(Ricky Ward visited TREAT in February and spoke on Friday morning)

At the age of 22 in 1968, as a member of a student group, led by the late Jim Cairns MHR, I travelled to Cambodia, the one country in South East Asia not then embroiled in war or military dictatorship.

There we went to see the fabulous temples of Angkor in a great forest dominated by tall straight Yang – Dipterocarpus alatus trees.

In later years as the tragedy which had engulfed Cambodia precluded a return, I would often take a break from the colds and flu of wintry Melbourne to visit Cambodia’s neighbor Thailand. Here, although I travelled widely, the nearest I came to seeing Yang forest was an avenue of over a thousand trees, planted in 1904 on a winding road into Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city.

Chiang Mai at 18 degrees 47 minutes N. ( Ingham is at similar southern latitude) sits on the largest of about ten wide alluvial plains separated by mountain ranges and gorges across the north of Thailand. Many of the ranges still have forests dominated by trees of Di-ptero-carpeacae*, deciduous at low, evergreen at mid elevations, or by evergreen Fagaceae (oaks and chestnuts) above around 1200m. Pinus species dominate some of the dry ridges.

Great Teak forests which once covered perhaps a third of our north have all been logged, mostly to their complete destruction. Similarly no plains forests remain as most of the land is now paddy fields, roads or urban sprawl. Yet on piecing together a picture from scattered remaining trees and a study of forests along streams in the foothills comes a vision remarkably similar to the forests of Angkor, with an important difference being that the Yang trees are no longer D. alatus but very similar D. turbinatus.

With a background of revegetation activity from Melbourne, I could not resist the temptation to learn how to grow forests when I came to “retire” in Thailand in 2000. With the only native plants here that I recognized from home being Kangaroo Grass and the reforester’s greatest enemy, the fire-loving Blady Grass (Imperata cylindrica), the learning curve was steep. Soon I was battling with the painful Mimosa invisa and Queensland’s newest wildflower Siam Weed (Chromolaena odorata) – root it out , don’t cut – and later Mile-a-minute Mikania sp. – pull, pull, pull – all introduced from America.
The other great shock was the 5 or 6 month long dry season, very un-Victorian. This has led to some strange behavior of mine – putting shades on some trees and on occasions watering them.

My initial work was in Nan province west of Chiang Mai, some 350km by road zig-zagging around the mountains. There I planted seedlings from the local government forest nursery and a few propagated by myself. Much of my tree knowledge was coming from talking to local farmers and hunters but in 2001 appeared an excellent “Forest Trees of Northern Thailand” by Simon Gardener et al. with photos and descriptions of a bewildering number of over 800 native trees.

After moving to Chiang Mai I learn’t of the work of a Forest Restoration Research Unit (FORRU) at the university, which had received much help and inspiration from TREAT’s very own Nigel Tucker. FORRU gave me some plants but as their work was concentrated on evergreen mountain forest restoration and mine was along the streams in the plains, it was clear that I would have to organize seed collection and arrange for nurseries on the plains to grow trees . I could and did grow some trees on a vacant block near my apartment with the help of a friend but this would not be enough.

Thailand has a very large network of forest department nurseries established in an era when plantation forestry and “watershed restoration” (mainly disastrous planting of pines, like at Kuranda) were well funded. But as their growing of indigenous species was very limited (about 35 out of 77 according to one manual) I approached the provincial manager and we arranged that I would collect seed for his nurseries to grow. The result, although somewhat mixed largely because of a government funding squeeze, was some 20 to 30 tree species which were used in some school plantings and on some friends’ private projects.

It is this loose network of Chiang Mai residents and people from educational institutions I call “Gum Hak Doi Suthep” – The Group which loves Mount Suthep, the largely forested mountain National Park next to Chiang Mai City. We have done some planting near waterfalls in the Park but for the last three years we have concentrated our efforts in an adjacent large and partly wooded Park. As the National Park has none of the plains forest we thought that replanting along streams leading out of the Park would bring back a little lost diversity and improve wildlife habitat.

We have found the military management of the park and their staff very welcoming and happy to have our help and learn from what we do. Much of the planting we do has had assistance from visiting student groups while our little band of up to six do most of the weeding at times with assistance from the Park workers. Our site preparation is a combination of using hand tools to grub weeds, tramping on grass and some spraying with glyphosate.

In three years I estimate we have planted 3,500 trees with survival rates ranging from around 20%, in an area which floods for 2 to 3 months most years, to around 90% where soil conditions are best. In 2007 the army folk tried to follow our example and planted about 5,000 trees on an area which they first cleared with a tractor. They planted in June at the beginning of the rainy season and because they kept weeds down when a fire came through recently most of their plantings and all of ours were spared.

We like to welcome visitors to come and look and give us a hand, so if any members or friends of TREAT are thinking of visiting Chiang Mai we would love to hear from you.

Source: Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands Inc [TREAT] Website.