 to 1859.
- Mifsud. "Tall tree stats - Victoria's giant trees".
- Mifsud, Bret (2002). "Victoria's tallest trees" (PDF). Australian Forestry Journal. 66 (3): 197–205.
- Dr. Al C. Carder, FOREST GIANTS OF THE WORLD (Markham, Ontario: FitzHenry and Whiteside, 1995) pp. 76-77
- Matt Hodgson, October 2006, Humboldt State University. "HSU Prof Confirms World's Tallest Tree'".CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Prescott, T (2001). "Standing Tall in the Otways". Geelong Advertiser - July.
- McHugh, Peter. (2020). Forests and Bushfire History of Victoria : A compilation of short stories, Victoria. https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-2899074696/view
- FCRPA - Forests Commission Retired Personnel Association (Peter McHugh) - https://www.victoriasforestryheritage.org.au