SBS > Gold > Environment > Deforestation


As thousands of hopeful gold diggers hoarded to the prosperous fields of Victoria and New South Wales, little concern was given to the environmental impact of the diggings on the Australian countryside. Beautiful untouched landscapes were stripped of trees, pocked with holes and large open cuts, swamped with thousands of tonnes of mullock and poisoned with the sulphur used in smelting. Even now, large tracts of the country are scarred with the wounds of the mining era.

With the onset of the Australian gold rush, the first environmental casualties were the trees. As miners flooded in, huge areas were completely stripped of trees to clear space and provide fuel. Without the tree’s roots, the topsoil immediately became susceptible to erosion and salinity, which would remove any hope for trees to grow back. However this problem was soon eclipsed as mining intensified. Large machinery replaced sieves, tunnels replaced holes and towns replace tents.

Remarkable remains of trees, near Bendigo by Frederick Grosse
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Soon the trees that precariously skirted the mining regions also found themselves victim to the axe as the mining activity expanded in rural regions. Timber was needed in larger and larger quantities as a building material for the expanding towns, supporting the growing mineshafts and constructing waterways. Howitt, a prospector shocked by the rampant destruction of burgeoning mining industry, describes a beautiful gully that becomes victim to the prospectors:

"This quietness and greenness cannot last. Prospectors will quickly follow us. We foresee that all these bushy banks of the creek will be rapidly and violently invaded."

Sure enough:

"We have begun to destroy the beauty of this creek. It will no longer run clear between its banks... We diggers are horribly destructive of the picturesque."

Gold field growth pushed the demand on natural resources further. Huge amounts of water was needed for sluicing, powering steam engines and in some cases to drive water mills. This presented a big problem for miners in remote and arid regions, however they quickly sorted out the errors of nature with heavy damming and channelling of almost all of the waterways in New South Wales and Victoria. This hasty reworking of nature’s irrigation systems lead to heavy eroding of the creek beds and large amounts of silt pollution coming from the mines. Enormous piles of soil that built up as the mines expanded also seeped into the waterways, as well as arsenic, a very poisonous by-product of the pyrite ore roasting process, used to extract gold from the ore it is found in.

View of the yarra, from the botanical gardens bridge by D. McDonald
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

As the nineteen-century drew to a close, new engineering breakthroughs promised to push environmental destruction to a new level. Two particularly destructive examples of these new technologies were hydraulic mining or sluicing and dredging. Sluicing was a process of blasting a hillside or creek bed with water from a high-pressure hose to wash soil and any golden prizes within into catchment ponds. This silt was sorted through and dumped in the surrounding area. This was the most immediately destructive of these new processes, quickly turning virgin bush into a mechanised swamp. Dredging did a great deal of damage to river beds and silt levels in the water ways. It crawled down an estuary digging up the bottom then processing either dumping the sludge back into the river or in a pile on its banks.

The damage from these new mining processes was so extreme that the government and local environmental action groups, perhaps for the first time, rallied for greater attention to be paid to the environment. However, by the time any action was taken the momentum that had come with the gold rush was too strong for affirmative legislation to find any ground and in most cases the protests fell on deaf ears. Governments have since learned to consider the fragile importance of our countryside.

A car trip through old mining areas of Victoria and New South Wales highlights the incredible damage done in the short period mining exploitation in Australia. De-forestation and silt damage to our waterways still pose environmental threats. Huge areas of country have been transformed into wastelands, good for not much more than offering caution to future schemes that might undervalue the environment for the sake of a quick profit.


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