Indigenous Forest Management in Australia

2nd February 2021

Forest in Mt Eccles in western Victoria painted by Eugene von Guerard in 1858 showing Aboriginal forest management (Gammage, 2011).


Before I commence this article it is important for me to recognise the Djiringanj people of the Yuin nation the traditional owners of the land upon which we farm and I sit to write this article and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

If you had asked me 20 years ago whether I would open an article on Aboriginal land management by paying my respects to our traditional owners of our land I would have been bemused possibly even thinking it was tokenism. I think quite differently about my Aboriginal cousins now.

The turning point for me was a conversation with Rob Watson a Kimberly man and colleague on the Australian Rural Leadership Program in 2003 when I asked him how do we fix the health, education and the myriad of social problems blighting Aboriginal communities.  It was a deep and honest discussion between two Australian friends but in the end, he said it is all about respect.  I was initially expecting something about land rights, funding or social justice but I was wrong while Rob was quietly spoken, he carried a level of powerful inner confidence about his aboriginality and it was infectious.  I now understand that it is all about respect for their land and their culture it is not about money!

The post 1788 migrants are slow learners about some things and understanding the Australian landscape is a strong example of our inability to accept Australia for what is and not what we can make of it!

We will never know what the Australian landscape exactly looked like in 1788 when the first fleet settled in Sydney Cove.  But the more I research and study Aboriginal culture the more convinced I am that they had complex land management systems and I believe that for Aborigines to have existed in Australia for some 60,000 years they must have developed strong systems to feed, clothe, protect and govern themselves, otherwise their communities would have collapsed.

The fact that they also lived happily as nations across our continent is also testament to their ability to adapt and live harmoniously in a range of environments from the coast to the mountains and from the plains to the deserts.  Some of these environments particularly our deserts, most white Australians would not survive in today.

The Australian government suggests that at the time of European settlement there were over 500 different clan groups or ‘nations’ around the continent, many with distinctive cultures, beliefs and languages[1].  Australia is unlike New Zealand which has one Maori language (although there are dialects) it is not uncommon for some Aboriginal people not to be able to understand the language of other nations.

The story of Australia’s most famous forest genus Eucalyptus is older than the Aborigines having emerged approximately 50 million years ago before the Australian continent broke away from Gondwanaland.  According to Hill et al (2016) Eucalypts have influenced the fire ecology of the Australian landscape more than any other plant group. They are the iconic plant taxon in the Australian vegetation today, but their origin, early evolution and migration remain poorly understood, mostly because of a remarkably sparse and underworked fossil record.  However, they state that it is likely that the origin was close to the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary possibly around 66 million years ago. 

As Australia left Gondwanaland relatively early compared to the remaining continents its vegetation developed in isolation which resulted in our uniqueness along with our wildlife.  The dominance of Eucalyptus is consistent with a drying climate with a relatively high frequency of fire.  Following the arrival of Aborigines they had a profound impact on the Australian landscape due to their prodigious, frequent, and judicious use of fire. 

Forest fire management

Professor Bill Gammage (2011) in his book “The Biggest Estate on Earth – how Aborigines made Australia” comments in detail how fire was used by Aborigines for both hunting and cleaning the country.  Gammage used the painting at the top of this article (among many) by well-known colonial landscape painter Eugene von Guerard to illustrate how Aborigines used fire to manage the vegetation to create hunting templates.  The painting is of the extinct volcanic crater of Mt Eccles in western Victoria in 1858.

This photograph, taken by Gammage in 2007, and the painting at the top of the article are of the same place but note the vertical strips of trees in the painting which are not evident now.  These strips are not natural they are made by human intervention, most likely for hunting.  As there were no cameras in 1858 landscape painters provide the clues to how the country was managed.

Gammage (2011) describes Aboriginal management as templates that were repeated across the continent and they were relatively simple and flexible, but they all had the same purpose to “associate water, grass and forest providing habitats and making the clean, beautiful landscapes dear to Aboriginal feeling”.

A common view of the Australian landscape at the time of European settlement was that it was very open.  Gammage (2011) reported that in 1841 Anne Drysdale wrote:

This place is really beautiful.  A short distance from the Barwon (a major river through the town of Geelong in Victoria), which is a noble river: all so green and fresh, with trees of the finest kinds…..scattered about, & in clumps like a Noblemans park.”

It was a common comment, as Gammage (2011) again reported that in 1813 Evans described plains on the Fish river in NSW:

I came on a fine Plain of rich land, the handsomest Country I ever saw…..the track of clear land occupies about a mile on each side of the river…..the Timber around is thinly scattered, I do not suppose there are more than 10 Gum Trees on an Acre (25 trees per hectare)…..there is game in abundance; if we want a fish it is caught immediately.”

William Morton in 1859 described the Mackenzie northwest of Rockhampton in Queensland, “All the open country, does not consist of plains but of thinly timbered well grassed long narrow strips, running parallel to the river.  Behind are patches or belts of scrub.”

East of Perth George Moore stated “to the distant eye the country has the appearance of being well wooded, but I should not say it was thickly timbered. In some places there are open plains that resemble well-ordered parks”.  His neighbour William Shaw estimated ‘’the trees [do] not exceed more than eight trees per acre (20 trees per hectare) and [are] laid out by nature in a most park-like scenery. Further south of Perth near Bunbury John Barrow thought the whole country wears the appearance of an English park.”

There is no doubt the Australian landscape at the time of European settlement was “man-made”.  The problems began when the European settlers move in and they drove the Aborigines off their land and their management was driven off with them.

Apart from the human tragedy of this, the other major impact was the cessation of regular skillful burning.   This frequent use of fire was commented on by early explorers and Captain Arthur Phillip (later to become Admiral) commented about Aboriginal burning “they are so frequently setting the country on fire” when corresponding with Lord Sydney, Secretary of State for the Home Department (Carron, 1985).

These new settlers were mostly from the northern hemisphere and not familiar with extensive fire in their home landscapes.  Indeed, most Europeans were probably frightened of fire and Gammage (2011) noted that in 1847 Western Australia passed an ordinance to flog or imprison Aborigines for lighting them!  The cessation of fire would upset the balance of nature that had been carefully managed by Aborigines for thousands of years.

Alfred W Howitt, a 19th Century polymath wrote a paper in 1890 to the Royal Society titled “The Influence of settlement of the Eucalyptus forests of Gippsland” which is relevant to understand the current condition of our forests.  Importantly he commented on the lack of fire in the landscape following the removal of aborigines from their lands.  He stated:

“These annual bush fires tended to keep the forests open, and to prevent the open country from being overgrown, for they not only consumed much of the standing or fallen timber, but in a great measure destroyed the seedlings which had sprung up since former conflagrations. The influence of these bush fires acted, however, in another direction namely, as a check upon insect life, destroying among others those insects which prey on the Eucalypts.”

In short, the European settlers by removing regular fires from the landscape unknowingly created the pre-condition for much larger and hotter bushfires, and the lack of fire also allowed the bush to thicken up with more trees and shrubs per hectare which in turn allowed a build-up of native insect numbers which feed on the leaves of eucalypts which often result in massive tree diebacks.

The first attempts at forest management by the European settlers did not occur until the late 1800’s and this was mostly around preventing clearing for agriculture or urban development.  However, forestry and forest management by the European settlers did not come easily to Australia.

Controls on harvesting around the Hawkesbury river were implemented by Governor Hunter in 1879.  However with limited staff and large areas to cover there was little control.  Any control that could be exercised was generally only related to the descriptions of the trees to be cut and licensees were often left to do as they wished (Carron, 1985).

By 1870 there was concern about the poor controls around cutting trees on crown land.  In late 1876 a small branch of the Lands Department was formed to administer forest regulations and by 1882 it was converted into a Forest Conservancy Branch, the – hesitant beginning of the NSW Forests Commission. In 1879 the Royal National Park was also dedicated just south of Sydney.

The last decade of the 19th century was difficult in Australia with economic depression, industrial problems, droughts and other pressures.  It was also characterised by considerable anti-forestry sentiments by lands and agricultural departments who wanted to develop Australia under various settlement schemes and clear the forests for their vision of productive agriculture (Carron, 1985). Most likely trying to replicate the rolling green hills of England and Ireland as commented on by Watson (2014).

The first Forest Acts did not appear until the early 1900’s (1916 in New South Wales and 1920 in Tasmania) some 130 years after settlement which saw massive forest loss to agriculture and urban development and radical disturbance from their indigenous management systems. This new legislation brought grand titles like Forests Commissioner but they were often short of trained staff and were merely policing royalties.

The anti-forestry sentiment by settlers and the policing activity by the forestry agencies on the sawmillers can be seen in forestry today.  There is little active farm forestry by private landowners and the public forest agencies dominate the supply of logs to industry which are invariably administratively priced. 

There is both a blessing and curse of government involvement in forestry in Australia, the blessing being that governments have taken responsibility for controlling indiscriminate harvesting and clearing of natural forests and developing a sizable softwood plantation estate later in the 20th century. But the curse was that in the process the government forest agencies stifled development of private forestry on farms for either f plantations and the management of natural forests, the latter being four times larger than the current area of public multiple use natural forests.

After World War II the silviculture of Australia’s eucalypt forests was better understood and foresters were given the opportunity to plan for future wood production and protection from forest fires, particularly after major fires in Victoria in 1939 and in NSW in 1951/52.

Production shifted to increasing the development of softwood plantations in the 1960’s as it was clear the natural forests would not supply the volumes required, and the use of prescribed burning to control bushfires was trialled and eventually implemented as a major management tool.

The prescribed burning used by the forest agencies was similar to Aboriginal burning in that the objective was to reduce dry fuel on the forest floor and control the flame height to limit crown scorch of the trees.  Aboriginal burning was probably smaller in scale, more frequent and sensitive to different aspects of the landscape while the forest agencies burning was more regimented, about every 5 to 7 years, and larger in scale.

Australian foresters’ main objective was fire protection for both the nearby communities and to protect the valuable wood products that were growing within them while Aborigines were thinking more about landscape health and hunting.

Despite the different approaches under both managers it worked, as shown in the photograph below taken by well-known Victorian forester Garry Squires.  The photo illustrates how a forest that had been prescribed burned in early 2019 held the spread of the Black Summer bushfires in January 2020.  The crown fire on the right of the photo burnt into the forest that had been prescribed burned 12 months earlier and within 20 metres of the fire trail boundary the fire had gone out.

Since the 1980’s there has been a significant increase in the area of National Parks and conservation reserves in Australia.  As an indication, Carron (1985) reports the area of forests in National Parks in 1982 was 3.8 million hectares, and the 2018 Australia’s State of the Forests reports in 2016 that there is now 21 million hectares[2], and 46 million hectares in all forest reserve types.  These two figures are not directly comparable as definitions of forest have changed over time but they are indicative. 


With increased areas of environmental reservation and regulation there has been a decline in the quantity and quality of prescribed burning in Australia.  There also appears to be a passive approach to forest management in reserves, with a ‘let nature take its course’ approach.  This passive approach is an anathema to Aborigines as they do not see themselves separate from the land, as they are part of it and the land is part of them.  Wilderness is a white Australian concept.

Of considerable concern to operational foresters is a trend by some researchers and community groups to question the value of prescribed burning.  In my opinion because of this reservation much of our forest is not safe from catastrophic fire which will impact our wildlife and our communities. Most operational foresters are in total agreement with Aboriginal cool burning experts like Victor Steffenson[3] that we need to drastically re-think our forest burning strategies if we want to improve the overall health of our forests and make them safe for all Australians.

In summary, our forests are overstocked and under burnt so they are declining in health and more fire prone.  Personally, this is a massive concern. Without active management our forests will continue to suffer and create a major risk every summer.  Bruce Pascoe the acclaimed author of “Dark Emu – Black Seed Agriculture or Accident” stated in the press recently that Australians need to ‘treat Australia like Australia’.  In support, Gammage concluded in his book that “if we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country.  If we succeed one day, we might become Australian!” Managing fire in our landscape is critical to our safety and the well-being of our forests and everything that lives in or near them.

Rob de Fégely AM, Director of Margules Groome Consulting Pty Ltd, NSW, Australia. For more information contact



[2] Crown land that is formally reserved for environmental, conservation and recreational purposes, including national parks, nature reserves, state and territory recreation and conservation areas, and formal reserves in state forests

[3] Fire Country, How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia by Victor Steffensen, Feb 2020.


Carron, L.T. (1985). A History of Forestry in Australia. Australian National University Press, Canberra, 355pp

Gammage, B. (2011). The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia, Allen and Unwin, 434pp

R.S. Hill, Y. K. Beer, K.E. Hill , E. Maciunas, M.A. Tarran and C.C. Wainman. (2016). Evolution of the eucalypts – an interpretation from the macrofossil record. Australian Journal of Botany 64(8) 600-608

Watson D. (2014). The bush: travels in the heart of Australia, Hamish Hamilton (427pp).