BALOOK, AUSTRALIA — On maps, the low rolling mountains east of Melbourne are titled the Strzeleckis. Locally, they're known as the "Heartbreak Hills." Their steep slopes, fragile soils, and heavy rainfall have conspired to defeat nearly every effort to scratch a living from them.
One industry has survived, however: logging. The mountains are home to towering eucalyptus trees, prized for their hard wood. These trees once soared to heights that would have left California redwoods green with envy.
Now, the Strzeleckis are the target of an ambitious effort to preserve the mountains' patches of old native forest and their unique mix of plants and animals, while still allowing the timber industry to fell trees in a sustainable way.
Last fall, the company that owns the rights to log the range and two environmental groups signed an agreement to work together to manage the land in ways that put biodiversity on a par with its timber resources. Signing a "memorandum of understanding" (MOU) to cooperate, rather than inking a clear long-term conservation plan, may seem almost trivial. But it's a major step for Australia and comes at a time of heightened global concerns over legal and illegal logging to meet skyrocketing demand - especially in Australia's backyard, Asia.
Forests in the region face increasing pressure. For example: While China has made significant strides in protecting some forests and replanting others, its demand for wood is so great that within five years it will be unable to supply even half its industrial demand, says a report released by World Wildlife Fund International earlier this month. Yet China's largest suppliers - Indonesia, Malaysia, and Russia - are countries in which illegal logging in ecologically significant forests is a big problem. The WWF claims much of that illegal wood is finding its way to China.
In Australia, "this is a very important case study," says Kevin Roberts, manager of sustainability and environment for Latrobe, one of several cities in the region interested in the Strzeleckis' economic and ecological future. If replacing confrontation with cooperation on forestry issues works here, he says, "it will be a model for how we move forward elsewhere. We are being watched."
"This is an exciting project," agrees Malcolm Tonkin, environmental services manager for Hancock Victorian Plantations, the timber firm involved in the MOU.
For Australia, Asia is a huge market for forest products. And the island-continent is facing its own internal demand. Some 160,000 homes are rising in the country each year - a small number by United States standards, but large compared with the country's population of 10 million people.
The key questions: Can logging and additional conservation coexist here? And is it possible to design an agreement that will last if Hancock decides to sell its interest in the land? The broad answer the parties seem to have reached is yes. The devil is in the details.
"It's a matter of looking at how boundaries are defined, and how appropriate they are," says Michael Looker, director of Australia's Trust for Nature, which - with advice from the US-based Nature Conservancy - is trying to seal the deal. "We also need to figure out how to go about funding the value Hancock is giving up" for land that any final agreement might take out of production.
The MOU covers a varied landscape. Along the logging roads, tracts of fallen timber are interspersed with stands of replacement trees. Some patches contain pines originally imported from coastal California; others consist of relatively fast growing blue gum, one type of eucalyptus.
In the ravines and in tiny Tarra-Bulga National Park, however, lie some of the range's true biological gems. Giant tree ferns spread their canopies like oversized patio umbrellas, mingling with eucalyptus and other dense vegetation, vestiges of cool temperate rain forests that once covered the region. Eucalyptus came to Australia roughly 60 million years ago, Mr. Tonkin explains. But, he continues, the rain forests are remnants from far earlier, when Australia was part of a southern supercontinent known as Gondwanaland.
The Strzelecki rock formation that underlies these mountains is exposed along the coast, yielding a trove of prehistoric fossils. Today, portions of the forest echo with the calls of kookaburras and lyrebirds, and are home to a genetically diverse population of koalas.
Initially, the state of Victoria saw the region as one ripe for resource development, Mr. Roberts says. The mountains were mistakenly thought to be among the southernmost reaches of the eastern coast's Great Dividing Range. Because land there had been set aside for national parks, little thought was given to keeping the Strzeleckis free of development.
By the 1920s, it was clear that farming had failed, Tonkin adds, after unfurling a display of aerial photos of the mountainscape. The government started to buy the land back in the 1940s and started to replant the land with eucalyptus regnans, the giant among eucalyptus often seen as the hallmark of old-growth forests here.
"The government planted the trees, the government sold the land to us as plantations, so they're plantations," and not old native forest, Tonkin says.
Meanwhile, a small but growing group of researchers and policy analysts hold that Australia's best hope for sustainable development, particularly in the face of climate change, is to make greater use of native plants and animals. They argue that these already are well adapted to the continent's daunting climate. That would mean, in part, greater cultivation and use of eucalyptus of all types.
"We're growing endemic species now," Tonkin says, "yet we're running the risk of people saying that the land looks so good now that we don't want you to harvest from it because of its biodiversity values."
For his part, Roberts is skeptical about some of the photos. "You can bias the sample amazingly," he says. But what the photos do show is that despite clearing for various uses, "the land had good vegetation cover even though the land was heavily used. Therefore, the wildlife managed to survive." Preserving that resilience is a key hope behind last fall's MOU. Without the boundaries, he adds, the flora and fauna supposed to be protected by Tarra-Bulga National Park won't survive.
He says the MOU process represents the best hope for reconciling what appear to be competing values on a highly charged issue.
"If we can pull this off, everyone will feel like a winner," he says, adding: "We're at the point of no return."
In the past, if a patch of forest was destroyed by fire or human activity, he says, "there were other patches nearby where species could recolonize." But now, "you don't have the recolonization options you used to have. If we lose it now, we lose it forever."
• Native forest: Composed of species native to the site, which may consist of managed, unmanaged, planted, or naturally regenerated stands.
• Ancient woodland: Managed or unmanaged forest that has been wooded since 1600 (Britain) or before European influence (United States).
• Old forest: Forests more than 120 years old without any major disturbance.
• Pristine forest: Stands never disturbed by humans.
• Old-growth forest: Stands originating through natural succession, with significant proportions of old trees and dead wood. They contain concentrations of biodiversity or have naturally occurring species with natural patterns of distribution and abundance.
Source: Stora Enso