Community Roots

Nicola Silva finds that a holistic approach, one that involves government, professionals and the passion of volunteers, is breathing new life into degraded landscapes around the country.

Under a benevolent blue winter sky, a steady stream of people trickles into Salt Pan Creek in Riverwood, about 30 km southwest of Sydney. It is July 30, National Tree Day. This hugely successful campaign run by Planet Ark has seen over 10 million native trees and shrubs being planted since its inception in 1996. Many who come here - couples, families with young children, retirees - are drawn by the opportunity to do their bit for the environment which, as everyone knows, is in dire need.
Backing the casual visitors is a core group of volunteers from the local council's bushcare program. They are the backbone, the ones who will return time after time to nurture, weed and sustain the 200 newly planted iron barks, grey gums, turpentine trees, melaleucas, paperbarks and grasses. Indeed, the species being planted today were grown by the bushcare program volunteers from seeds and cuttings obtained locally.
"The council can bring in fit young men to do the planting, but it is difficult to maintain. As you can see most of us are over 50. This type of work suits the slow and steady: those who have the patience, determination and time," said Shaun Keays-Byrne, a bushcare volunteer since 2001. "It's like working in your own backyard."
Hurstville Council manages 125 hectares of bushland, most of it along the Georges River foreshore, using two mobile crews and contractors from the National Trust. However, these workers can only cover a quarter of the total area. In 1994, the council began a bush regeneration program which now has 100 volunteers working to preserve 10 sites. The council provides expertise, training, some equipment and the all important public liability insurance. When degraded bushland has been identified by the council's environmental and wetlands officers, they draw up a site management plan and then call in the volunteers to weed and maintain the site.
The section of Salt Pan Creek being planted today is on the edge of a sports field and has become degraded. In time, the new plants will form a barrier preventing rubbish from washing down to the creek, which has recently been revived from a very boggy condition.
For the volunteers, the rewards of connecting with, and conserving, their local patch of bushland are immensely satisfying.
Shaun, who is a "virtually desk-bound lawyer" by profession, describes the appeal of this work: "It is so difficult to convey the joy and satisfaction of bushcare. Why on earth would you want to grub around in the dirt pulling out weeds? Well, all I can say is that the few hours I spend each fortnight working alongside a group of other locals is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in years. I'm learning something new each session, I feel more relaxed and fit as if I have been to a workout and get to chat with a bunch of locals who share common interests. But above, all I can see that what I am doing makes a difference: maybe it is not an earth-shattering difference but it is immensely satisfying seeing the native plants make a comeback after the suffocating weeds have been cleared out."
Many people all over Australia are deeply concerned about the state of our environment and rightly so. The Wilderness Society states that illegal clearing of New South Wales' bushland is rampant. Recent media reports stated that the up to 100,000 hectares of native bush are being destroyed every year, despite the government's attempts to end illegal clearing.
Land clearing, according to the Wilderness Society, is responsible for nine per cent of NSW's greenhouse gas pollution. It drives native animals out of their habitat - there are 240 animals listed as endangered or threatened in this state alone - and causes dryland salinity. The picture is equally grim all around the country - Australia, to our shame, destroys more native vegetation than any other developed nation.
Faced with this battery of bleak statistics, conservation-minded people may well feel helpless. Especially for city dwellers, the opportunity to meaningfully interact with the environment seems like an impossible dream. Yet, those wondering what one person can do to solve such a major issue can take heart from the environmental partnerships that are quietly gaining ground around the country.
For agricultural communities, environmental degradation is a harsh reality with its associated issues of poor soil quality and water. Yet there are always conservation activities that can be undertaken, as agricultural communities in Western Australia's Central Wheatbelt have shown so successfully. Appropriately named Living Landscapes, is a program conducted under the auspices of the WA branch of Greening Australia.
As the "decade of landcare", 1990-2000, drew to a close, many people realised that major environmental issues were still to be resolved - salinity, decline of tree cover and preservation of biodiversity. Ten years and $340 million invested on landcare had scratched the surface. However, the network of landcare groups and their influence on community attitudes provided much scope for future conservation activities.
Living Landscapes began in 1998 after Greening Australia (WA) received a generous bequest from Ms Elsie Gadd. The program brings people together to work to protect plants and animals, engages farmers in nature conservation activities on agricultural land, and teaches land managers about local ecology.
For example, Hayd and Carolyn Dixon have a property that backs on to a reserve near Kellerberrin and Tammin in the Western Australian wheatbelt. Local wildlife are generally considered a nuisance as they destroy crops. But not so with the Dixons. When they found that some black-footed rock wallabies have colonised a hilly section of their property, they considered the loss of grain a small price to pay. How many Australian families have the privilege of observing rock wallabies in their own backyard? Hayd went so far as to sow an extra thick crop of oats for his wild visitors.
Living Landscapes has involved over 76 families from South Tammin, Dowerin Lakes, Gabby Quoi Quoi, Morbinning and Wallatin Creek. Over the past few years, almost 2,500 hectares of native vegetation have been protected - over 750,000 seedlings have been planted and 676 hectares of land has been replanted with local native species.
One of the keys to the program's success has been that it involves entire families. So future generations will carry this message of conservation into their activities.
Environmental problems are usually so pervasive that neither government nor community can address them alone. They require a holistic approach that combines the funding of government, the creativity and expertise of professionals with the commitment and passion of local volunteers. In Victoria, such a partnership was established to renew the highly degraded Merri Creek, with inspiring results.
Merri Creek runs from the Great Diving Range to the Yarra River, traversing gorges and grassland, farmland and densely populated suburbs. Unfortunately, it suffered greatly from early settlement in the 1840s and pollution from tip sites and quarries.
Brian Bainbridge from the Merri Creek Management Committee says, "It quite quickly became a fairly heavily industrialised area, very densely populated in the southern sections. People didn't realise that the landscape the Merri Creek runs through is a cultural landscape. The Wurundjeri people managed it quite sensitively through fire and so on. With the disruption of the Wurundjeri lifestyle, the land began to suffer quite quickly, and within just a few years, major vegetation changes had occurred."
Brian explains that in Australian terms this landscape is very young.
"The volcanoes along the valley were erupting as little as 800,000 years ago. It sounds like a lot of time to us but it's a drop in the ocean compared with the floor underneath which is about 300 million years old.
"The Merri Creek valley is dominated by native grassland which is one of the most threatened landscapes remaining in Victoria. Beautiful huge redgums are still dotted around the place. Where the creek has cut into larva it forms quite spectacular gorges and cliffs. The creek itself has beautiful stream bank shrub and other plant communities. It's quite a lovely creek."
For many years the beauty of this landscape was buried under rubbish and sadly neglected. In 1976, local community groups and councils came together to oppose government plans to construct a new freeway and build overhead powerlines that would convert it into a concrete eyesore. The freeway project was stopped and government persuaded to lay the powerlines underground, after sustained campaigning. However, it was evident that Merri Creek required extensive restoration which could only be performed by committed professionals working with community. In 1989, the Merri Creek Management Committee was formed and comprises the councils of Darebin, Hume, Mereland, Whittlesea, Yara and Mitchell Shire and the Friends of Merri Creek.
Over the past 25 years, much work has been carried out on the creek including re-vegetation, ecological burning and control of weeds. Wetlands have been restored and new ones created. The habitat corridor has been extended from the foothill forests with new plantings. As always, nature has responded generously to this kinder treatment.
"We're seeing a number of species re-establish along the creek line due to the plantings that have occurred by us, but also by other councils and bodies," Brian said.
"The Eastern Spinebill have followed our plantings up and down the creek. The Sacred Kingfisher is coming back; we're creating nice hunting grounds in our wetlands so they're actually quite a common bird here in summer.
"Last year we discovered the Merri Creek valley is a real hot spot for the rare Golden Sun moth, quite a beautiful species, more like a butterfly than a moth.
"I love a couple of the new wetlands we developed in 2000. Each year new frog species and bird species come into those. I look at those and I see the work of many, many people. It's quite a lovely thing," he said with quiet satisfaction.
While restoration is going on, there is always planning and lobbying to counter the pressures of development as the Merri Creek runs through a heavily industrialised zone as well as being in an area proposed for heavy development.
Currently, the committee is involved in a project to develop a Merri Creek park so that existing reserves will be linked through preserved open space. This project will bring together different interest groups such as local government, developers, rural landholders, landcare and conservation groups.
Says Brian, "I'm really excited that we're beginning to look at the landscape in this holistic way."
The more I researched conservation and regeneration, the more groups I found that are doing just that. It gives me renewed hope for the future, and more reasons to be involved in community. I will be taking the kids to the next tree planting day.