Rescuing the Barmah Forest

By Lawrence, Louise; Colloff, Matt | Ecos, February-March 2008 | Go to article overview

Rescuing the Barmah Forest


Lawrence, Louise, Colloff, Matt, Ecos


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A powerful collaboration between research, catchment management, indigenous, national parks and government working groups is combining knowledge to restore a precious native river habitat.

Around 225 km north of Melbourne, on the Murray River flood plain between Echuca and Tocumwal, lies one of Australia's ecological jewels--Barmah Forest, part of the world's largest river red gum forest. (1)

It is home to more than 200 different birds, and is significant internationally as a wetland breeding ground for water species. There are also abundant mammals, reptiles and frogs. The oldest stands of red gums date back over 400 years, and their rotten limbs and hollows provide important habitat.

It is a special place to be and people visit for many reasons--its historical sites, local Aboriginal culture, bush walking, canoeing and fishing. But there is a downside to this interest and activity.

While the indigenous people lived lightly on the land, the arrival of Europeans and their new endeavours unleashed changes in this complex ecosystem. First, logging to fuel paddle steamers and make railway sleepers greatly altered the forest structure. Later, taking water for irrigation caused big changes in the regularity of winter flooding, and this subsequently altered the natural cycle of regeneration.

Mr Keith Ward, Wetland Manager with the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority, has worked in Barmah Forest for the past 17 years. 'To see the forest in flood is to truly appreciate the life and beauty the water brings,' he says. 'If more people saw this and realised the importance of the wetlands in the web of life, I believe there would be greater community support for environmental flows and better care of the environment.'

The constant removal of resources and changes in water flows threaten the long-term survival of this wonderful river red gum forest. It has also been used as a rubbish dump and in places is deeply rutted by off-track four wheel drive vehicles. Grazing by cattle and wild horses has also damaged both vegetation and the soil.

But all is not lost. There are now many groups committed to the restoration and protection of Australia's unique river red gum forests. The Yorta Yorta Nation, who have lived in the area for thousands of years, have long had an interest in the conservation and environmental management of Barmah Forest, as has the Victorian Government.

Now the Murray-Darling Waterways Restoration Project has been set up to provide science-based management options to help repair the damaged landscape. It is a unique partnership between the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority, the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation, Parks Victoria, the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment and CSIRO, through the Water for a Healthy Country Flagship. The aim is to restore the native vegetation and ecological functions of the flood plains of the upper midMurray Valley.

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To do this, participants need information on the changes in the environment, what caused them and what practical pathways will restore the flood plain forests. While the current focus of research is the Barmah Forest, the project is also operating at other Living Murray Icon Sites (2) and Ramsar Convention Wetlands, including Lindsay-Wallpolla, Hattah-Kulkyne and Gunbower.

Restoration ecologists from CSIRO working on the project specialise in natural ecosystems that have been significantly altered by human activities. The information they are gathering will help land managers and agencies develop management strategies that ensure the future health of the area.

'At Barmah Forest, we are concentrating on the major changes in native vegetation in recent years, and the implications of these changes for the functioning of the river red gum forest,' says Dr Matt Colloff from CSIRO. …

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