This forest is a time machine.
Because when you really know a place, it can transport you back into the past, to the memories of how it was, or forwards into the future, as you understand what it will become.
This is what researchers from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society experience when they walk through the Mountain Ash forests in the Victorian Central Highlands. They have been studying these trees, the landscape, and its animal inhabitants for over 30 years. They remember how it once looked, and they see where it’s heading.
If this forest is a time machine, their long-term research is the instruction manual. And this is what it says about the future:
The old trees which produced some of the world’s cleanest water for the city of Melbourne will be gone. The young trees in their place will consume more water than they produce, and five million Melbournians will be left without a water supply.
Fires will ravage the landscape because forests like these, which have been logged and regenerated, are more likely to burn to a higher severity. Smoke from the fires, and from annual burn-offs associated with logging, will cause health problems for the surrounding population, and also damage the grapes of local red-wine producers.
The forest will store less than half the amount of carbon it did when it was old forest, back when it was one of the most carbon-dense forests in the world. This is a major blow to national, and global, carbon storage, and to the people of Melbourne, increasingly desperate for a better-modulated climate.
The Leadbeater’s possum, the faunal emblem of Victoria, will no longer be found nesting in the hollows of the towering hundred-year old trees. With nowhere to live, it will be extinct. So too the greater glider, an animal which will be remembered fondly as looking like a ringtail possum in drag.
And there will be no people. The people of Melbourne won’t escape the city to visit this forest of the future.
The Fenner School is not in the business of clairvoyance. This is the result of one of the longest-running studies in forest modelling and research conducted anywhere in the world.
Since 1983, ANU researchers have been working in the Victorian Central Highlands tracking the states of the trees, the carbon storage, the structure of the forest, and the dynamics of the animal populations.
By drawing on the interdisciplinary expertise of the Fenner School, where economists work alongside ecologists, and hydrologists alongside historians, these researchers are able to transform their fieldwork into policy positions, or warnings for the future.
Recently, using a world-first environmental accounting approach, Fenner School researchers have also been able to place a dollar value on what the forest can contribute to the state economy in terms of biodiversity, water, carbon storage, employment and tourism — but only if the forest is adequately protected, which is currently a very big ‘if’.
That’s the thing about time-travel stories: they always end the same way, with the same moral. You know the one, about how our actions in the present determine which future path we head down? This story is no different.
There’s another vision of the future available to us, one where Melbournians spend their weekends bushwalking in a Great Forest National Park, surrounded by the tallest flowering trees in the world, sparkling streams, and clean air. In a way, this vision transcends time-travel. The forest in this future would be a permanent ‘keeping place’ for the story of the land and its people, which is how the traditional owners describe it. The forest in this future would be eternal.
ANU would like to acknowledge the Bunurong (Boon Wurrung), Gunaikurnai, Taungurung (Daung Warring) and Wurrundjeri Indigenous Australians, the traditional owners of the land of the Victorian Central Highlands.