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Galk-galk Dhelkunya - DJAARA forest management in the Wombat Forest

These are exciting times in Victoria. Momentum is building for real reconciliation between First Nations people and coloniser society. The state Treaty process is well underway, with formal negotiations expected to begin later this year, and extensive hearings at the Yoorrook Justice Commission. Yoorrook is investigating injustice against First Peoples in Victoria since colonisation. And more and more First Nations are asserting their rights to manage their traditional Country.

In central Victoria, the Dja Dja Wurrung (also known as DJAARA - their representative body) are rolling out their interconnected land management programs of Djandak Wi (Country Fire) and Galk-galk Dhelkunya (Forest Gardening).

DJAARA and its enterprise DJANDAK have been re-introducing Djandak Wi to the land since 2017. They are widely recognised as leaders in fire management among First Nations groups, and in mid May 2024 they launched their Djandak Wi Strategy which outlines their aspirations for further use of fire over the next decade (see our report on the launch here).

The Galk-galk Dhelkunya strategy is slightly older, and has been running for several years now.

DSC01597JPG.jpgParts of the Wombat Forest exist on Djaara land. Storm clearing activities in the Wombat in 2022 caused considerable alarm within the forest community because of a connection with the state logging agency VicForests. Through an agreement with DJAARA, VicForests was tasked with ‘assist(ing) with recovery works to restore Country in disturbed areas of the forest’.  The scale of the works caused great concern but also resulted in significant misunderstanding about the nature of Forest Gardening. In response to the controversy DJAARA have stated that

‘Forest Gardening is not logging. It is healing Djandak (Dja Dja Wurrung Country) and includes cultural thinning, revegetation and cultural burning. Our knowledge represents over 65,000 years of land management experience’.

 

The Forest Gardening strategy has been criticised by prominent academic David Lindenmeyer in his book Forest Wars.

In their statement on the work after the storm, DJAARA stated:

‘The removal of wind thrown timber was not Forest Gardening. To date, the only contemporary Forest Gardening application has been at one small trial site’.

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[ABOVE: older tree standing among young regrowth]

Going to the source

FoE acknowledges the ongoing sovereignty of First Nations people and seeks to act as allies to all traditional owner groups as they assert their rights to manage Country. We have been deeply troubled by the conflict that has emerged around the storm recovery operations and the subsequent conflation that has occurred between Forest Gardening and ongoing storm ‘clean up’ by the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA). We have collaborated with the Galk-galk Dhelkunya team to organise a series of informal ‘walking on Country’ sessions in the Wombat Forest that seek to bring forest activists and representatives of DJAARA together to better understand each others aspirations and hopes around the future of the Wombat forest.

Given the statement from DJAARA that there has been only ‘one small trial site’ where Galk-galk Dhelkunya is being practiced, we recently visited the site to see for ourselves what is going on, and what the vision of Forest Gardening looks like in the real world.

This site is called Tobins Track and is located in the Wombat Forest not far from Leonards Hill, south of Daylesford.

The 14 hectare site is state forest and is being managed under the authority of the Recognition and Settlement Agreement (or RSA) which was signed in 2013, and which is an agreement between the State of Victoria and the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation (DJAARA), and which recognises the Dja Dja Wurrung people as the traditional owners for part of Central Victoria.

The forest at Tobins track was regrowth that had been logged again in the mid 1990s under the Shelterwood program (a practise of cutting that removes part of the older forest stand to allow for a natural establishment of seedlings under the cover of the remaining trees), then burnt, and is now composed of a young and very thick (and hence highly flammable) eucalypt forest. There are a scattering of grand older trees (largely Messmates, Eucalyptus obliqua) and the main trees on the site are a combination of Messmate Stringybark, Candlebark (Eucalyptus rubida), Manna Gums (Eucalyptus viminalis) and two species of Peppermint. There is a scattered mid story of wattles, especially Blackwoods (Acacia melanoxylon).

Thinning of some of the regrowth trees at this site is happening to reduce competition for the larger habitat trees, through manual ringbarking or girdling. The trees are left standing and no heavy equipment is brought on site. Some trees will be felled and left on the forest floor to provide habitat and course woody debris to improve soil health.

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[ABOVE: ring barking of trees to create space around large older habitat trees]

There is ongoing monitoring which is being coordinated through a collaboration with Melbourne University. Transects are used to observe and understand changes in tree growth and biodiversity. Cameras are used to identify what animals are present in the forest (‘there is lots of activity around the bigger trees’) and acoustic sensors are used to monitor bats. Because of the human scale of this work, it will lead to a mosaic of forest forms, with thicker and more open areas and hence providing a range of habitats foranimals. Oli Moraes, program manager for the Galk-galk Dhelkunya program at DJAARA , says  ‘Djaara people know the Wombat Forest is Emu country. As the forest opens up, it will become habitat for emus again. But we want more diversity in the landscape, which will include dense patches which are good for some ground animals and birds’.

The intention of the trial thinning work is to better understand the way to assist the forest to develop towards a form that is considered healthier and more culturally recognisable to Djaara. In the case of the Wombat, this means a forest dominated by mature habitat trees and generally open yet diverse understory, as it was before colonisation and subsequent logging and mining.  

With most of the Wombat Forest in recovery after decades of logging and in recent years, some horrific storm damage, there are arguments that these forests should be protected from fire and left to heal. The argument goes that the dense flammable forests will self thin over time. But of course this will take decades and DJAARA representatives point out that these forests will be very vulnerable to fire in the meantime. Cultural thinning is intended to speed up the long process towards the return of the pre invasion forestscape.

DJAARA reps pointed out that there are various ways to thin. But they feel that ringbarking or girdling are the best options because they cause the least amount of harm to the forest, with no compaction of soil. Eventually some of the dead trees will be manually removed. Pete McCurley said ‘This is low harm work that is on a small, gentle and humble scale’. It is intended that the lessons gained from this pilot site will be applied over time in other parts of the forest in coming years, allowing Galk-galk Dhelkunya to be practised across forested public lands on Djaara Country where it is needed. It’s about listening to what Country needs in a particular place.

Tobins track is the beginning of the direct application of the Forest Gardening approach. Country fire is another part of the strategy (and has recently been applied at the storm damage cleanup site at Babbingtons Hill). There will be ongoing monitoring and other practises which will allow DJAARA to connect with Country as healing practitioners. These practises will include reintroducing understory plant species that have disappeared from the forest under settler management (including culturally significant plants), the installation of nesting boxes to create habitat as the forest ages, and cultural value assessments which will inform future decision making around land management. There are also aspects of the strategy that relate to Gatjin (water) - according to the strategy, ‘Djaara wish to see Gatjin respected and flowing with health through Djandak as it once did’ (p 34). There will be ongoing training for Djaara people and collaborations with a range of universities including Melbourne, La Trobe and RMIT and a second long term monitoring site established in box-ironbark forest on another part of Djaara Country. If Wombat state forest is incorporated into a regional park, the project will continue under the RSA.

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[ABOVE: a reminder of what was here before]

There have been concerns raised that cultural thinning will lead to commercial incentives to remove trees and hence lead to defacto logging operations. DJAARA flatly deny this, stating that it is being done for cultural and ecological reasons. Pete says ‘if the material is useful, it should be honoured and used in some way, which might include firewood for the community or high value wood for musical instruments’. Djaara and Aboriginal community are also using some of the wood taken from the site for culture crafting activities such as producing tools, artifacts and weapons as well as bark for weaving. There is no plan for any use of timber that could be considered conventional logging.

This test site is the beginning of a very long journey.

Oli says “We are left with the legacy of previous forestry. We are now trying to heal the forest. This is an intergenerational project. Forest gardening is really about getting people back on Country. This vision has come from the Djaara community, including Elders, and has been partly based on assessing how Djaara people feel about the current state of the forest, which is seen as being sick and in need of healing’.

Pete says ‘We will continue to ground this work in Country. We will make mistakes but we are responsible for these mistakes. This Country has been really harmed. We are going slowly as we work out how to manage the forest. Thinning was a logging practise intended for economic benefits. But this is about restoring the life and spirit of the forest and will lead to a healthier forest over time. We don’t have all of the answers and we will make mistakes but we have an adaptive culture and will respond to these mistakes’. 

Ben Mallinson, who is manager of the Djandak Wi program says ‘With such unhealthy country, doing nothing is not an option’.

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[ABOVE: bat monitoring site in the thick regrowth]

A personal reflection

We really are at a historic moment in Victoria, with First Nations people regaining access to Country – including forests on public lands - after two centuries of dispossession. This does bring challenges for the environmental movement, who have put decades of effort into protecting these forests.

As a movement, we have clear views of what we want to see happen – especially the desire to see these areas protected as national parks. First Nations people might have different aspirations, and we now need to find a path to bring the visions together in a way that will allow our children and grandchildren to enjoy thriving old growth forests and healthy ecosystems.

The first step must be respect for different world views. And then connection and relationship building.

I am from the ‘wilderness’ school of thinking. My early experiences of wild nature – through walking trips to the south west of Tasmania, the mountains of Central Tassie, and the Victorian high country – taught me the value of wild intact landscapes, and informed my activism for decades. It was only later that I began to understand that these places were never ‘wilderness’ – they were peopled landscapes that had had their people forcibly removed. And now those people are finding ways to manage their Country once again.

The trial program at Tobins track is a test piece in this process. I have faith in wild nature to work itself out. These forests, which have been turned upside down by mining, damaged by logging and fire, and now subjected to wild storms, will recover. It will take time, but if we can exclude damaging fire, I believe it will happen.

DJAARA have the aspiration of helping these forests return to a pre-invasion form through actions like cultural thinning. As we met at Tobins track, and sat by a fire at the forests edge and gazed at ringbarked trees, I felt unease. I wondered about what this forest ‘needed’. I felt the heavy hand of human intervention in what seems to me to be a wild land wanting to reassert itself. But the longer I sat, the more I could sense the old remnant trees stretching out as the canopy thinned. I could feel the care and hope being invested in this forest by DJAARA.

As we move towards land justice, we will all have to be open to discomfort as our assumptions and views are challenged. For us non Indigenous people, part of that process will be acknowledging that our world view is not the only one. I’m not saying it will always be easy. We will have to deal with differing pathways to get to what we all want: thriving ecosystems. The more I see of DJAARA operations, the more faith I have in this process.

  • Cam Walker

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Further resources

You can read the Galk-galk Dhelkunya  Strategy here and Factsheet here.

You can read about the Djandak Wi strategy launch here.

 

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