Desperate efforts to regenerate Victoria’s towering ash forests, which are being regularly decimated by bushfires, involves a dedicated group searching high and low to bank enough seeds for their survival.
An icy wind starts to strengthen on the peak of Mount Wills in north-east Victoria.
It’s just another part of the challenging and changing conditions that professional climber Daniel Jenkins deals with on the job each day.
But the idea of standard 9-5 office work leaves him terrified.
Instead, he’d rather be spending months on end in remote corners of Victoria, vulnerable to bitter and unpredictable alpine elements, scaling some of the forests’ most spectacular giants.
The wind sends strong ripples through the branches at the crown of the 50-metre-high alpine ash tree he’s preparing to scale, but it’s not enough to keep him grounded, not today at least.
Chainsaw attached at the hip.
As the weather starts to deteriorate, Mr Jenkins wastes no time in scaling this promising giant swaying in the alpine breeze.
Metre by metre he climbs.
The sound of a buzzing chainsaw cuts through the whoosh of the wind funnelling through the leaves overhead.
The ash tree’s limbs begin tumbling to the forest floor far below with an explosive thud.
It’s exhausting, time-consuming, cold and often stomach-churning work.
And the physical reward is tiny: a peppercorn-sized seed pod clinging to the canopies, almost invisible from the ground with the naked eye.
But from these tiny pods, huge things are expected grow.
The seeds are being collected, stored and one day will be sown in a bid to keep Victoria’s alpine and mountain ash forests alive for future generations.
The tiny seeds are worth the huge climb.
“I want to walk my grandkids down a mature alpine ash forest,” Mr Jenkins says.
“I want to explain to them this is what Poppy used to do, I used to climb to the top of the trees and get the seeds out, and this wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for [those efforts].
“I want to see their little chins look up and I want to hold their little backs when they lose balance looking up at the big tall trees that Poppy helped do.
“It’s all for the future.”
The views at the top also help to put the hard work into perspective.
“It’s a majestic place, a mature alpine ash forest; it’s a wonderful world, especially when it’s in the clouds and you can look through it.
Ash forests to forests of ash
Ash trees are truly the giants of Australia’s forest landscape.
Mountain ash is the world’s tallest flowering plant and can reach 50 metres in height within 35 years of germination.
If they’re lucky to survive a few hundred years, they can tower to lofty heights greater than 100 metres.
The even luckier ones can live up to 500 years. After death their skeletons can remain in the ground for a further 75 years — a marker of the giant that once stood firm, proud and tall.
Their cousins, alpine ash, can also scrape the mountain sky at up to 90 metres, given the right conditions.
But when the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires tore through eastern Victoria, the mighty ash forests literally became forests of ash.
The fires impacted around 88,000 hectares of ash forest, killing 25,000 hectares of young ash trees.
It takes about 20 years for ash trees to develop seeds for regeneration, and it’s becoming a tough job for many of these trees to reach maturation age.
Fires destroyed many of them in 2003.
Then in 2006 and 2007 they were hit by the Great Divide fires.
The Harrietville fire pounced in 2013.
Gippsland fires flared in 2017.
Then, Black Summer.
Onslaught after onslaught of fire — ghostly black and grey skeletons of thousands of ash trees still jut sharply from the steep north-east Victorian landscape.
Caitlin Cruikshank, forest restoration project manager for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), says the forest is a different place to where she worked 20 years ago.
Without the towering, shady ash canopies, it’s lighter, drier and hotter.
“It is very different.
“It’s grey; there’s much less birdlife and insects.
The need for seed
Since Black Summer, the Victorian government has worked alongside private agencies to help regenerate some of the lost ash forests before it’s too late.
In 2020, Victoria completed its largest ever sowing program, involving up to 60 people.
The $7.7 million operation was funded as part of the $110 million Bushfire Recovery Victoria’s State Recovery Plan and delivered by DELWP in partnership with VicForests, Parks Victoria and contractors.
More than 4.5 tonnes of tiny seeds have been dropped by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to aid the recovery of about 11,500 hectares of devastated landscape across Gippsland and north-east Victoria.
Three-and-a-half tonnes of that seed was either freshly collected or came from VicForests’ contingency reserves.
The remainder was taken from Victoria’s seed bank.
But the effort totally depleted the state’s seed store.
And already there’s signs that it won’t be enough to keep up with future demand.
Silviculture scientist Owen Bassett is the director of forest recovery organisation Forest Solutions. He warns that Victoria needs to rapidly expand its seed bank to prevent ash forests from being lost forever to bushfires.
“Historically, we have probably had about three or four tonnes of seed annually available to us following a bushfire,” he says.
“We actually need a minimum of 10 tonnes, and anything up to 20 tonnes with a longer-term target to achieve the size or the scale of forest recovery that we know is coming in the future.
DELWP’s Laverton-based seed store has a capacity of 12 tonnes and there is a smaller seed store at Mansfield — but they are far from full.
There are approximately 2.5 tonnes of alpine ash seeds in storage, 1.5 tonnes of mountain ash and one tonne of other eucalypt species.
Mr Bassett’s calls to expand the seed bank echo those made in a study published 11 years ago by respected forestry expert Professor Ian Ferguson.
The study recommended the establishment of two new strategic seed storage facilities.
It also pushed for collection targets in good seed production years at around two tonnes for mountain ash and four tonnes for alpine ash.
This was with a view to progressively increase the seed in storage to more than 17 tonnes for each species, subject to freedom from major fires.
“The results all point to the need to build up stocks as soon as possible in order to respond to the next big fire,” Professor Ferguson wrote.
There was not enough seed during the 2020 regeneration project to sow around 8,500 hectares of receptive land.
The shortfall is expected to push ash forest in these areas to population collapse and type change, with snow grass and bracken to move in.
It’s something Carolyn Slijkerman will witness in her very own office: the north-east Victorian forests.
“It’s a significant shift in the ecosystem if we don’t resow and lose the ash species,” the DELWP forest restoration project officer says.
“Locally, there were some areas that we couldn’t sow, we didn’t have enough seed.
“Others didn’t have a receptive seed bed, so there are some areas that are predicted to type change and shift from a predominant alpine ash ecosystem to another type of ecosystem.”
There are also calls for more investment in the state’s air fleet to help spread more seed.
The major 2020 resowing project utilised three helicopters and one fixed-wing aircraft.
Mr Bassett says at least another two fixed-wing aircraft are needed.
The latest state budget invested more than $6.2 million to support two tonnes of eucalyptus seed collection, upgrades to storage facilities and seed viability testing.
Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio says the government will continue to work with specialists to determine what extra resources are required.
“We continue to have conversations with our scientists, with the Royal Botanic Garden, but also private organisations to see what further actions that we can take to protect of course against bushfires, to protect against a lot of natural disaster that we are seeing becoming more and more common in our environment.”
It’s vital that ash seeds are resown as soon as possible after forest is destroyed by fire to give them the best chance of survival.
Ash seeds have to compete with other natural regeneration of understorey species and grasses, and need to be in the ground by winter in order to germinate effectively.
“If we don’t take some of that action soon after the fires, we really run the risk of losing ash forest across our landscape,” Ms Cruikshank says.
“They’re so important as a canopy species, important for biodiversity, habitat, carbon, for water for our catchments, and they’re such a beautiful forest to spend time in and attract people to our areas as well.”
Without action and a well-stocked seed bank, Mr Bassett warns he is catching a glimpse of those consequences while he conducts aerial ash forest monitoring in the Alpine National Park.
“I could be flying over Mt Pinnibar looking back to the north-west and I just see a whole landscape of fire-killed forest from horizon to horizon.
“It’s very, very difficult to even see one patch of green live forest.”
Rebuilding the bank
From the moment spring snow thaws from the alpine roads, harvesting for ash seeds heats up. Planning has been long underway.
Alpine ash flowering events burst into action from January, while mountain ash blooms later in autumn.
The flowering is mapped from the air.
The flowers indicate areas where seeds could be ripe for harvest in the next 12 to 18 months.
But time is of the essence.
After two years, there’s a chance the seed crops could become too old.
“You have really got a small window to get a lot of work done,” says Michael Hansby, director of consultancy firm Hollow-wood Enterprises.
It’s a mammoth task to scale the state’s ripe ash forests to replenish the seed bank by hand.
Tree by tree.
Capsule by capsule.
They’re carried slowly from their mountain home to store away for the future.
The task also relies on a good helping hand from Mother Nature.
Luckily this season she’s been kind in producing generous amounts of seed.
“To get about 4,000 kilograms of seed, we need to pick in excess of 100,000 kilograms of capsule material,” Mr Hansby says.
“The ability to collect large volumes of seed across the landscape is determined by the flowering event that happens itself.
“There are times when flowering events are really extensive and lead to really high-quality seed crops; other times not so much with very low flowering events and therefore not a lot to pick.”
Up to May about 3,000 kilograms of seed had been collected for the season.
It’s been a big effort but Mr Hansby hopes the work can continue.
“I think the need for ongoing seed collection under a changing climate will be very present in Victoria.”
A hard day’s climb
The time constraints to gather the seed are constantly felt by the crews on the ground, with serially unpredictable alpine weather — and recently the pandemic — regularly eating into their work window.
Finding a workforce that can operate in remote, lofty and unpredictable conditions in between snow seasons is also a challenge.
Tree-felling specialist and contractor Michael Eddy admits it takes a special type of person to take on the work.
His passion for the simple joy of climbing a tree carried him into the profession ever since he was a youngster, when he crafted his own set of climbing gear from the springs of a Datsun 120Y and used a gym weight belt for a harness.
Mr Eddy and his crew can be at a site for up to a week or as long as four months.
Accommodation can be primitive; a tent or swag or a hut with a cosy fireplace after a hard day’s climb in more luxurious settings.
“It’s hard because of the conditions we work under at times,” he says.
Paperwork and finding accredited climbers is also a challenge.
“A lot of climbers, sometimes it’s hard to get them out of Melbourne where they are comfortable and come into the bush and climb Eucalyptus delegatensis (alpine ash) trees for their seed collection,” Mr Eddy says.
“The past few years, that’s been a bit hard … it was not possible for me to get an assessment done on a climber, so it was looking at a two-year course almost to get someone trained as an accredited climber.
“In the past I could teach someone in as little as a week if they have got aptitude in heights and then I could get them accredited.”
A healthy fear and respect of the heights and risks involved is essential, he says, but worth it when he finds the right crews.
“It’s quite exhilarating and fun to climb a tree.
From little things …
The steep mountainsides at Sassafras Gap, just south of Corryong, are covered with thousands of charred 17-year-old ash tree skeletons.
They were just years shy of being able to regenerate themselves having battled back from the 2003 bushfires.
Now, signs of hope are beginning to slowly but surely sprout at the foot of their ghostly trunks.
The ash saplings that were aerially sown in 2020 have begun to rise above their understorey competition, signalling hope for a future generation.
“So far we have got some good signs that the resowing has been really successful,” Ms Cruikshank says.
“We have done [surveys] across the fire areas to see how the seedlings are coming back, and on most sites we have got some really good regeneration.
“That’s really important because it helps us learn for the next fires when we need to respond.
“If there’s areas we did struggle to get regeneration, we can look at some of the decisions we made and make sure that we are really learning and helping these forests recover.”
The saplings are tiny in the shadows of the ash skeletons that tower over them, but it’s a positive sign for workers like Ms Cruikshank who have dedicated their careers to these forests.
“If we hadn’t have sowed and intervened, it would be quite likely that these forests would be lost.
“If we get more fires, it’s possible that they will be lost, so there’s a real chance there and we have given these trees a chance.”