FIFTY kilometres west of Melbourne, between Daylesford and Woodend, lies the Wombat State Forest - home to the vulnerable Greater Gliders and hundreds of species of Fungi.
In June 2021, devastating storms left a trail of destruction in the Central Highlands area, felling thousands of trees and leaving roads and walking tracks closed for months.
More than 80,000 hectares of forest and 1500 kilometres of roads were impacted by the storms.
Now, Victorian Greens senator Lidia Thorpe has joined concerned local residents in criticising the state government's clean-up operation, accusing VicForests of conducting native logging under the veil of "forest-gardening".
The DjabWurrung, Gunnai, and Gunditjmara senator said despite VicForests partnership with Dja Dja Wurrung corporation DJAARA on the project, the state government was not caring for Country.
"Native logging is destroying Country: our totems are in danger, our lands are in danger," Ms Thorpe told the Bendigo Advertiser.
"This is a pathetic attempt to pretend they have consent for native logging - there has never been free and prior informed consent for VicForests from the people whose land it is.
"We need real community consultation to care for Country, not one person giving permission for VicForests' profiteering."
VicForest and DJAARA's project encompasses 175 coupes.
The coupes, typically used for logging operations, are being used to salvage fallen timber which is then transported to timber mills across the state.
Works are being done under a Timber Utilisation Plan (TUP) which is subject to the Code of Practice for Timber Production 2014.
But conservation groups argue the code has been weakened over time.
Wombat ForestCare chief executive Gayle Osborne said changes to the code in the last 20 years have resulted in further logging.
"The code is not very strong," she said.
"And it's not written to cover this sort of salvage work."
"For example, in the Wombat State Forest, there used to be a winter closure from the first of June to the end of October in designated catchments.
"And now that's has been completely left off the code, so there's no restrictions, so they can do it year round."
Ms Osborne said while the group is supportive of appropriate fire-reduction risk, the salvage operation is "complete overkill".
"They cleared about two acres of standing forest to create a work area," Wombat ForestCare chief executive Gayle Osborne said.
"They're called log landings, which is where they have their machinery and the logs where the trucks can come and be loaded with the logs.
"They've created tracks and enormous amounts of damage to get the logs out. "That's covering probably about five coupes at the moment."
Just after the storms, the Victorian Environment Assessment Council agreed to declare certain parts of the Wombat State Forest a national park.
Angela Harpin, another local resident said the Babbington Hill area - where the timber salvage operations and the log landing has been set up - was set to be part of that declared park land.
"We were in shock when we first saw it," Angela Harpin said, "this is a really precious bit of country."
"We've got an incredibly high biodiversity value, we've got currawongs, Greater Gliders which are under threat and lots of fungi - that's why this area has been slated for a national park.
"And now the timber industry has been in here and made a mess of a really special place."
Both Ms Harpin and Wombat ForestCare stress there was a significant need for mitigating fire risk.
"Everyone was quite fine with clearing the tracks and opening up the roads," Ms Harpin said.
As the forest had previously been logged, Ms Harpin said, the storms were an opportunity to leave some debris to a particularly barren forest floor.
"This was an opportunity to start the national park by using some debris and logs as a feature," she said.
"The funghi here is world class, so you have to have some logs down for that.
"None of us are anti-clearing or anti-tidying up, but we're the ones sitting here every day watching them and that's not what is happening, they're making more mess."
However, VicForests dispute residents' claims the organisation is clearing more than necessary in the forest.
"The work undertaken in the Wombat State Forest is in direct response to removing debris and treating hazardous trees resulting from last year's storm events," a spokesperson said.
"No trees are being removed unless they present a hazard or for operational necessity, no clearfelling is occurring in these operations."
DJAARA have also refuted Senator Thorpe's and residents logging claims.
Acting chief executive Cassandra Lewis said the DJAARA board used "cultural knowledge inherited over thousands of generations to expressly authorise the initiative".
"Respectfully, others should afford us the courtesy of a discussion or request a briefing before speaking on matters that affect our Country," Ms Lewis said.
"This corporation has excellent governance and a reputation for integrity which should not be challenged by people who are not from our Country, are not familiar with our forest gardening principles, are poorly informed and who trade in unsubstantiated allegations."
The corporation added that differences of opinion were in the nature of these complex operations.
"We understand that others might have differing views of how we go about our practices and healing Country," Ms Lewis said.
"No-one has described an easier and less intrusive alternative method to remove thousands of tonnes of combustible material during this season."
For now, the timber salvage operation in the Wombat State Forest will continue, however residents and Wombat ForestCare say they will continue their fight to save the "beautiful living forest".
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