Localisation and community resilience in a time of transition.
When I was growing up, each morning meant waiting for the mist to rise. If you stepped outside early, you’d be lucky to see further than a few metres in front of you. By about 10am, the fog would finally uncloak the mountains and reveal the valley below my childhood home. I left for Melbourne after the thick, orange smoke of the Black Saturday bushfires obscured my view in a similar, but much more ominous, way. I didn’t particularly plan on moving back. Yet, just over a decade later, I sit watching Nanadhong emerge into the glistening morning sunlight. The mountain is always the first place in the Shire to shake the mist. Murrindindi Shire. Murrumdoorandi in Taungurung/Taun Wurrung language – the place of mist, rivers and mountains.
Nanadhong (Cathedral Ranges State Park) contains rich bushland: manna gums and green tree ferns by the river, crouching swamp wallabies, and foraging lyrebirds. Tiny orchids hide in the hill country scrub, unique varieties emerging all year round. Black cockatoos whistle overhead and chatter in the blackwood trees. But the park is also an island – surrounded by the sprawling, cleared farmland of Taggerty and Buxton that replaced its foothill bush during colonisation. This agricultural acreage extends throughout the Shire. Land-clearing for the sheep and cattle stations of the 1800s transformed the wetlands and large river red gums of Acheron into fertilised flats and the box gum bush of Alexandra into browning, bald hills.
These farmed valleys are ringed by forested mountain ranges: the Rubicon State Forest, the Marysville State Forest, and the Black Range State Forest (which connects to Toolangi state forest). It’s a magical landscape of cascading waterfalls, snowfields, and a large distribution of towering mountain ash trees – an ecosystem that stores more carbon per hectare than any other forest on the planet.
What pulled me home from the city was memories of the Rubicon State Forest: jumping into the cold swimming hole at Rubicon river, horse riding through the ranges, and camping in the bush where owl calls populate the night and bright red and green king parrots greet you at dawn. The wonder I felt while exploring this forest in my childhood undoubtedly informed my love for the nature. But in my absence, and to my deep despair, these ranges have been terraformed into a checkerboard of barren fields and blackberry by industrial, clear-fell logging.
Logging in the Rubicon State Forest.
Murrindindi Shire is one of 11 regional communities identified by the state government as impacted by their promised exit from native forest logging in 2030. It’s also the most heavily logged area in Victoria. By the time logging ends 8 years from now, it will have decimated our remaining mountain ranges; an existential and cultural tragedy for our unique wildlife and local people. By failing to transition more immediately, the state government is not only sacrificing forests. Regional people will be the most vulnerable to climate impacts this decade: at risk from bushfires, drought, food shortages, and economic instability. We must demand a rapid forestry transition that can propel a positive transformation in Murrindindi, one that builds community resilience to climate change and ensures our ability to thrive together in a changing world.
I imagine a future for my local community where everyone's economic and social wellbeing is supported by reciprocal relationships with other local people and with our local environment. I believe we could realise this vision quickly – and perhaps more naturally than many other regions.
Things are changing for the better already. When I was young, before I became a campaigner for endangered species, I had no idea about all the astounding creatures that lived in the forests of my childhood. But now the wall outside my former primary school now displays a beautiful mural of the endangered Leadbeater’s Possum and Greater Glider. It makes my heart leap to think that children here are now actively learning about the non-human animals that live alongside us.
I was also never exposed to stories about the First People of this land. But sold-out NAIDOC events and the recent installation of a Taungurung artist's sculpture Dugaluk Ngarrgi in a town centre, is evidence of a community finally beginning to engage in truth telling.
Living here again as an adult, I’m able to recognise that there’s always been a radical current in Murrindindi – most obvious in our strong culture of mutual aid. We know our neighbours, offer favours, care for elders and children, help source housing for one another, fix fences and infrastructure, and greet each other by name on the street. We’re also good at turning crisis into collectivity and care. Marysville's Lions Tool Library emerged after the Black Saturday bushfires when locals decided to continue sharing tools like they had during disaster and recovery. Foundation Murrindindi, which has supported many recent community-led initiatives, also emerged as a result of the bushfires.
I have been inspired by the many community members actively promoting the dignity and self-organisation of other local people. This year, community members invested in the future of our foresters and farmers facilitated a short course, encouraging landholders to plant small-scale farm forests for sustainable timber, biodiversity, carbon, and environmental and economic resilience on farms. The course attracted and united a broad spectrum of local people with different backgrounds and objectives – farmers, foresters, natural resource managers and conservationists – and fostered a palpable sense of connection and collaboration. The Murrindindi Shire Council has been running local forums to design town-by-town community plans, encouraging local autonomy and participatory decision making. The council, which is currently engaged in mapping forestry transition pathways consistent with the 2030 timeline, is full of genuine, passionate local people who are concerned about climate resilience and care deeply about the lives and livelihoods of the people here. The Embassy of Ideas, an incredible volunteer-run community hub that popped up in recent years, cultivates a “connected, caring, creative community” by hosting fresh produce swaps, skill-sharing, repair cafes, potluck dinners, and weekly cups of tea in its community kitchen and garden. Murrindindi could anchor its transition in our existing care for our community – and extend that care to the land we live on.
Local produce swap and community garden.
The climate and biodiversity crisis is impressing upon us the urgent necessity to change our relationship with our environment to one of reciprocity, rather than resource extraction. Murrindindi’s rich history is intimately tied to its peoples’ relationship to land: First Nations, foresters, and farmers. How we interact with land now, and who has access to it, is the key to our future wellbeing and resilience. As part of this community, I know that all the people here have some kind of connection to the local natural environment. A 'just transition' in this region would be one that insists on a reciprocal relationship with our environment, while respecting and validating everyone’s local identity and connection to this place.
Taungurung people could be proud of their cultural knowledge and ancient connection to this land, as its rightful owners and sovereign custodians. By increasing funding for programs to revive traditional knowledge and to monitor and heal Country, the government could accelerate programs to return public land (including forests currently allocated for logging) to Taungurung ownership. Restoring the cultural landscapes that supported people and the land for thousands of years could build fire and drought resilience (through cultural fire and cultural flow practices), deliver economic and social benefits for Taungurung people (e.g. producing native food and fibre), create ‘natural resource management’ jobs for everyone in the region, and gift both locals and visitors to Murrindindi the opportunity to learn about the one of the oldest cultures in the world through education and culturally informed tourism.
by artist Annette Sax.
Logging contractors could also remain proud of their history in the region and retain their sense of identity tied to working in the bush. Employed by Taungurung land managers, rather than VicForests, contractors could secure jobs in landscape-scale bush regeneration that could restore mountain ranges that have been exploited and degraded to meet the demand of paper pulp contracts. This would save endangered species from extinction and assist our mountain ash ecosystems to draw-down carbon to their full potential.
Local foresters and silviculturists could secure work in their field of interest by retraining in all aspects of managing a network of small-scale, ecologically sound farm-forestry projects on private land in the area (producing local timber, food, fibre, seed banks, firewood, or a combination of these). The state government could guarantee workers currently in forestry – and young people wanting to work with trees and timber – training in soil testing, pruning, thinning, harvesting, drying, and sawmilling using worker-owned portable mills. This could create ethical timber jobs, localise supply chains, and provide for architects seeking sustainable timber via organisations such as CERES Fair Wood.
Contractors who currently use heavy machinery and employ their unique skill sets and knowledge of state forests to fight fires, could also secure stable jobs in fire prevention and emergency resilience – proudly contributing to the protection of the whole community.
Farming families could remain proud of their agricultural heritage – and contribute to climate draw-down and community resilience – by diversifying their land use. As well as diversifying what they produce, for their own economic and environmental stability, farmers could share, collaborate on, or collectivise their land in order to generate hundreds of meaningful local jobs.
Existing land owners could pair with young regenerative farmers and agro-ecologists who have the desire to produce local food and fibre, but have no access to land. Young ecologists, environmental scientists, and conservationists could help increase ‘natural assets’ and biodiversity on farms, or drive bush restoration projects on under-utilised private land, by undertaking environmental assessments and field surveys. Partnerships between farmers and Taungurung people could expand cultural landscape management and cultural tourism to private land, to the benefit of all parties.
Farm sharing initiative 'Young Farmers Connect.'
These partnerships would enable a younger demographic of people to live in Murrindindi, who currently have to leave in search of work. Affordable housing for younger people, who are often forced to Melbourne because of scarce rental housing, could be created through land sharing arrangements and by designing Community Land Trusts centred around regenerative farming or bush restoration. This would preserve the area’s rural character, while injecting some much needed vibrancy into our towns.
By diversifying land use, we could continue to diversify our economy in an ongoing way. Younger people in the area would staff our cafes and pubs (3 out of 4 pubs in Alexandra closed during the pandemic), teach in our schools, drive nature tourism experiences, create arts and culture, set up health and care work co-ops to support our ageing population, and run community services.
Relationships between older landholders and younger farmers or conservationists could be mutually beneficial on a deeper level than job creation. It could help our ageing community, currently isolated and vulnerable to climate disaster, establish support structures of intergenerational care. It could make available a variety of affordable, locally sourced food for our community in times of crisis. By creating work and housing structures that diversify jobs and simultaneously enable the emergence of alternative economic and social support, we allow ourselves to break somewhat from the capitalist paradigm and move toward a society based on care and interdependence.
The state government should take responsibility for the climate and ecological crisis by funding an immediate forestry transition, but it should also grant local communities autonomy over solutions. By increasing funding, but devolving power, to Traditional Owners, local councils, and community organisations that are more in touch with the needs and wishes of local people, the state government can end native forest logging now and ensure the survival of affected towns.
I believe that by transforming our relationship with land and by continuing to do what we do best – look after one another as members of our small communities – we will forge a way forward that’s built on the dignity and inclusion of all of our people and grounded in a profound connection to place.
It’s difficult to articulate how deeply rooted I feel in Murrindindi now. I think a great many of us who live here feel the same, which is a significant strength that our community possesses in a time of climate emergency. I hope that during this time of transition we learn to look after this land together, so that no matter what climate change throws at us, our local people will be here to love this place back to life.
Kim Croxford is a community organiser with FoEM’s Forests Collective and is campaigning for a faster, fairer forestry transition in Murrindindi Shire.