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Rehabilitation and Reforestation

The Government and social observers at the time feared for the long-term repercussions on the gold rush, unfortunately they were only worried about the economic and social effects, rather than the long lasting environmental damage that was being waged on the countryside. The physical damage simply was not a consideration for people living in the 19th century.

Damage from gold mining – from the intense rush in the 1850’s right through til the twentieth century – can still be seen today. Nature is resilient and many of the scars have slowly faded and grown over, but we can still see the evidence today in some regions.

Deserted diggings. Spring Creek
Sun pictures of Victoria: the Fauchery-Daintree collection
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

One such example is the mysterious lunar landscape in Queenstown, Tasmania. This once picturesque region, covered by mountainous rainforest and the winding Queen River, is now disfigured by open gashes and tonnes of pilings. The river runs murky grey with sediment and the majestic forests are gone, the little surviving vegetation has been poisoned from sulphur smelting. Rainfall has washed away the topsoil leaving exposed moulds of rock and clay.

Other examples of devastated areas include the Ovens Valley-Beechworth area where alluvial working and dredging in the late 1800’s continue to present land use problems. Kangaroo Flat near Bendigo was completely denuded of trees, and took almost a century for revegetation to return, but the forests of box and ironbark eucalypt are gone forever, replaced with scrub and stringybark. Around towns such as Maldon and Wedderburn vegetation grows upon uneven clumps of clay and stone – some might mistake it for harsh bushland, but it is evidence of disrupted ecosystems, void of many of the species of flora and fauna which were once present.

Swiss tunnel at Jim-Crow Diggings
Sun pictures of Victoria: the Fauchery-Daintree collection
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

But how was this allowed to happen – why did the Government let the destruction continue for decades? For many years there were no requirements for rehabilitation of mining sites, even on land so devastated that even weeds would not grow back. No one sat up and took any real notice until it was realised that the timber supply was not as endless as it first seemed. A constant supply of timber was essential if Australia was to continue to grow and progress. The rapidity with which the mining industry consumed forests contributed to the first stumbling efforts at conservation from the 1860’s onwards.

In 1861 the first legislation enabling government to proclaim reserves for preservation and growth of timber was passed. In 1865 a Special Report to the President of the Board of Lands in Victoria on "The Advisableness of Establishing State Forests" was presented. In 1897, a Royal Commission was established into Forest Conservation in Victoria.

Perhaps the first actual physical attempts at reforestation began in the 1880’s in the Creswick district in Victoria, when John La Gerche was appointed as Crown land bailiff. The Creswick district had originally been settled for its grasslands, then its forested valleys were extensively mined during the 1850’s and 1860’s. La Gerche began to revegetate the barren hills and eroded gullies, and confronted woodcutters and pastoralists who defied forest regulations. With little support from the government he created a large and unique experimental plantation. By the time he retired in 1897 the Creswick plantation covered over 300 acres and contained more than 24,600 trees. Creswick became a model for other mining communities, seedlings from the nursery were sent to other gold field towns, and in 1910 Australia’s first forestry school was established at Creswick. It was here that extensive research was first undertaken in the scientific management of the State’s forests leading to the establishment of the Forests Commission of Victoria.

Hydraulic Mining, Australian Alps by Miss Thwaites
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

While Le Greche toiled in rehabilitating the Creswick region, in other areas the destruction continued. Hydraulic mining (sluicing) and dredging commenced in the late 18th century and were possibly the most destructive forms of mining used in Australia, and it’s long-term impact the most serious. They required vast volumes of water, and polluted water ways by dumping huge quantities of silt back into them. The environmental damage and pollution was so great that it produced some of the first community environmental protests and attempts by government to control the degradation. The damage from mining and dredging caused outcry amongst farmers as their water supplies became polluted and creek frontage occupied. Local communities also began to protest, and groups such as the Ovens Valley Farmers Protection League and the Anti-Dredging League were established. These were the first beginnings of environmental action groups.

By this stage in Australia’s history, photography had become common, and the terrible effects of the mining industry could be published for the world to see, rather than the unrealistic paintings of the gold fields that had previously been used. Society began to realise the countryside was being annihilated.

The repercussions from mining, especially hydraulic mining and dredging, are still being felt today in our waterways. Over time, the silt deposited into the rivers have slowly moved downstream causing further damage. Where silt has reached the sea, problems have arisen with the impact on natural outlets. It is likely that this damage may be felt for several more decades to come.

It is often said that Australians have mined their environment for short-term gain. This is certainly the case in our early history, but with Government workforces and initiatives, environmental groups such as Landcare, and public awareness of "green" issues, we can only hope that the mistakes of the past will become lessons well learned.


By Yvette Height


Don Garden, Catalyst or Cataclysm? Gold Mining and the Environment, Victorian Historical Journal Vol 72, No 1-2, September 2001.

Geoff Hocking, To the diggings!: a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Australia, Lothian Books, 2000.

J.Lennon, Case Study of the Cultural Landscapes of the Central Victorian Goldifleds, Jane Lennon and Associates; Australia; State of the Environment Technical Paper Series (Natural and Cultural Heritage) Environment Australia, 1997.

The Living Land – Living Land Trails, Department of Natural Resources and Environment (booklet), 1999.

Fashion in the Field – Trends in Revegetation Across Victoria, Victorian Landcare Centre, 2000.


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