Contractors demolish towering Aussie forest for 'shambolic' road widening plan

Most of the region's wilderness is gone. Now residents are fighting to preserve one of the last remaining slivers of forest.

A drone image showing the trees have been removed.
Community members have made a last ditch effort to try and stop some of the region's last remaining old-growth trees being felled by the government. Source: Irene Proebsting

Members of a small Aussie community are calling for "help" as contractors continue to bulldoze some of the region's last old-growth eucalyptus forest so a road can be widened.

Chief among the list of concerns are reports that at least 84 of the trees being flattened along the Strzelecki Highway have hollows and they provide critically important habitat that native wildlife needs to survive.

These hollows are rapidly vanishing across Victoria, resulting in local extinctions of once-abundant species like kookaburras and greater gliders. Simply replanting new trees does not solve the problem because hollows don't start forming until a tree reaches at least 100 years of age.

As outrage grows across the affected Gippsland townships where the road widening is occurring, one of Australia's leading tree experts has described the project as “tragic” and said the condition of public administration is "shambolic".

“They're effectively irreplaceable, these old trees. And they’re coming down for the sake of saving a small amount of time.” James Shugg, a veteran arborist at Victoria’s Botanic Gardens told Yahoo News.

Because he specialised in historic trees, Shugg has been sent dozens of photos from concerned community members documenting the size of the trees. One example, which he shared on the social media platform X, appears to show one with a four-metre circumference.

Community members who have fought against the plan fear it's too late to stop the destruction.

The trees are also important habitat for several genetically significant Strzelecki koalas, a long-lost population that was rediscovered in the 1990s.

In a last-ditch effort to save the stretch of forest over the last fortnight, protesters have held up handmade signs. One simply reads "Help". Another local has placed stuffed koalas on crosses along the highway next to an angry handwritten message reading: VicRoads Vandals.

On Wednesday, Yahoo News put seven questions to Victoria’s Department of Transport which is responsible for the project, and the Department of Environment (DEECA), which approved it.

They were asked for specific details about the environmental offsets the government claims to have made, why adjacent cleared land wasn’t utilised instead, which species were identified as using the hollow-bearing trees, and what percentage of the felled trees would be milled for profit.

Large trees being felled along the Strzelecki Highway. There is logging equipment in the forest. A truck is parked on the side of the road.
Ancient trees have been felled along the Strzelecki Highway. Source: Irene Proebsting

These questions did not receive a response. Instead, Transport issued a one-line statement on Friday saying, “We’re taking every step possible to minimise the environment impacts of this vital upgrade and working with the community to offset the removal of any vegetation.”

Transport claims the new northbound lanes between Mirboo North and Morwell on the Strzelecki Highway will improve public safety. And that it conducted surveys for native wildlife before beginning works.

For the last 30 years, Graeme Wilson has lived on a property just 3km from where the project is occurring. He says the forest around his home has become a refuge for wildlife, including black cockatoos, since the bulldozers rolled in.

“I never thought I’d see this sort of destruction by the government. On one hand, you’ve got LandCare which encourages people to plant trees and hands out seedlings, but then you’ve got the roads department who are a law unto themselves,” Wilson claimed.

“There are powerful owls along the Strzelecki Highway – I hope they flew away when their hollowed trees were felled.”

A Strzelecki koala in a tree, walking along a branch.
The Strzelecki population was originally believed to have been wiped out along with the rest of Victoria's koalas last century. Source: Irene Proebsting

Wilson has been a vocal opponent since the works began and has been spearheading the opposition movement. He’s written to the government calling on it to intervene.

“[It] just sent me a standard letter, referring me back to Rural Roads Victoria and they just sent me a standard crap letter, and when I called I just got a firewall of receptionists,” he said.

Wilson has taken the "snub" personally and his experience of engaging in the Australian political process has left him dismayed.

“I’m disgusted by this. I’m seventy-something now and I’ve voted Labor all of my life – so ever since I was 18. But never again.”

Wilson refers to the works being undertaken around the Strzelecki Highway as “logging”. The allegation is a controversial one because before stepping down as premier Dan Andrews enacted ground-breaking legislation that was supposed to ban all commercial harvesting of native forest in Victoria.

Graeme Wilson and a woman holding an SOS sign sitting at the side of the highway. There is also a dog next to Graeme.
Graeme Wilson (right) has been left "gutted" by the destruction of the forest. Source: Irene Proebsting

But under the government’s new leadership, it has been accused by several conservation groups of continuing to “log by stealth” in state forests and national parks, leading to criticism by high-profile non-profits including WWF-Australia and Wildlife Victoria.

Marg Thomas, from conservation group Preserve Our Forest Mirboo North, is particularly concerned about the tree clearing along the Strzelecki Highway because just very little of the region’s original habitat remains.

“We’re surrounded by farmland and plantations, so this little strip of forest that’s left on roadside verges in this area is really critical,” she said. “We’re really quite devastated that it’s happening.”

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