John La Gerche could claim a large measure of success in managing his forest, equipped mainly with tools of common sense and moral enlightenment. In what shape did he leave the forest? By 1897, the year of his departure from Creswick, 75% of the forest had been thinned, much of it fenced and plantations established. Prop pilfering had practically ceased. The number of cattle in the forest had greatly diminished, their owners departed.
Sawpit Gully Plantation was thriving – one Pinus radiata he planted in 1888 measured 40 ft in height. In his diary in 1897 he wearily reported that “some portions of the forest blocks look thin but it cannot be helped”. A fierce bushfire had raged through the area in 1892, which destroyed nearly all the young timber, “leaving nothing but dry poles”. Fire was one powerful force he could not control.
Yet despite the obstacles, John La Gerche had accomplished a great deal. Not only did he take up the challenge of daily surveillance with formidable fortitude, but he performed forestry task with masterly common sense. He understood the growth habits of the eucalypts in his forest well enough to mount a good case against reducing the regulation size for tree cutting. He was also a gardener of trees, not simply a forest guardian.
He dealt wisely with people, bureaucrats and woodcutters alike. Underlying all was his repugnance at waste and greed. He was convinced that forest laws not only should be upheld, but that forest users learn to respect the public purposes for which the state forest had been reserved. The most significant and urgent of these purposes was the preservation of timber, a most unpopular cause in an age of rampant material progress and self interested profit making.
La Gerche was one of around 20 Victorian bailiff/ foresters at the time, but his excellent diaries have ensured his name is preserved in his
He was guided by his moral standards, humanity and also his upbringing in Jersey as the son of a farmer / constable. He was sympathetic to the needs of the
forest residents, but refused to take bribes or be intimidated. He was lenient to “respectable” old men and women who cut the odd sapling for domestic use, but hard on the predatory prop cutters who repeatedly breached forest regulations. And he defended those, some Chinese gardeners for example, who he believed were unjustly targeted by his superiors. This saw-miller turned forest guardian consistently tried to strike a balance between the competing demands of wood cutters, mining, poorer forest dwellers and the law.