Forest and bushfire management in the Colony of Victoria from 1851 through to Federation in 1901 can best be described as chaotic.
Prior to European settlement, nearly 90% of Victoria had been forested but it was rapidly, and indiscriminately, cleared by miners during the gold rush, by timber splitters and then in a mad scramble for land settlement.
At the time, the State’s forests were generally considered as the inexhaustible “Wastelands of the Crown”.
Timber splitters cut palings and other building materials and first operated around the gold fields in the 1850s to supply the mines and bustling townships. The splitters progressively moved east of Melbourne into the expansive wet forests from the 1860s.
Splitters camped in the bush and were attracted by the huge stands of mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans), a tree that splits easily, and messmate (E. obliqua), which proved durable as a building material.
But by the late 1800s, most of the giant trees reported by the Government Botanist Baron von Mueller were being rapidly lost to timber splitters and land clearing.
There was little regulation and massive wastage of the forests and timber resources during the 1800s that could no longer be ignored.
However, the Government mostly responded with inquiries, inertia and inaction.
There were inquiries and independent reports from D’A. Vincent (1887) and then Perrin (1890) into the parlous state of Victoria’s state forests but with little result.
In 1895 the Commissioner of Crown Lands and Survey, Sir Robert Best, invited Inspector-General Berthold Ribbentrop, from the Imperial Forest Service in India to visit the new colony.
State forest conservancy and management are in an extraordinary backward state.
The forest laws of the country are inadequate.
The protection of forests against fires has never ever been attempted, and neglect and waste in their treatment are now as rampant.
The income from the forests is ridiculously small, and quite out of proportion to the large supplies drawn from them; and the money spent on their protection, maintenance and improvement is entirely inadequate.
His scathing report prompted a Royal Commission which commenced in 1897 and produced 14 separate reports before closing in 1901.
And despite spirited opposition by agricultural and grazing interests, the State Forest Department was finally created in 1907 with legislation formally setting aside timber reserves, regulating cutting and providing for rehabilitation after mining and logging.
Timber splitting eventually ceased but was replaced by steam powered sawmills and tramlines operating in the bush to cut palings and other sizes of building timber.