To mark Earth Day this April, we’re sharing personal essays from individuals who are doing their part to protect our planet. Sarah Rees has spent the last 23 years trying to save a huge chunk of native forest near Melbourne, Australia from being turned into cardboard boxes and paper cups. Her solution? To combine science, activism and clever marketing to push for National Park status. Here, she shares her vision for the Great Forest National Park.
The year is 2025. The children run up the forested track under the dappled autumn light, their audible delight startling a Lyrebird which the trail—the Toolangi Lyrebird Track—is named after. It’s this very same trail that’s home to one of the largest trees on mainland Australia.
The trail is popular with hikers looking to experience a place where the rainforests and ancient mountain ash convene in a rich ecotone, replete with the calls of the superb lyrebird, or menura novaehollandiae. This trail is part of a network that links up the ‘Valley of the Giants’ in Toolangi (meaning ‘tall trees’) on Taungurung Country, a little over an hour outside of Naarm (Melbourne). This trail is a feature of the newly announced Great Forest National Park: a recreation, conservation and Indigenous protected area.
But it wasn’t always this way…
For 23 years I have lived in these forests trying to figure out ways to keep them standing in the face of industrial exploitation. By forming partnerships and creating organizations, we have saved what we could. Sometimes with success, sometimes not.
In 2023, the Victorian government saw this forest as feedstock for a Japanese-owned paper mill. The so-called ‘Lyrebird track’ was a harvesting road with clear-fell logging planned for this remnant vein of old forest on the edge of Naarm. Here the trees boast girths of 15-plus meters in circumference; the size of small cars.
A little further south, an 80-year-old ash tree nudges heights of 90 meters—we can only imagine its potential as it nears the age of its 400-year-old neighbors. On the same trail grows one of the largest trees on mainland Australia—a eucalyptus regnans (or mountain ash)—the biggest tree by mass until a few years ago when freak winds toppled its crown.
Following extensive logging and fires, the mountain ash ecosystem was red-listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) after the Australian government discovered that there was only 1.2 percent of old-growth mountain ash remaining in Victoria’s Central Highlands.
This valley in Toolangi was largely protected by a few local volunteer groups after surveys and court cases identified critically endangered wildlife, but the Lyrebird Track was left out and is currently only spared by a temporary injunction granted by the Supreme Court.
If the group loses its case, this forest is gone forever.
For 23 years I have lived in these forests trying to figure out ways to keep them standing in the face of industrial exploitation. By forming partnerships and creating organizations, we have saved what we could. Sometimes with success, sometimes not. In 2007, we achieved permanent protection of 5,500 hectares of some of the most beautiful mountain ash forest left on earth, across the south face of Mt. Baw Baw—we also saved the Baw Baw frog from extinction.
Our court case created protections for the critically endangered leadbeater’s possum and in 2019 we achieved a protected area for Victoria’s Central Highlands exceeding 10,000 hectares.
Still, it’s not enough to slow extinction trends. We have lost a lot more than we have saved.
I have meetings with community, government and business groups again this month to keep pushing for the Great Forest National Park, a landscape-scale protection plan that will cordon off 355,000 hectares from logging. In these meetings, I’ll describe the forested blue rim of Melbourne-Naarm safe from logging, tenured in a park plan that protects wildlife and ecosystems.
I’ll illuminate an adventure economy that offers places to explore and recreate with a plan for First Nations groups to manage Country as we recover the land. Then I’ll finish with why the Great Forests are a ‘Keeping Place’—the mountain ash is the source of our water and should not be the source of our waste, whether by pulp or pollution.
This is what keeps me going— knowing that at some point, a leader will listen and act and the land will be made safe again.
The theme for Earth Day 2023 is ‘Invest in Our planet’. Find out more about how you can take action for Earth on the official Earth Day website.
Adventure.com strives to be a low-emissions publication, and we are working to reduce our carbon emissions where possible. Emissions generated by the movements of our staff and contributors are carbon offset through our parent company, Intrepid. You can visit our sustainability page and read our Contributor Impact Guidelines for more information. While we take our commitment to people and planet seriously, we acknowledge that we still have plenty of work to do, and we welcome all feedback and suggestions from our readers. You can contact us anytime at email@example.com. Please allow up to one week for a response.
Sarah Rees has campaigned for Australia’s forests for more than two decades, working for a suite of environmental organisations, businesses and universities advancing conservation policy to safeguard Australia’s forests and wildlife.
Can't find what you're looking for? Try using these tags: