We do not know the date or the time at which the first axe blow echoed in a Tasmanian forest. We can be sure that the quality of the axe was low for all the tools supplied for the first settlers were of suspect quality. That first blow however, started a timber industry that has been controversial ever since.
Heritage: Timber Industry in Tasmania
by Len Langan
Our island was covered in ancient trees and they were of course, put to immediate use for buildings and fuel and harvested brutally without a thought for any hidden value or regeneration. The Industrial Revolution was brought to Australian by the discovery of gold in Victoria in the 1850s and the establishment of Melbourne brought an enormous demand for timber creating a profitable industry here competing against the imports from Europe and North American. In about 1850 only two mechanised saw mills operated here but within five years we competed in the market with a growing number which by 1885 totalled sixty two mills mostly powered by steam.
As this harvest moved inland the industry required transportation and miles of rail tracks used great quantities of timber for sleepers. The age of rail travel created an enormous demand as railway lines spreading all over the world. Across the wide expanses of Russia, Europe and Africa and every kilometre of rail demanded well over 3,000 sleepers. By 1914 we were exporting almost 18,000 cubic metres of undressed timber to meet the demands of a world market; whilst at the same time supplying something over 37,000 cubic metres to Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales.
The land clearance often assisted the growth of our wool industry and general agriculture but the methods used were highly questionable by modern standards. Ring barking, stump burning and even deliberately set forest fires burnt enormous tracks of forest to accelerate clearance. By the late 1800s realisation grew that much of this activity was pointless, wasteful and economically futile.
Some of the land cleared was of no value for crops or grazing and the brutal activity was actually destroying the only value on the land; its trees. We will never know how many myrtle, blackwood, sassafras and celery-top trees were wantonly destroyed by greed and ignorance.
Today we have a government and self-controlled responsible timber industry that some would seek to over control or even eradicate. One can only comment that responsible people are entitled to make a living and rear their families in security and that extreme views help no one. We still need a timber industry in all its forms and will do so for many years to come.
Len Langan lives in Longford with his wife Jill. They are both passionate
about Tasmanian heritage and tourism and things that can be done in this
industry. Len writes about Tasmanian history for both The Courier in Longford
and the magazine Sagacity, and works with Virtuosi taking music to rural areas.
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