Re-growing a Lost Forest

Todd stopped the car to let me take a photo. To our left is a pine plantation; a dark imposing wall of sameness. “Death”, Todd told me earlier; that’s how he views plantations, because they clear and kill everything. To our right is a native eucalyptus forest, looking vibrant and healthy. “That”, he says, pointing to the native forest, “was all pine plantation.” He says this almost casually, as though it’s not something unfathomable. How is that possible?

I’d been brought up learning about the destruction of the world’s forests, and had gone through feelings of distress, despair, and eventually numbness. I’d been taught that once a native forest has been destroyed it’s lost forever, so when I heard about a man in north east Tasmania who was restoring what was lost, I felt a surge of hope. I became determined to learn his story.

The previous day I had cycled into the hills near St Helens. Todd and his wife Astrid had welcomed me at the door of their cabin, which sat in a grassy clearing surrounded by forest. Astrid was warm and chatty, and kept me talking as she prepared dinner, mostly from food she’d grown in her garden. She kept apologising for the rustic simplicity of their home, which was amusing considering I was living from my bike and sleeping in a tent most nights.

Todd seemed more reserved, though quietly confident. He had long, curly hair, sun-bleached from a life spent working outdoors. Over dinner I began to find out more about him.

He grew up in Sydney, and after high school took up a job maintaining lawns and gardens for a city council. When the council decided to create a new department to do bush regeneration, Todd had the most experience and landed in the role of manager. He learnt from others and he learnt by doing. Soon he was able to branch out and do contracts for other councils regenerating small patches of bushland. He eventually moved to Tasmania where he met his wife Astrid and started a family, all while doing more contracts for councils and deepening his knowledge of forest restoration.

He also got involved in conservation work, and founded the North East Bioregional Network to support his activities. Todd doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with other conservationists though. Many conservationists, Todd tells me, campaign to stop logging in native forests. But our society needs wood, and if they can’t log our forests then they have to use plantations instead. And where does the space for plantations come from? From clearing native forests. Todd believes it’s far better to do selective logging of native forests, and this would also mean our forests are valued more. Nowadays they have sustainable harvesting methods, taking a small percentage of the oldest trees each year, with enough time for younger trees to grow and replace them.

In 2007 Todd set his sights on a vast pine plantation in the area of hills called the Skyline Tier near his home. He ran a campaign against the timber company and became a thorn in their side, organising community meetings and putting pressure on politicians. He exposed the timber company’s plans to do chemical weed spraying right alongside a water catchment area for the local town’s drinking water supply.

The timber company was skeptical about whether the land could be restored, but with pressure coming on them from all sides, they finally relented and offered Todd some land to restore to native forest. Bit by bit he managed to wrangle more and more land from the timber company, reaching a total of 700 hectares — that’s 7 million square metres, or 7km by 1km of land; a vast area. It was the largest forest restoration project that Todd had ever embarked on.

The day after I arrived Todd took me for a drive up to the Skyline Tier. After turning off the main coastal road we drove along dirt roads through dark and monotonous pine plantations. But then we reached the new native forest, which continued on and on as we moved higher into the forested hills. This was all Todd’s handiwork, and I was able to see for myself the huge scale of the project.

Along the way he explained to me the difference between ‘re-vegetation’ and ‘restoration’. ‘Re-vegetation’ generally means tree planting, which Todd is not a fan of. Seedlings from perhaps a dozen or so different species are planted in an area, and in many cases as few as 10% of them actually survive. It’s expensive and ineffective. More than that, a healthy native forest is made up of hundreds of different species — something that tree planting can never hope to replicate — and this diversity is vital for a healthy ecosystem. ‘Restoration’, on the other hand, involves regenerating the native forest in all its diversity.

Contrast this with the pine plantations: giant monocultures made up of a single species: the radiata pine. And they don’t even provide as good a timber as eucalypts, Todd said.

The valleys and hillsides were filled with the various shades of green of a healthy and diverse native forest. Taller eucalypts, wattles and she-oaks made up the canopy; countless shrubs I can’t identify filled the understorey; and bracken, ferns and grasses covered the ground. The verdant tree leaves looked glossy and glistening, which Todd told me is a sign of how healthy they are.

A view of the coast from a hilltop showed me the pine plantation in the distance, and how far the new forest extended. And there was a lot more to come. We continued inland and eventually arrived at a valley with a stream running through it. Todd invited me to join him for a walk, and we set off on foot along a track beside the stream.

I’ve found the more I understand a place the more I appreciate it. As we walked along it occured to me that Todd’s appreciation of this forest must go so much deeper than my own. He had personally laboured over every acre, and there was barely a single tree or plant species that he couldn’t identify. All this forest was here because of him, and I could only imagine what a powerful feeling that must give him.

How did he do it? I was slowly building up a picture. Todd explained that they used different methods in different situations, and were constantly learning. They tended to get the best results when they could do a ‘hot burn’. After the old pine trees had been harvested, they’d burn off the area with a really hot controlled fire. This would kill the pines and their seeds, and leave the area looking like a wasteland.

Within the soil is what’s called the ‘seed bank’. Before the timber company ever put pine plantations here the whole area was native forest, and all the native seeds were still lying dormant in the soil. Being Australian natives, they’ve evolved to be activated by fire.

The timber company didn’t like the idea of doing a burn, and it was only after there were some arson attacks in their plantations (of no connection to Todd) and they saw the dramatic rate of new growth, that they realised how well it works.

After burning, and once the native species began to grow, it was a matter of manually removing weeds, including any pines that tried to re-grow. In areas where the seed bank wasn’t adequate they would do aerial seeding. Where they weren’t able to do a controlled burn, or where the burn wasn’t hot enough, they would need to use more labour intensive methods to stop the weeds and pine regrowth.

Todd secured funding to hire a team of people for this laborious work, many of whom came from government programs like ‘the green army’ and ‘work for the dole’. Working outdoors in the forest each day and seeing the results of their labour literally growing around them had a profound effect on his team, Todd said.

He shared with me the story of one worker who was sullen and uncooperative when he first started, and who had a chequered history, including several convictions for arson (not connected to the plantation arson attacks). After a year of forest restoration work he was completely transformed. He went on to do further training and now works as a ranger in northern Australia.

Eventually our walk along the stream took us to the edge of old-growth forest, with towering eucalypts above and a dense understory below. The stream we’d been following emerged from the older forest here and entered the younger restored forest, and we sat for a while to enjoy the beauty of it all.

The newly restored forest was all only six to ten years old. Todd explained that having this old-growth forest next door is important because it provides context for the new forest, kind of like a blueprint. Animal and plant species from the old forest are able to propagate and help colonise the new.

It was eventually time for us to head back, and we made our way back to the car. As we drove home through the forest and plantations I told Todd about my old misconception that a lost forest couldn’t be restored. He replied that many people think this way, and he thinks the conservation movement is largely to blame. They use messages like this in their campaigns to stop the destruction of forests, not realising the long-term effects of these messages.

Not only is forest restoration possible, Todd remarked, but we should be doing it everywhere. We put so much emphasis on renewable energy, but imagine the amount of carbon we could sequester and the effect on climate change if we were to do this all over the world. Not to mention the benefits to biodiversity, which he said was his main motivation.

It was an amazing thought, and my world had shifted by the time we arrived back at the house. After dinner that evening Astrid and Todd brought out their violin and guitar for their nightly practice session together, and I listened to them play. I had a lot on my mind when I finally went to bed that night.

The next morning I loaded my bike, said farewell, and cycled into the mountain forest on the next leg of my journey. I had seen what was possible: a lost forest re-grown; and I was feeling hopeful and uplifted. I knew I wouldn’t be quick to forget this remarkable couple who spend their time growing their own food, playing violin-guitar duets, and re-growing native forests.

A huge thank you to Todd and Astrid Dudley for their generous hospitality, and for all their time and patience in showing me their world.

Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?