Vicdoc: Protecting Victoria's forests is good for our health

Dimity Williams
Victoria’s forests are simply extraordinary. They support our health in a variety of ways and there is currently a community call for a new Great Forest National Park in our Central Highlands. Despite this, state government owned Vicforests continues industrial clear fell logging. In addition to the push from environmentalists and scientists there is a strong argument for the protection of our remaining forests on health grounds.

Just over 90 minute’s drive from the centre of Melbourne are our magnificent Mountain Ash forests, home to the tallest flowering plants in the world and our faunal emblem, the tiny Leadbeater’s possum. The tallest plant ever measured, the Ferguson tree, was found near Healesville in 1872- this was a Mountain Ash and it was over 140m tall. Once over 150 years old, these trees form hollows in which some 40 species of animals, including the Leadbeater’s possum, live. Mountain Ash trees can live up to 450 years.

In Victoria, we currently have 1886 hectares of old growth forest, which is less than 3% of the amount here prior to settlement. It is fragmented and spread across 147 different patches. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has assessed the state of our Victorian Central Highlands as ‘critically endangered’. This is due to a long history of logging and bushfires which, because of climate change, are becoming more intense and frequent.

Our remaining wet, old growth forests are precious for their inherent value but also because they support human health. They protect our water catchments which is why Melbourne’s water quality is consistently excellent. They also purify our air, removing pollutants including carbon dioxide for which they provide a giant carbon sink. These old growth forests store more carbon per hectare than any other forest studied in the world, including rainforests. According to the Lancet Climate Change Commission in 2009, “climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21 st century” and so, by drawing down CO2, these forests help to protect us from the health harms of climate change.

Importantly, over half of all medicines in use today have come from nature, and many exciting discoveries continue to come from ecosystems, including forests. For example, the milk of Tasmanian Devils has been found to contain compounds that may help fight antibiotic resistance. 

Simply spending time in a forest has been found to have health benefits as blood pressure, cortisol levels and feelings of stress drop and activity levels of natural killer cells rise. For these reasons, in Japan, forests are protected and accredited for ‘shinrin yoku’ or ‘forest bathing’. Physicians refer patients at high risk of stress related illness to certain forests for specified periods of time. Forest bathing involves walking very slowly through a forest, using all the senses and taking care to breathe deeply. It is thought that inhaling ‘phytoncides’, chemicals released by certain species of trees, is partly responsible for the physiological changes experienced by those spending time in the forest. It is likely that simply being away from the stresses of work, being in a quieter, less stimulating environment and breathing in the clean air of the forest are other factors.

Given that many of the health problems presenting to us in our consulting rooms relate to inactivity and stress, perhaps we could consider a similar approach here in Victoria. In Sante Fe, United States, cardiologists prescribe walking in nature as part of a treatment program for people with diabetes called ‘Prescription Trails’. While in Washington DC, paediatrician Robert Zarr has developed a program called ‘DC Park Prescription’ to help his obese, inactive patients. This involved creating a software system which links into prescribing programs identifying the closest suitable park for families to spend regular time in. Given that over 25% of Australian children are either overweight or obese and most children are much less active than they should be, innovative ways of getting kids outside into nature are an important part of a preventative health strategy.

Pleasingly, in April, the Victorian Government released its ‘Memorandum for Health and Nature’ which states “the Victorian Government is committed to encouraging communities to interact more with nature, both in Victoria’s parks and other open spaces, because being in nature is good for our health and is a highly cost effective health improvement strategy.” It is encouraging to see the health and environment departments having this united focus on preventative health.

Despite this public statement of the value of green space and natural areas like forests, state sanctioned clear-fell logging continues apace in our remaining old growth forests and even in our water catchments. In East Gippsland’s old growth Kuark Forest, logging has been suspended by legal action after citizen scientists found that VicForests was planning to log areas with trees some 500 years old. These trees should have been under special protection zones. It seems truly absurd that tax payer’s money will be spent by government arguing not to protect this piece of Victoria’s natural heritage and source of wellbeing.

As the end of the year begins, it’s important to be mindful of the need for opportunities, for  a break and restoration in between work. Consider a drive into our glorious forests for some forest bathing and see for yourself what all the fuss is about!

References available on request

First published in Vicdoc, February to March 2018 edition  

Dimity Williams is a GP and the Biodiversity Convenor for Doctors for the Environment Australia. She is a co-founder of the Kids in Nature Network.

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