Conservationists call Gandalf’s Staff one of Australia’s natural marvels. But very few to get to see it

Conservationists call Gandalf’s Staff one of Australia’s natural marvels. But very few to get to see it

The valleys of southern Tasmania create the ideal conditions for trees to grow to great heights and develop a huge circumference.

They are the tallest and biggest trees in the Southern Hemisphere — some  reaching almost 100 metres in height — but nearly all of them are out of sight.

One of them, the swamp gum named Gandalf’s Staff, has been growing for an estimated 400 years in the Styx Valley.

It is 85 metres tall with an impressive exposed face that allows visitors to take in its enormity.

But it sits at the end of 17 kilometres of muddy, pot-holed, winding roads through active native forest harvesting areas, before a relatively short hike through dense rainforest on the unmarked Tolkien Track.

Environmentalist Steve Pearce said few people have the means to travel to see these natural marvels, meaning their cultural significance is largely unknown in the community.

He co-wrote a report with the Wilderness Society, titled Big Tree State, that proposes improved track access, signage and marketing for eight areas in southern Tasmanian where giant trees are known to grow.

“If we allowed people, locals and tourists and visitors alike, to come and see these trees in a respectful, low impact and sustainable way, we can certainly elevate our cultural understanding of these trees,” Mr Pearce said.

“Unfortunately, most of the media we see about trees in Tasmania is when they’re on the back of a truck, as a log.”

Environmentalists say trees like this one in the Styx Valley could be a tourism drawcard.(ABC News: Jordan Young)

Mount Field and the Styx Big Tree Walk are the only free sites in southern Tasmania with infrastructure that allows the public to easily view large and giant trees.

Mr Pearce would like to see modest track improvements at other sites including three in the Huon Valley, a further three in the Styx Valley, and two in the Tyenna Valley, estimated to cost $745,000.

“As we culturally understand our trees more, our impression about forests hopefully will change, and Tasmanians won’t think that protection is a dirty word, particularly when it comes to these big, lovely giant trees,” he said.

Mr Pearce is referring to the ongoing divisive debate about Tasmania’s native forestry practices, and the protection afforded to some forests.

These sites are either on reserve land managed by the Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS) — not at risk of logging — or in the large forest estate managed by public forestry company Sustainable Timber Tasmania (STT).

STT has the power to include its forests in its logging schedule.

A graphic shows the height of tall trees in Tasmania compared to well-known buildings.(ABC News: Paul Yeomans)

Gandalf’s Staff is only left standing due to a 2003 Greenpeace tree-sit protest.

At the time, former logging company Gunns had planned to log it. Now, it’s surrounded by logged native forestry coupes.

Visits ‘limited by access’

Yoav Bar-Ness moved to Tasmania from California, where he used to marvel at the redwoods — the only trees that are taller than Tasmania’s giants.

He runs Giant Tree Expeditions, taking visitors on educational tours to sites across southern Tasmania.

He’s noticed an uptick in interest after Mr Pearce’s organisation, the Tree Projects, started publicising high-quality images of giant trees.

Yoav Bar-Ness moved to Tasmania from California, the home of the world’s tallest trees.(ABC News: Greg Szabo)

“Once those digital photographs started getting around the world, and people really organise their outreach about our natural values, we’re just seeing this incredible wave of interest,” Mr Bar-Ness said.

“It’s quite an amazing aspect of Tasmania, I think more and more people want to engage with it.

“In the context of Tasmania’s giant trees, at the moment we’re really limited by access and interpretation … things like observation decks, navigation signs really can make the difference.”

Climate change threat

Steve Pearce say improving track access would allow more people to experience the tall trees up close.(ABC News: Jordan Young )

The impacts of climate change also loom over Tasmania’s giant trees.

Most of the remaining giants were lost in 2019 forest fires, while three out of four giant white gums in the Evercreech forest reserve in the state’s north-east have recently died.

Mr Bar-Ness said making giant tree areas more accessible could have conservation benefits.

“It also improves people’s understanding of the decisions that we make on our landscape for forestry and Hydro and land management,” he said.

“As for education, that’s key to conservation everywhere.”

Minister open to talks

The Bob Brown Foundation said a large tree on the back of a logging truck in August had been taken from the Florentine Valley. Authorities said it had been removed because it was a safety risk.(Supplied: Bob Brown Foundation)

Tourism industry body Destination Southern Tasmania has outlined a need to improve access to natural wilderness, including tall tree experiences.

Environment Minister Roger Jaensch said the government was open to discussions about ways of improving nature-based tourism.

“We appreciate that as visitation to our parks increases, so we must invest in Parks infrastructure to ensure our natural areas are protected for generations to come,” Mr Jaensch said.

“We will continue to ensure that we protect the things that make Tasmania different, and grow the visitor economy as well that delivers for our industry, our regional communities, and our state as a whole.”

The tree known as Gandalf’s Staff is 85 metres tall.(ABC News: Jordan Young)

PWS uses walker counters on remote tracks to determine how much maintenance is needed.

If walker numbers increase, the amount of resources allocated to tracks could also need to increase.

A PWS spokesperson said giant trees receive special protection when forest fires approach.

“If a fire becomes close to identified giant trees, PWS will work to reduce fuels from around the base of the trees, wetting trees down, and when safe to do so ensure firefighters are present to protect the trees.”

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