Saving the river red gums: An historic conservation victory

Will Mooney

In 2010, an historic campaign that united environmentalists and traditional owners succeeded in securing protection for the largest remaining river red gum forests on the planet. As we approach the five-year anniversary of the declaration of the red gum parks, it is important to reflect on the achievements and the 'unfinished business' of a unique campaign for environmental justice.

The Barmah-Millewa Collective of Friends of the Earth (FoE), which formed in 2000, played a central role in the campaign to end logging and cattle-grazing in a network of iconic red gum forests across the Riverina bioregion of Victoria and New South Wales. The collective initially formed to support the Yorta Yorta people in their struggle to gain land justice and environmental protection for their country, in particular the 70 000 hectare Barmah-Millewa Forest, near Echuca on the Murray River.

Despite the Yorta Yorta's ultimately unsuccessful native title claim, Indigenous and environmental activists were able to build an effective alliance with local community groups, other traditional owners and major environmental NGOs including the Wilderness Society and Australian Conservation Foundation, to mount a coordinated campaign for protection and Indigenous management of red gum forest along the length of the Murray. A decade-long struggle ensued.

Between 2005−09, the Victorian and NSW governments conducted investigations into red gum forest management and the campaign used these opportunities to push for strong recommendations. The Victorian Environmental Assessment Council and NSW Natural Resources Commission supported an end to logging and the creation of new national parks.

The alliance also used research, mass rallies, tree-sits, media stunts, political lobbying and community mobilisation to ensure that these recommendations translated into real outcomes. In December 2008, the Victorian Labor government followed through, announcing 90 000 ha of new red gum reserves. Two years later, NSW came to the party, announcing 107 000 ha of additional reserves north of the River Murray. In total, the campaign had succeeded in protecting over 200 000 hectares of threatened forest, a huge conservation outcome in a highly modified and vulnerable region.

A victory for social justice

The campaign was also a victory for social justice. For the first time in Victoria, Aboriginal traditional owners attained co-management of new national parks and formal recognition of their ancient and ongoing cultural connection to these protected landscapes. The powerful collaboration between Aboriginal and environmental activists challenged established ideas about nature conservation and forged new partnerships that continue to underpin solidarity work today.

The protected red gum forests play a crucial role in the health of Australia's inland river systems. They act as giant strainers for the Murray River and its tributaries, attracting and filtering water, and shifting and sieving nutrients throughout the floodplain landscape. They provide breeding grounds for native fish, nesting sites for native and migratory birds and refuges for threatened species such as the superb parrot and Murray cod. In return, red gum forests need regular flooding and a natural river cycle to replenish parched soil and thin out new saplings. The vitality of red gum forests is a powerful indicator of the health of our vulnerable inland rivers.

Traditional owners have recognised the significance of these forests for millennia. Red gum forests were a source of shelter, food, transport and spiritual sustenance. The thick bark of red gum trees was used to make canoes and shields. An abundance of food supported dense, permanent populations along rivers that were the lifeblood of country. Thousands of heritage sites are dotted across the red gum estate and growing Aboriginal populations maintain strong, active links to these special places.

Saving the red gum forests has allowed the Yorta Yorta people to reestablish some formal control over the Barmah -Millewa Forest, with a co-management board that has a majority of Yorta Yorta members. Last year, the Yorta Yorta Traditional Owner Land Management Board released its first strategic plan. Progress on other co-management arrangements remains patchy (see below).

In ecological terms, the new parks have proved to be invaluable. With the Murray Darling Basin Plan signed into law and growing environmental water holdings, these protected forests are set to lead an ecological revival with the return of rains after the debilitating millennium drought. In the Barmah-Millewa Forest, flooding and environmental flows have already seen native fish return in greater numbers to breed in this diverse, protected habitat.

Unfinished business

Despite the impressive victories of the red gum campaign, threats and challenges persist. These forests continue to endure the combined affects of natural vulnerability, exploitation and negligence. FoE has continued to lead the push for intelligent and effective management and recognition of Aboriginal rights in the new reserves.

An unfortunate legacy of the red gum victory was a recommendation to conduct 'ecological thinning' in the new national parks. At best, ecological thinning can be a sensitive, low impact management response to ecological change in drought-stressed forests. At worst, it can be a cover for large-scale, mechanised logging and timber extraction in what should be a protected landscape. The NSW and Victorian governments took the latter approach and pushed for logging trials that would have seen 400 hectares of the Barmah-Millewa Forest subject to logging with commercial harvesting machinery, firewood removal and new roads.

FoE led a campaign to scrap the 'ecological thinning' trial, with public events, newspaper articles, field trips and a petition to federal environment minister Greg Hunt. In 2014, the Victorian Coalition government announced a surprise policy change and pulled out of the trial. Worryingly, the NSW government is still pushing ahead. But their plans have been repeatedly delayed, with a public environmental report still not submitted to the federal government despite being released for public comment over a year ago. FoE and other NGOs are working to ensure that the NSW government follows Victoria's lead (as they did on the establishment of the parks themselves) and withdraws from this perverse trial.

Even more concerning are the recent calls by local logging interests to throw the NSW red gum parks open for full scale commercial logging. Some of the same companies and individuals who benefited from a $90 million transition package to move out of logging in the red gum parks think that they should be let back in. So far the NSW government has knocked back their claims, but pressure from a well-organised lobby group is mounting. A recent visit to Deniliquin by Federal Forest Industry Advisory Council Chair, Rob de Fegely, highlighted how a logging agenda for national parks is being pushed at the highest levels of government.

While the Yorta Yorta have been able to establish joint management of the Barmah National Park, further downstream, the Wadi Wadi people have seen a promised joint management arrangement for the Nyah-Vinifera Forest all but abandoned. Complications in a native title negotiation saw the Victorian government dump the joint management discussion. By withdrawing from this process, the previous Victorian Coalition government abandoned a commitment to provide justice and cultural continuity to Wadi Wadi people. FoE continues to work with the Wadi Wadi community to ensure that the new Labor government delivers on the previous Labor government's promises.

Water and weeds

To truly flourish, Australia's red gum national parks need three things: adequate, secure funding for park management, weed control and pest management; and adequate environmental flows with a flooding regime that is as close to natural conditions as possible. Sadly, many parks are receiving none of these. Ongoing challenges to the implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan mean that delivery of the promised 3200 gigalitres of environmental water is a long way off. Despite their resilience, lack of water means that red gum forests suffer and, if drought returns, places like Nyah-Vinifera and Barmah-Millewa face further decline.

Lack of funding has also seen values in some parks continue to deteriorate. At Nyah-Vinifera, near Swan Hill, local community groups have reported weed outbreaks and illegal logging. Parks authorities acknowledge that additional funding could address the problem, but state governments have been unwilling to pay. FoE has been engaging with the new Victorian Labor government to highlight the need for funding to secure these important ecological assets.

The river red gum is an Australian icon and these unique forests deserve greater recognition from governments and the general public. The red gum campaign forged new alliances and achieved outstanding social and environmental outcomes, but preserving its legacy entails tenacity and resilience: something we can learn from the mighty red gums themselves.

From Chain Reaction #123, April 2015, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia,