A reconnaissance of the Jimi Valley pine stands: Alan Ross

Paul Ryan’s most interesting account of his tours of duty in the Jimi Valley of the Western Highlands District in 1968 (click here) brings to my mind the time I was required to carry out a reconnaissance of the Jimi pine stands some eleven years earlier, in the months of July-August 1957. Earlier that year, two senior officers from the Department of Forests headquarters flying between Madang and Mt Hagen spotted from the window of their aircraft what appeared to be significant numbers of Araucaria pines (Hoop pine and/or Klinki pine) growing in the Jimi Valley, perhaps even equalling in volume the vast Araucaria stands in the Wau-Bulolo-Watut Valleys of the Morobe District. Their sightings generated considerable interest, particularly in the Western Highlands and among forestry circles. For one thing, there was the idea that the conversion of high grade pine, such as Hoop and Klinki, to veneer and plywood for the export market might well go towards meeting the costs of constructing a direct road link from Mt Hagen to the Madang coast. Bob Macilwain, Assistant District Officer, was dispatched forthwith into the Jimi in order to ascertain on the ground the extent of the pine stands. I was directed by my Department (Forests) to join Macilwain for a brief “look see”.

After flying to Mt Hagen, I was deposited by vehicle at the Mala guest house on the Hagen-Banz Road, near the late Bobby Gibbes’ plantation, Tremearne. I entered the Jimi Valley on foot through the Mala Pass and, with the assistance of a local guide, reached by late afternoon Macilwain’s camp which on that day was located near the Ganz River in the middle Jimi. Macilwain had already been in the Jimi some three months when I joined him; he had criss-crossed the areas of interest several times, so in lieu of the use of a helicopter (not available those days as they were a decade or so later for forest inventory), he was an excellent guide. Before dawn Macilwain would rouse his patrol—consisting of three or four policemen and carriers recruited from nearby villages—and by sun-up we would have breakfasted, broken camp and be on the move. We traversed the main pine growing areas, the densest stand being located between the left bank tributaries of the middle Jimi, the Gugan and Mawgabin Rivers. Whilst the Araucarias—Klinki pine only as it turned out—were impressive, based on what I viewed and Macilwain’s observations, they did not match anywhere near in numbers their counterpart in the Wau-Bulolo Valleys.

In Mt Hagen on my way out I met a pleasant young Englishman, David Attenborough. Attenborough and his camera crew were about to travel into the Jimi for a stay of about two weeks. The District Commissioner, Ian Skinner, suggested I accompany Attenborough. The suggestion was tempting, but I believed I did not have sufficient reason to request my superiors to re-enter the Jimi. So I returned to my station which at the time was Bulolo.

As stated by Paul Ryan in his article, cited earlier, a detailed forest inventory was carried out in the Jimi Valley by the Department of Forests in 1968, following which the Government acquired from the local landowners the rights for the cutting and removing of timber for cash payment, or the timber rights as it is usually called. The Jimi was later listed and advertised as a forest development area. It failed to attract a potential developer; there was no interest shown whatever. The main stumbling block to exploitation of the forest resource was without question difficulty of access to the coast. I wrote at the time of my Jimi visit that the Bismarck and Schroeder Ranges to the north looked forbidding, and they remain so even today. Some pines growing in the Baiyer River area have been felled for processing for the domestic sawn timber market, but the volume of merchantable timber that would be available for export would nowhere meet road construction costs that were likely to be encountered. So a road linking Mt Hagen directly to the Madang coast was not to be. The Okuk Highway, running through Kundiawa, Goroka and Kainantu, remains today as the single road linking the western end of the Highlands to the coast.


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