alpine

The Big Outside is waiting

Treeless alpine ecosystems cover just 0.5 per cent of Australia. While we might lack huge mountains, what we do have is a network of ranges that run in a long arc from the outskirts of Canberra almost to Melbourne’s doorstep. They host a unique combination of plants, animals and landscapes. Despite our moderate latitude and very modest altitude, we do have significant areas that tend to be snow-covered in winter – in total, an area about the size of Switzerland.

Melbourne residents who enjoy the snow will probably know the resorts – places like Mount Buller and Falls Creek. These get you to the edge of some incredible “winter wilderness”. Even though the Victorian Alps are generally well protected through the Alpine National Park, there are road networks through much of the High Country. In winter the mountains are transformed into seasonal wilderness through the closure of many of these roads and tracks.

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

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Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

There is nowhere else on the planet where you can stand in Alpine Ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) forest. These are tall mountain trees that have a subtle twist as they grow into old age. Often called Woolly Butt because of their fibrous lower sections, their upper trunks are pale and “gum”-like, mirroring their close relatives the Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans). Alpine Ash forest, which will often host lyrebirds, and a range of possums and wombats, merge – often quite rapidly – into Snow Gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) as you climb up the mountain. Snow Gums are lyrical in the way they grow – with such diversity of form and so many colours in their bark, from silver and white to red and green. As you climb closer to the treeline they become smaller, trimmed by the cold and prevailing wind, until you emerge into the true alpine zone. In early summer these areas are ablaze with colour, but in winter the snow gives a sombre black and white aspect to the terrain.

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

There are so many adventures to be had in the Victorian Alps. Probably one of the best ways to experience them is to do one of the long climbs from a river valley to one of the higher peaks. This will often involve a long climb of up to 900 metres of vertical, but will take you from Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) forests along the rivers into the Peppermint forests of the foothills, which include Narrow-leaved Peppermint (Eucalyptus radiata), and eventually the alpine. Tracing the Howqua River up Howitt Spur to the West Peak of Howitt, or Bungalow Spur up Feathertop, or the Staircase Spur to our highest mountain – Bogong - are all great examples of these classic walks. Once you’re out walking or skiing, what I notice is the silence and lack of people. Just a few hours from Melbourne you can have silence, clouds, the sound of gentle snowfall and a sense of the “big wild” that comes in winter when many of the four-wheel drive tracks are closed. In winter our higher mountains are transformed into temporary wilderness that makes you feel like you’re in Tasmania rather than a few hours’ drive from Melbourne.

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Image: Cam Walker

Many Melburnians who ski or snowboard will have looked out at the surrounding mountains but not ventured out into them in winter. But a set of touring skis, snow shoes or a splitboard (a type of snowboard adapted for touring) will get you out into the solitude. I once heard a French ski instructor describe the ‘cool, slow’ mood of the Australian Alps which are so different to the ‘fast’ European Alps. Our mountains are like nowhere else. But finding a way to explore this backcountry terrain can be daunting for first timers.

To help people find a way to get into the mountains outside the resorts, the Victorian Backcountry Festival is taking place this September. It will start and finish at the Falls Creek Resort in north-east Victoria. While Falls Creek charges an entry fee, all the tours, clinics and workshops are free.

Everyone is welcome. If you’d like to learn the skills that will help you experience some winter wildness, then check the festival website and come along.


Cam Walker is the campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth in Melbourne and a keen walker, skier and climber who loves the Victorian High Country and wilds of Tasmania.


Banner image courtesy of Cam Walker.

Sustainability on Set

Late last year I directed a short film that was shot over several days in the Victorian Alps. Since being a part of nature is one of the key themes of the film, we took the potential environmental impact of our shoot seriously. The huge international film and TV industry is not known for its environmental consciousness on the whole, but there are exceptions. The team behind the environmental disaster film The Day After Tomorrow planted enough trees to cover their carbon emissions to ensure that their production was not undercutting the film’s message. If you’re planning a shoot in Victoria, there are plenty of ways you can make sure your film leaves no footprint on its setting.

The first thing we made sure to do was keep our crew minimal. With two cast members, director, cinematographer, producer, sound, lighting and an assistant, we could still fit ourselves and our gear comfortably into two cars. This meant less mouths to feed, less people to transport and less energy used to cook in, heat, and light our accommodation.

Image: Meegan May

Image: Meegan May

Since our fairly remote locations around Mt Buller weren’t accessible by public transport, we used two cars to transport the cast and crew to and from the accommodation and the locations. One car would almost certainly have been needed anyway to transport the equipment – hauling it onto a train wouldn’t have been an option – so it made sense to make the most of the space we had.

We were fortunate to have access to a house in which we could both shoot the interior scenes and accommodate the whole crew. Everyone opted to be vegetarian for the week, saving both money and emissions from transport and farming. Our menus were planned well in advance and our food sourced from local suppliers in Melbourne before we made the four-hour trip to the mountains.

Recycling our waste was a big part of the effort. Scripts, call sheets and other notes were all printed or written on recycled paper, which were recycled again after the shoot. Even the toilet paper we brought to the accommodation was recycled! We minimised our food waste and recycled all packaging.

Image: Meegan May

Image: Meegan May

Our exterior locations were on the summit of Mt Buller and beside the Delatite River, so having a ‘leave no trace’ policy on set was essential, ensuring that we left nothing behind. We only set out into these locations at times of day when we were unlikely to disturb wildlife with noise and movement. As some of our locations contained the habitat of the endangered mountain pygmy-possum and our motive was primarily to gain experience in our industry, we also opted to donate any profits the film may make to Zoos Victoria’s Mountain Pygmy-possum Recovery Program. Now we can only hope that the film does make some money for the program!

It was always a priority for us to eventually offset the shoot’s carbon emissions. Using an online carbon calculator we were able to estimate the emissions caused by our transport, accommodation and eating habits, which came to less than one tonne. This was not only easy but cheap to offset with our chosen non-profit, which protects vital areas of forest around the world. Next time we will probably choose to offset with a more locally focused group.

Image: Meegan May

Image: Meegan May

Every step to reduce this film’s impact was simple and met with no resistance; in each case it seemed like the obvious thing to do. How many films have awed us with the beauty of their natural settings? Titanic mountain ranges, wide-open skies, dark magical forests – these places inspire us and we want to share them with the world. If, in doing so, we contribute to their destruction, then haven’t we undermined our purpose? It’s our responsibility to leave no trace on these places that feed our creativity and, where possible, to make a positive impact on their futures. 

For more information on the short film Gaest, visit their Facebook page.


ALEX MULLARKY

Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape. 

You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra


Banner image courtesy of Meegan May. 

Review: Australian Alps

Title - Australian Alps
Author – Deirdre Slattery

With ghostly snow gums and murky sphagnum bogs, the Australian Alps inspire awe and mystery in many who visit their snowy peaks. The Alps attract thousands of visitors every year, from skiers and snowboarders during the snow season to hikers and campers during the warmer months. However, few people truly understand Australia’s alpine region and its cultural and natural history. Deirdre Slattery, the author of Australian Alps, wishes to change that.

In Australian Alps, Slattery tells the story of Australia’s alpine region from a myriad of angles, explaining a diverse range of ecological and geological processes in a direct and comprehensible style. In her preface, Slattery explains that this book aims to ‘help readers to observe their surroundings in detail, to understand how the mountain landscapes of Australia work, and be able to use this knowledge to evaluate for themselves the effects of past use’.

The first few chapters of Australian Alps cover the physical characteristics of alpine regions. Weather, climate and soil composition are discussed, but the topic that intrigued me the most was geology. Australia’s Alps are relatively low and round compared to the alpine regions found elsewhere around the world, and this is mostly due to the fact that the Australian Alps are very old and largely untouched by glacial processes. Slattery highlights this, and goes on to relate Australia’s alpine region to the supercontinent of Gondwana and to explain the geological processes that cause each of our mountain ranges to be so distinct in appearance.

Also discussed in this book are the flora and fauna you are likely (or more fittingly, unlikely) to encounter on a trip up into the mountains. A varied collection of plant species are found in our alpine region, but where you will find them often depends on altitude. Taller, leafier trees are found on the foothills of a mountain, whereas at the summit all you are likely to find are herbs and a few stunted shrubs. In regards to fauna, this book highlights the animal species found in the alpine and subalpine zone, and how they cope with the harsh conditions found there. Although Australia’s alpine environments are home to few vertebrate species, the species that do inhabit the Alps have evolved an array of adaptations to help them endure the conditions they face in their chilly habitat. Adaptations such as the use of subnivean spaces and torpor are explained, as is the general appearance and habitat of key alpine species, allowing readers a view into the world of alpine animals.

The latter half of Australian Alps discusses the alpine region in a historical context. Slattery not only recounts the many ways in which the Australian Alps have been used in the past, but also explains how the alpine landscape has changed as a result of said practices. Furthermore, Slattery discusses the traditional use of the Alps by Aboriginal Australians, as well as the conservation efforts currently underway.   

If you are looking for a book that offers a thorough explanation as to why our alpine region is the way we find it today, look no further. Australian Alps is well written, and while it is thorough and specific where it needs to be, Slattery’s writing style allows the reader to open the book to any page and instantly understand any concept explained in this text. 

This book belongs on your bookshelf if…

·      You love Australia’s alpine region
·      You wish to learn more about the Alps’ ecology, geology and climate
·      You are interested in the history of how Australia’s Alps have been used over time. 


In Conversation with Professor David Lindenmayer: Part 2

Professor David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University is one of our country's foremost ecologists. An outspoken conservationist, David uses his decades of experience and years of scientific studies to support his argument for a Great Forest National Park, in our state of Victoria, a move supported by Wild Melbourne, and a host of other NGO's.  

With the recent release of the video advertising his proposal for the GFNP, now seems like the right time to revisit a conversation I had with him late last year. 

In this second part of the interview, David discusses the health of the mountain ash forests that he has worked on and their importance to our region.  

Prof. D. Lindenmayer: Courtesy of smh.com.au 

Prof. D. Lindenmayer: Courtesy of smh.com.au 

On the importance of these forests to our city and the surrounding region, David says that while we are probably dealing with about “300 direct jobs in saw milling and timber cartage” we know that the “value in water far exceeds the value in paper”, as is the case for carbon.

What does he mean by this?

Well, when the forest is young it uses a lot of water “because the trees grow very rapidly and they transpire massive amounts of water”. The more a forest is logged, the younger it becomes. The younger a forest, the more water it uses.

But how does that cost the average Victorian? Well, the less water we have, the more we will have to rely on our city’s expensive desalination plant.  

“You have to get the water from somewhere else because the forest isn’t providing it.” Says David, “The older a forest is, the more water it provides. And the more water it provides, the less desalination water you have to use... So the other values of the forest exceed the value of the paper.”

While David doesn't work on the hydrological aspects of the forest himself, he is currently working on a book with his father-in-law, who was a water based engineer, titled “The History of Melbourne’s Water Catchments”, soon to be released.

So just how important are these forests for the health of our local lands and the connected ecosystems across Victoria?

“I think most people are unaware that almost all of the water for Melbourne’s population comes from these forests. And that’s soon to be Australia’s biggest city, so you’re talking about a lot of water… and so these forests have a critical role in the integrity of Melbourne itself.”

Furthermore, these forests are among the most carbon-dense in the world, says David.

“When you get very old mountain ash forests they’re storing colossal amounts of carbon… And a lot of that carbon is emitted when you start cutting the forest down… It is important to hold onto that carbon… as a part of tackling dangerous climate change.”  

Indeed, under a carbon market, the forest becomes a huge economic resource. But their value doesn't end there.

“The other side of this is that in these systems where you have enormous tourism potential, then you have yet another important role for regional jobs and development and alike… the thing about tourism is that if you manage it the right way, then people can come and see these forests over and over again, whereas if you liquidate the resource through logging, you don’t get anything back for another 60 or so years. The thing about tourism is that it keeps on giving.”  

David believes that investment in infrastructure within these areas could greatly improve their ability to recover post-bushfire, and also bring a huge long-term boost to the state’s economy.

“At the moment” he says, “The [logging] industry is so heavily subsidised that it is actually costing us to cut the forest down.”

According to David, if the system continues to degrade it will not only lose carbon, but become more fire-prone and eventually “collapse” into a wattle-forest.  

“And that means it’s going to store a lot less carbon, have a lot less biodiversity, and provide a lot less water.”

Suffice to say, its tourism value will be lost a long with these other resources.

“Many people are unaware that these are the tallest flowering plants in the world… the most carbon-dense forests in the world… and just about the only place the Leadbeaters Possum lives.”

“Really it’s one of the best kept secrets, but it shouldn’t be a secret… it should be something people from all over the world want to come and see… When you come to Victoria you go to watch the footy, when you come to Victoria you go on the Great Ocean Road, when you come to Victoria you come and see the world’s tallest flowering plants because they’re very special.”  

For David, it is an outrage that the tourism potential of these forests has yet to be tapped.

“I think it’s an absolute crime and a scandal that it hasn’t been recognised, and that at the moment we are massively degrading those values by what we’re doing. It’s not only environmental vandalism but it’s economic bastardry as well... there’s no sense in trying to justify the rationale for this, it just doesn’t work. ”

He outlines the arguments for logging the forests as follows:

“I suppose people would say that it makes a huge amount of money for the state, and it did used to employ many jobs…. Now that isn’t the case. We are dealing with around 300 people employed that are directly cutting timber, mostly low-value timber products like pellets… only 2.7% of the wood that’s cut is actually high-quality furniture timber… this is a paper driven industry, and the reality is you don’t need large amounts of native forests to make paper. You can make paper from plantations.”

David says that the plantation sector is doing very well, while the native logging sector is dragging the industry down. He cites the fact that over the last five years Vic Forests have made a profit of one-million-dollars, while receiving subsidies of 25-million-dollars from the state government through bush-fire recovery grants.

“The only way that this organisation is viable is through a series of bushfire grants.”

He believes that the vested interest of Australian Paper in receiving cheap pulp from these forests is driving this “nonsensical” logging.

“This is economic insanity, and it is environmental insanity… the only reason you can imagine… is the massive vested interest… of Australian Paper.”

He also emphasises the fact that Australian Paper is owned by Nippon – a Japanese company.

Salvage logging near Marysville: courtesy of myenvironment.net.au

Salvage logging near Marysville: courtesy of myenvironment.net.au

But aside from this, David is also concerned about the rural towns in these areas. In places like Marysville, where he has previously lived, he says that people no longer want their communities to be known as “timber towns”, and are worried about the implications of this industry on their small businesses. 

And of course, he is deeply concerned about the fate of the iconic and critically endangered, Leadbeater's Possum.

More on that in Part 3 of the interview.