Dark ecotourism at Toolangi: the invisible destruction of a forest


A squiggle of roads wind through the Toolangi Forest, roughly an hour out of Melbourne. The short distance between the roads renders the entirety of the forest readily accessible by truck, bisecting the land into a tessellation of prospective and present logging coupes. These roads now serve a double purpose: funnelling curious visitors toward walking trails that pass through those parts of the forest that, owing to chance or practicality, haven’t yet been razed.

For decades, the forest has existed in this liminal state: an ostensibly pristine ecotourism destination that is simultaneously being destroyed, coupe by coupe. On Trip Advisor, the forest’s Wirrawilla Rainforest Walk—which passes through a light-dappled understorey of Sassafras and Myrtle Beech—rates 4.5 stars, and is the number-one tourism destination in the area. On the walk, owing to clever angles and a well-chosen path, there is no visible evidence of logging.

The walk is almost impossibly beautiful. Those who have completed the short journey most often describe it as magical, in part because it affords a view of Dawsonia superba, a moss that climbs up to half a metre and seems to strain against our understanding of botanical categorisation. In  2021, the Victorian state government spent half a million dollars upgrading the Wirrawilla boardwalk, as part of a spending package branded ’Victoria’s Great Outdoors’. Just a couple of years earlier, it had approved the logging of a coupe just a few hundred metres to the east. New coupes continue to be opened throughout the forest, with no commitment to stop for seven years.

The dissonance is breathtaking, but what is strangest is how the government appears able to have it both ways: somehow marketing eighty-plus year-old mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) as a world-class tourist attraction while turning them to pulp. While passing along the Wirrawilla boardwalk, the sight of mountain ash vaulting through the fern-dense understorey should serve as their own profound argument for the forest’s protection, encouraging visitors to develop an increasingly critical view of native forest logging. While walking, questions might percolate as to why one area of forest warrants hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment in protection, while the ecology of directly-adjacent areas is apparently so worthless as to make them suitable for clear-felling.

Instead, it appears as though ecotourism may have the opposite effect. By selectively allowing entry to pockets of undisturbed state forest, visitors are funnelled through a theme-park experience in which one pristine part stands in for the spoiled whole. The official announcement of the revamped Wirrawilla walk was held off until June 2022, less than six months before the state election, and packaged as part of a press release heralding the creation of nine new hiking tracks across the state. Barely a month later, the government raised the penalty for protest at logging coupes to a maximum of twelve months in prison.

The Toolangi Forest has become a mosaic of tourist destinations and illegal protest zones. We are invited to explore the former, while ensuring we never make the mistake of a wrong turn that inadvertently leads us to the latter. If we are successful ecotourists, we will leave the forest with the intended impression: that it is a pristine and awe-inspiring ecological jewel.

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There’s no exit polling for tourists leaving the Toolangi Forest, but one international study of 6000 zoo visitors is informative. Upon leaving a zoo or aquarium, respondents reported feeling 17 per cent less committed to taking action on habitat protection and creation. One reason, perhaps, is that spending time focusing on tiny pockets of well-curated ‘wild’ spaces—zoo enclosures designed as small-scales Serengetis, or ‘pristine’ forests—gives us a misleading idea of our impact on the natural world. We are invited to move through the vanishingly small number of areas in which species are being actively protected, and are rarely encouraged to notice or bear witness to those environments—sometimes barely metres away—that have been degraded or destroyed.

There is one example of ‘dark ecological tourism’ at Toolangi—the walking trail that passes the Kalatha Giant, a towering and dignified 350-year-old mountain ash that has, almost impossibly, survived successive fires and a century of human interference. The path curls around stumps of mountain ash that were logged decades earlier, some of which bear the scars of slots used to hold loggers’ springboards. In this particular part of Toolangi, the Kalatha Giant is exceptional because it is the exception. This walking tour is inconvenient for the state government, because it forces visitors to acknowledge absence, and to imagine the forest as it could be. Where the trees have been felled, life has crowded back in, but in parts it is a different kind of life: in place of mountain ash, shrubby wattles populate the clearings—beautiful in their own way, but unable to develop the hollows required to support the ash forest’s marsupial life. Because mountain ash can’t grow through thick understory, the forest in the area around the Kalatha Giant, which may have been mountain ash for thousands of years, may never recover. It is still forest, but forever changed.

The signposts along the walking tour are carefully apolitical. While the loss of surrounding ash is recognised, the signage takes pains to present native-forest logging as a quaint historical curiosity. The ‘official’ impression is that the Kalatha Giant still stands, and is venerated, because logging has ceased. This is only true around the Giant, which exists in a special protected zone, beholden to a different set of rules than those applied to the surrounding forest.

The Wilderness Society provides their own unofficial self-directed ‘dark’ tour through Toolangi. From the Wirrawilla Walk, visitors are invited to immediately proceed a kilometre north, to the logging coupe at Sylvia Creek. ‘Notice how you feel’, the tour copy suggests, as the forest gives way to a clear-felled expanse. On the map, a key highlights points of interest: from those areas a patient visitor might be able to spotlight a Leadbeater’s possum, to coupes that are open for logging. Often, these areas overlap.

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For those who visit Toolangi, it is often unclear what, exactly, they are visiting. The concept of national parks as conservation zones is generally well understood (if often contested), but ‘state forests’ are inherently unstable constructions. Over the course of a well-planned day trip, while sticking exclusively to the boardwalks, Toolangi State Forest looks and feels like a seamless extension of Kinglake National Park, located just a few kilometres to the west. But the stated role of a state forest is, according to the Victorian state government’s forest management documentation, both to ‘conserve flora and fauna [and] to provide timber’. The tensions this creates are often untenable. Conservation requires continuous vigilance over the span of centuries, while logging approvals are irreversible.

As a destination, Toolangi is sold to Victorians as a national park in all but name. In part, this gambit succeeds because the logging that occurs within Toolangi does not align with our conventional understanding of deforestation as a process of encroachment, in which forests, once razed, are permanently given over to farmland or peri-urban development. The overall geographic footprint of the Toolangi forest hasn’t shrunk for at least half a century, and old logging coupes don’t remain barren.

On a Google Earth timelapse, it is possible to watch Toolangi change. An area is a deep, leafy green for decades, before being instantaneously transformed into an expanse of uncovered dirt. Over the course of the following decade, this land seems to gradually heal until it blends almost perfectly back into the surrounding forest. By the end, you can vaguely trace the outlines of what was logged, but only if you’re paying attention.

Scientific consensus, however, seems to be that Toolangi has been deforested almost to the point of collapse. David Lindenmayer and Chloe Sato refer to this phenomenon as a kind of ‘hidden collapse’, in which the forest may appear superficially intact for decades, even as complex biological processes have been set in motion that virtually guarantee eventual ecosystem failure. The vast majority of the ‘young’ trees that are logged at Toolangi are eighty-three years-old, the product of a frenzied seed dispersal as a fire burned through the forest in January 1939. Stands of these trees are still legally open for logging because they are not yet ‘old growth’, and are forty years off developing hollows. The collapse of Toolangi, in other words, is due to a critical failure of imagination: the recognition that trees need to be allowed to age in order to become old growth.

Once logged, there is no way to replace an area ‘like for like’. Even if a new stand of mountain ash can be nurtured to grow in a now-empty coupe, it will take a hundred and twenty years for those trees to serve as marsupial habitat. When the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires incinerated some of Toolangi’s recently-logged areas, the mountain ash were undeveloped, unable to do anything but burn. Instead of thousands of seed pods cracking open and spurring rapid regeneration, no seeds in these areas reached the soil.

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In Australia, we still struggle to recognise that there is a connection between tree and timber. Paper and cardboard products of uncertain provenance flood our homes, badged with indecipherable and often bogus sustainability certifications.

There is one kind of paper that we know comes from mountain ash forests: blindingly white Reflex office paper. In 1996, manufacturers Opal (then ‘Australian Paper’) signed a contract with the Kennett Liberal government, locking in mountain ash logs at 1996 prices—$11 per tonne—for over thirty years, until 2030.

To Opal’s credit, they offer other kinds of paper, too. Five hundred sheets of their fully recycled Reflex variant is less than a dollar more expensive than Reflex ‘ultra white’, the latter of which comes in part from mountain ash pulp. There is little incentive for Opal to promote the more sustainable option, however. Its existence allows Opal to retain customers indignant at the thought of native forest logging, while the cheaper ‘ultra white’ delivers the company tidy profit margins.

Opal benefits from the complexity of timber sustainability accreditations. Reflex boasts an FSC Chain of Custody certification, which at a cursory glance appears to imply that it is the end product of respectable logging operations. In reality, this FSC badge applies only to how wood is handled upon reaching the pulp mill. VicForests, the state-owned logging company that provides mountain ash to Reflex, has repeatedly failed to obtain any FSC certification. The timber itself fails the accreditation process, while the pulp mill passes.

For customers looking to avoid inadvertently purchasing paper from native forest pulp, the only two FSC certifications that can guarantee responsible practice from forest to shelf are FSC Recycled and FSC 100%. Unfortunately, irresponsible producers recognise that there is still substantial money to be made from selling pulped mountain ash to customers who would be horrified to learn of the origins of their office paper.

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Toolangi isn’t a straightforward deforestation story. Even those areas that are collapsing are visibly beautiful, and it is this beauty that allows a site of past, present and future logging to, absurdly, serve as a tourist destination. A hillside of neon-blooming wattle does not generally register as a product of ecological disturbance, unless we stop to consider what may have existed there only years earlier: mountain ash, impossibly tall, gradually readying for senescence and useful decay.

There’s now a considerable chance the Toolangi ecosystem will collapse over the next fifty years, taking mountain ash and the Leadbeater’s possum with it. Even if that happens, though, it still won’t necessarily be obvious. The landscape will be taken over by different shrubs and trees, each competing for a new ecological niche, but the complexity of the original forest will be lost, with at least one animal species likely blinking out of existence.

Toolangi—and other native forests still open for almost a decade of future logging under the Victorian government’s forestry plan—serves as a desperate invitation to reconsider what environmental protection entails, and to reckon with what ecotourism looks like at a time of ecological collapse.

In Questions Raised by Quolls, Harry Saddler writes:

Because extinction is by its nature so final, it’s easy to imagine that it must be obvious: the loss of an entire species is so enormous a cataclysm that it must surely reverberate throughout the world. But many species slip away quietly, their existence mostly unremarked upon and their disappearance unnoticed until decades later.

This is the profound challenge of those attempting to campaign against native forest logging. There is ample visual evidence to suggest that a forest like Toolangi is vibrant and healthy. The signals of collapse, meanwhile, are subtle, often registering only over the span of decades of careful observation. Retiring marsupials like the Leadbeater’s possum or greater glider are functionally invisible to most visitors, as are the relative presence or absence of hollow-bearing trees, which may simply blend into the overall idyllic treescape.

As Saddler notes, it is common for species disappearances to remain unnoticed for decades. The irony, in the case of Toolangi, is that a disappearance has been noticed—but it is difficult to convey, because it will occur decades from now.

Image: Julie Musgrove

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Connor Tomas O'Brien runs Studio Sometimes, a design studio for arts organisation and non-profits, and writes Change is Hard, a newsletter for lapsed and lazy environmentalists: connortomas.com

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  1. So sad to see this as why is it we need to make a disaster of the forests when we know how beautiful they are and can look from afar.
    Thank goodness we are no longer able to clim Uluṟu and now people say how beautiful it is a glorious.
    Does this mean anything as to the outcry of ‘that’s not fair we want to climb Uluṟu’
    Let’s stand together to save the remaking forests and plant more 🙏🏽💫♥️

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