PARK WATCH Article March 2024 |

Jordan Crook, Parks and Nature Campaigner, on why and how we should care for our large, old and next generation trees

Around the world, large old trees hold a special place in human society and folklore. Often referred to as veteran, ancient or champion trees, the common thread across continents, countries and cultures is the care and admiration reserved for them.

Our new report, Protecting our living legacies, is a practical policy guide to safeguarding large old trees on public land in Victoria. It describes the importance of old legacy trees and offers strategies to improve the care and management of our living monuments.

What is a significant tree?

This is a good and pertinent question. We define a ‘significant tree’ as any hollow-bearing tree, a tree of significant age, size, height or girth/diameter for their species, or a rare species in outlying populations that are beyond their natural range.

Something that deserves special emphasis is the fact that the age and significance of a tree is not always obvious from its size.

An old Mallee tree may only grow to two or three metres tall but be older than a towering 60m tall Errinundra Shining Gum (Eucalyptus denticulata). Tree Geebung (Persoonia arborea) measuring just 19 to 21cm diameter at breast height (DBH, or 1.3m above ground level) have been aged at 170 to 510 years old using radiocarbon dating. This relatively small midstorey tree species, endemic to the wet forests of the Central Highlands, can be just as old (if not older) as the towering Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) surrounding it.

Growing conditions can also produce stunted growth in older trees. This is best observed in alpine areas where the cold, windy conditions prevent trees from growing past a certain height and size. For example, the Mt Stirling Summit Tree, a Snow Gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora), stands just over five metres tall but is thought to be at least 320 years old.

Threats to significant trees on public land in Victoria 

Immediate, cumulative, and long-term threats from logging, planned burning, root damage, windthrow, bushfire and impacts of climate change are all serious threats to significant trees.

One of the issues we identify in our report is that current mitigation and so-called protection efforts often don’t consider these long-term threats, nor are they monitored.

Fire and fuel management works 

Because of their perceived risk to workers and the public, hasty appraisals of trees as hazardous by DEECA/FFMV is leading to these agencies felling large numbers of significant trees. Human safety must remain of the highest importance, but risks can be reduced without felling large numbers of trees.

If a joint ambition of preserving both human life and significant trees is to be achieved, then we need to see appropriate oversight and transparency in FFMV’s fire management operations, combined with a willingness to improve tree and biodiversity management. This looks like direct investment in conducting independent, on the ground habitat and tree assessments prior to fuel reduction works.

Native forest logging and logging-like operations

As Victoria transitions from native forest logging to fully plantation-based silviculture, the need to plan operations away from significant trees is warranted on both an ecological and economic basis.

Significant trees perform essential ecological functions and can be a draw card for tourism and improve economic prospects in regional areas. If the Redwoods of California can bring tourism and economic development, Victoria too can have this type of nature-based, sustainable tourism enhanced by appropriate track creation and visitor facilities.

Victoria has a decreasing number of impressive old trees spread across the forest estate. Protecting these trees and installing appropriate visitor infrastructure would bring greater ecological and economic benefits than their destruction and that of the surrounding forests.

Management and planning

Balancing safety hazards, habitat significance, amenity and other values is critical to significant tree management. Proper management is also highly preventative, reducing future risk of tree failure from disturbance to roots, trunk damage that encourages pathogens and rot, and poor pruning methods that compromise tree structure, vigour and health.

Protections for old legacy trees

Under state regulations, large trees on public land must meet a high benchmark to qualify for protection: 2.5m DBH. This policy ignores the fact that size can be a poor indicator of the age and significance of a tree.

Many species will never grow to that size and growing conditions can produce stunted growth in older trees.

Some of the biggest trees in Victoria were found in forests scheduled for logging (until the industry was phased out on 1 January 2024). Until the State Government protects these areas in conservation land tenures, and legislates the end of native forest logging, the threat to these living giants remains.

Many of these trees are theoretically protected from being directly felled in operations. The reality is that adjacent logging exposes them to multiple threats, including deliberate removal after being designated ‘hazardous’, heavy machinery damage and isolation and vulnerability to wind-throw.

Hollow-bearing and significant trees have also been felled and damaged during prescribed burning operations and poorly planned or executed firebreak works.

To sum up, many of Victoria’s large and old trees that should be protected are not. This is an incredible opportunity and the inspiration that led to Protecting our living legacies. It is time to recognise the functions of large old trees as both crucial structures and as foundations of human well-being, and to prioritise their conservation and protection. Amended policy and practice is needed urgently. Without such action the disappearance of large old trees and associated organisms will continue to accelerate.

The actions we take today will decide if future Victorians get the chance to stand in the belly of a living giant like the ‘Yea Link Survivor’ (which can fit 40 people inside it) or watch Lace Monitors sun themselves in hollows of Wellsford Forest’s Ironbark trees.

That is an experience everyone should have the chance to enjoy.

We can, and must, find better ways to care and manage large and old, hollow-bearing and significant trees across Victoria’s public land estate. Join us in protecting our living legacies so they can be treasured for many more years to come.

Donate today to keep legacy trees alive