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Landscape Controls & Foreshore
by Steve Chamberlain
Initially, I was a trifle apprehensive before the event, imagining lots of official-looking sorts in suits answering mobile phones all the time and looking snappy, with the event being held in some awfully swish resort with efficient, silent waiters, and carpet thicker than most people's ceiling insulation. The reality looked somewhat more dog-eared. The event was held at the Budgewoi S.L.S.C.: for those of you unfortunate enough not to have visited this establishment, luxurious, spacious, comfortable and well-heated are four of the things this place is most specifically not. I do not mean to criticise or denigrate those who hosted the event - they pulled out all the stops to ensure that the whole congregation was accommodated to the best of their ability. It's just that it struck me halfway through the first morning, as the windows fogged up and the PA system squealed and finally fell silent, that had the conference been about "the economy" instead of "the ecology" (as if the two were entirely unrelated), the event would have been held in one of those up-market five-star hotel/ conference centre edifices situated somewhere relevant and close-at-hand, such as say, Singapore, or at least Noosa. As it was, the catering was efficient and ..er .. informal, with each break flagged by those who had strategically placed themselves next to the trestle tables spending the last fifteen minutes of each lecture wondering if anyone would notice if they got up and sneaked in a couple of sausage rolls before the rush started. But I digress: just because the whole event cost less than one Collaroy beachfront flat, I shouldn't grumble.
It seemed that the development lobby was conspicuous by its absence: indeed, the Minister for Agriculture and Land and Water Conservation thought the conference so important that he didn't turn up, citing "other commitments" as the reason for his absence. The event was very well-attended, with several groups and individuals being turned away: there were times when, sitting at the back of the room trying to listen to a speaker without a PA system, that it seemed too well-attended.
Bruce Thom, Emeritus Professor at the University of Sydney, gave the keynote address. The main tenet of his address was to reinforce the need to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural values of coastal environments, while also providing for the social, economic and spiritual values of the community. As Chairman of the Coastal Council of NSW, his roles include giving advice to the Minister for Urban Affairs and Planning on matters such as protection, maintenance and enhancement of coastal environments, and to ensure that the balance of utilisation and conservation in coastal environments is established and maintained. The Coastal Council was established in 1999 under the Coastal Protection Act to advise the Government on coastal matters. Professor Thom also gave the conference a short "guided tour" of the NSW coastline, highlighting the varying features inherent in such a dynamic natural system. The slide he showed illustrated such features as dune "blowouts" (where storm events and high tides can literally remove large sections of foredunes), the effects of development on coastal ecology (especially on narrow foredune systems, such as at Narrabeen and on the Gold Coast) and ICOLLs. This acronym stands for Intermittently Closed or Open Lake or Lagoon, and the slide shown of Durras Lake on the NSW South Coast (taken from an aircraft from the sea) reminded me somewhat of the entrance to Port Hacking; these lagoons and lakes are formed when sand drift along the coast temporarily blocks a river estuary, and it didn't take too much imagination to see a similar situation prevailing at Port Hacking at some time in the past. His address highlighted the mistakes of generations past: when rutile extraction took place on coastal sand dunes, subsequent rehabilitation generally consisted of piling the sand up into a rough approximation of a dune and then planting it out with Bitou Bush.. is this what is meant by "Job creation schemes"? Aside from increasing pressures on coastal environments from various uses including residential development, mining and recreation, Professor Thom also highlighted the need to be able to predict and, if possible, plan for unpredictable consequences of storm events and the increase in sea levels due to rising global sea temperatures: he suggested that the combination of these factors could lead to a series of events outside the "natural" range of fluctuations. In this context if no other, the work of Dune Care, Coast Care and the Coastal Council needs to be taken much more seriously than at present.
Mark Robinson was the second speaker: he is the Landcare Co-ordinator for Wyong Council, and his lecture concerned the legal and ecological implications of undertaking Coast Care and Dune Care activities with respect to the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.
His main concern was that, in undertaking tasks such as the removal of Bitou Bush, rehabilitating and restoring coastal ecological systems and managing fire, attention needs to be paid to the presence of habitat for fauna and flora, particularly threatened species and ecological communities. In urging co-ordinators and team members to be aware of these issues, he listed a number of threatened fauna and flora species that occur not just in naturally-vegetated landscapes, but also in disturbed habitats. For example, birds such as the Superb Fruit Dove and the Black-breasted Button Quail are occasionally found in Lantana scrub, along with animals including the Long-nosed Potoroo. Plants too can be found in weed-infested areas: the endangered climbing species Cynanchum elegans is occasionally found in dense Lantana scrub in some sites near Kiama, and in spraying weeds at another South Coast site, the endangered species Pimelea spicata was also affected. The speaker's message was that before team members and leaders get too gung-ho about clearing the world of noxious weeds like Bitou Bush and Lantana, someone with some fauna and botanical expertise should be recruited to have a bit of a snoop around to see what's there first. In addition, he also stressed the need for all volunteer groups, including Coast Care and Dune Care, to address and comply with the various local, State and Federal Government planning policies, paying reference to REPs, LEPs, SEPPs, the relevant sections of the Threatened Species Conservation Act and the Environmental Protection and Assessment Act.
Our next speaker was Frank Atchison, who gave what was one of the event's most talked about addresses. As leader of the Tuncurry Dune Care group, he began fairly innocently, explaining his group's dedicated efforts to rid a 3km section of fore dunes of Bitou Bush, with a great deal of success, and his group's frustration with attempts to eradicate successional weeds such as Asparagus Fern (Protasparagus aethiopicus). Using his experiences at a local level, he argued that introduced species are a significantly larger problem than currently thought: local Landcare groups just cannot cope with the scale of the problems associated with weeds, and local councils (and to some extent State Government) just cannot, or will not, direct sufficient effort and funding to prevention and eradication of weed infestation. He asserted that strategies to deal with weed infestation should really be assessed in an entire catchment, even throughout an entire bioregion if necessary. In this context, he argued that the problems associated with weeds were so great that they needed a skilled, highly mobile and well-equipped task force to deal with them: in other words, the Australian Environmental Defence Force (or AVEF). Mr. Atchison argued that, just as the country needs the Armed Forces to protect us from invasion by foreign invaders, so we need a similarly-trained and organised force to deal with the "foreigners within". (At this point, there were quite a few puzzled faces, mine among them, yet I couldn't detect the slightest trace of irony in Frank Atchison's voice: I had to conclude that he really meant it).
He went on to stress the importance of such a force in eradicating weeds throughout the country: the organisation would be run on similar lines to the Armed Forces, being highly trained, organised, mobile and disciplined. As with the Armed Forces, the organisation would be made up of well-trained, physically fit people; it would give people the opportunity to gain promotion within its ranks and to attain tertiary qualifications; it should be a permanent force, and should be funded in the same manner as the Armed Forces.
Apart from repeated mention of words like morale, discipline, training, fitness, qualified, morale, training and fitness, it seemed that there was something in what was being proposed: anyone with any involvement in environmental matters knows that weed infestation, soil salinisation and ecosystem decline are issues that most of us feel powerless to deal with, so maybe it really was time to get organised. Most conversations around this talk, despite the occasional snigger, acknowledged the scale of the problem and the possibility that Frank Atchison might just have something constructive to say.
As if to emphasise the need for an integrated, properly planned strategy to address issues such as weed infestation and ecosystem decline, the next speaker, Dr. Rod Kidd from the Department of Land and Water Conservation, spoke of the role of the revision of the Coastal Manual. The Manual, first produced in 1989, is now being revised to incorporate relevant sections of the original manual, while redirecting the focus towards ecosystem reconstruction and restoration of biodiversity values. Its emphasis will be to promote the ideal of Ecologically Sustainable Development: it will include contributions from government departments (NP&WS, DLWC) and volunteer and conservation groups.
After the morning tea break came an interesting talk on a little-known aspect of dune ecology. Lance Wilkie, a zoologist and research scientist at the Australian Museum, informed us of the preliminary results of a long-term study of invertebrate fauna of dune systems, and the effects upon their biodiversity from invasion by Bitou Bush. The study has sampled abundance and diversity in Bitou Bush infested sites and relatively intact sites, and has tried to compare diversity of insect fauna and has attempted to detect species which might act as indicators of a site's health and vigour.
After collection of field data and samples, preliminary results appear to show that insect diversity and abundance do not differ significantly between those sites that are relatively intact and those that have been invaded by Bitou Bush in a particular area. Insect abundance and diversity are higher in North Coast sites (such as Booti) than in sites further south (for example Munmorah). At this stage, it also appears that the use of herbicides on Bitou Bush causes very little disruption to insect fauna, though Mr. Wilkie added that these observations were not conclusive: he emphasised that weed infestation and spraying of weeds have impacts which are often unknown, with ramifications which cannot be accurately assessed.
The next presenter was Kerry Thompson, from the Bitou Bush Control Programme at Conjola on the NSW South Coast. She emphasised the need for managers and organisers of volunteer groups such as Dune Care to remember that a large percentage of volunteers use these groups as a social network: while there is always a core membership who are really interested in ridding the world of weeds, most are there for the company as well. In this sense, she asserted that Landcare and all its associated volunteer groups perform a valuable social function, as well as that of restoring degraded areas, and that even people not directly associated with these groups can be informally recruited to assist: for example, anglers and amateur fishermen can be asked to keep an eye out on their wanderings for new weed spread, even if they're not particularly interested in getting rid of them. Kerry also stressed the need for authorities and managers of such groups to remember that volunteers should be acknowledged and rewarded for their efforts: in short, if the volunteers are not looked after they won't keep up the effort, and with no volunteers there are no Landcare programmes.
The next four presenters focussed on their own projects, giving slide shows and detailed plans for their respective sites, along with problems encountered with their local communities in trying to keep their projects going. It seems hard to believe, but there really are some people in local communities who see restored bushland as an ideal location to dump rubbish, or to use these sensitive areas as motor-cross tracks.
After lunch came a choice of field trips, all of which visited a number of sites in the area where weed removal and bush regeneration was taking place. Though I didn't get too much idea of what happened on the other two trips, they all had one thing in common: the weather. Everyone got very cold and, usually, very wet too, since the entire weekend featured strong southerly winds, interspersed with rain and, just for a little relief, horizontal rain. I chose the central field trip, which featured a tour of a number of sites in the immediate area. The largest site included weed removal from a considerable area of hind dune vegetation, with Bitou Bush a priority: from what I could see, their success was quite extraordinary, and it was obvious that a lot of people had spent a lot of time eradicating this weed, using any technique they could find. The remainder of the area consisted mostly of foredune restoration, including several areas devoted to different methods of propagating Dune Spinifex Spinifex sericeus. This species is a native grass which can colonise bare sand dunes quite rapidly, spreading by stolons, and is a much better bet than Marram Grass Ammophila arenaria, which is a clumping species from Europe. Other sites visited included various local parks and a walk to Norah Head lighthouse, though due to the apparently horizontal rain and gale-force winds, not many stayed too long taking in the view. As with all such projects, the amount of painstaking work, time and effort that has been put into the projects was glaringly obvious, all the more so for the lack of sponsorship from developers and commercial interests.
After a long walk back, the first day ended with the Conference Dinner, not to mention a well-attended Happy Hour at the bar.
The second day began with a rather tangential subject: the design and construction of artificial off-shore reefs. The presenter, Professor Kerry Black from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, has been involved in the design and construction of these reefs for some time and, just to prove how dedicated he was to his vocation, he had undertaken extensive field research, which involved going around the world looking at surf beaches. This gruelling task involved assessing what features combined to make a good surf beach, and then trying to replicate these features with artificial means at different locations: his most successful to date is at the Gold Coast in Queensland, where the local council has commissioned him to design artificial reefs to increase the attraction of the beach to surfers. He admitted that the relevance of this to Dune Care was slim, but it was apparent to him that, should councils ever have considerable sums of money to spend on coast care, this sort of project would be well worth considering.
Next came a representative from a voluntary dune care group from Brazil. Marinez Widmer gave a short presentation on the problems faced in trying to carry out work similar to Dune Care in Brazil, not the least of which was the almost total absence of money, closely followed by an almost total absence of interest from other parties. Her story particularly highlighted how (relatively) easy it is to undertake such projects in affluent societies like Australia, and how much similar projects are desperately needed in the so-called "developing" countries. Such countries are, by definition, unable or unwilling to put public funds into such schemes, even though projects like Dune Care are possibly more important there.
There followed short presentations of three new Coastcare Facilitators in NSW, with introductions from all Coastcare managers, outlining their respective areas and duties: all parties were encouraged to meet and swap contact details with these people, especially those representing their local area, as these people are one of the first sources of details concerning NHT funding.
The following lecture was conducted by Tim Scanlon and Jeff Thomas from NPWS, who outlined the new NSW Bitou Bush Strategy. This strategy is part of a larger project, which includes strategies for all of the twenty Weeds of National Significance (including Lantana), the importance of Bitou Bush as a threateneing process under the Threatened Species Conservation act 1995 and the listing of the species as a Noxious Weed for all coastal councils of NSW.
In developing the strategy, the presenters and their associated team ackowledged a number of factors relevant to this species, including the following:-
As part of this strategy, the North Coast Weeds Advisory Council is responsible for co-ordinating a number of government and voluntary organisations. The aims of this body include planning co-ordinated approaches to eradication of a number of weed species (including Camphor Laurel and Bitou Bush), gathering information, organising further site studies before weed eradication begins, assessing priorities, addressing areas of special significance and organising further training for staff.
Bitou Bush behaves differently in different habitats, and methods of removal have to be adjusted to suit;
Management outcomes must address issues such as best management practices, reduction of adverse impacts, prevention of further spread and assessment of existing infestations;
Differing geological and geographical factors along the coast will affect timing, choice of controls, the presence of other weeds and the seriousness of the infestation;
Input from other authorities and volunteer groups is important in developing appropriate management and removal methods; co-operation and co-ordination with and between these groups is essential.
For the final lecture, a choice of workshops were offered, given by various people with a particular focus on one area of coastal management. The workshops offered subjects such as:
It was this last workshop that I attended, along with about twenty others in a very small room. It was apparent that the lecturer, Kristen den Exter, had spent some considerable time and effort in producing the software for this project, but I'm not sure she selected the right venue for its debut. Most of those attending were evidently sceptical, as became evident in the first few minutes of questions: the lecturer's answers were necessarily long-winded, simply because of the complex nature of ecosystems and the various relationships inherent within them, and it became obvious very quickly that no-one was convinced that any software package would adequately address this complexity. There were also some in the room (myself included) who were unconvinced that presenting more information to land managers was going to lead to better decisions, given that there seems to be enough information currently available to suggest that we aren't managing things at all well.
Weeds Worse Than Bitou Bush - a session in which participants in the conference were encouraged to pool information about other weed species which were of concern in their area, including successional species which often invade areas where Bitou Bush has been eradicated;
Spinifex on the Strand Line - various methods of propagation of Dune Spinifex were discussed, with participants encouraged to contribute their own observations;
Beach access and Control - the use of various artificial means of controlling access to sensitive sites such as regenerating sand dunes, including success rates, effectiveness of the various techniques and their aesthetic functions;
Targeted Education Campaigns - a workshop in which discussions revolved around the need to educate frequent users of beach areas, such as surfers, boat owners and anglers; the session suggested that selected individuals could undergo various education techniques and would subsequently pass on this education to similar groups and individuals;
DUNESIM - a computer-generated system of evaluating the current status of coastal ecosystems; this system could benefit land managers, councils and other interested bodies in making informed decisions regarding the effects of development on coastal ecosystems.
After lunch, the rest of the afternoon was given over to the Conference Forum, in which a number of motions were proposed, seconded and variously revised or passed as resolutions. As a participating body, updates on these motions and resolutions will be forwarded to the Port Hacking Protection Society in the future.
It was quite something to see such a diverse range of people up on stage. There were the usual government department types, but for the most part, the presenters were ordinary folk who had all probably been preparing this lecture for months and had travelled some distance to give it. Most exhibited varying degrees of nervousness on stage, though some didn't help themselves in trying to give very elaborate slide shows along with their talk: that the overhead projector kept falling off the pile of books it was perched on didn't help, and the slide projector being set up on the other side of the stage to the microphone led to some speeches being punctuated with the occasional trip-up and various muttered imprecations.
Despite the glossier lectures from various professionals, the best presenters were those who retained their focus on one main issue and didn't get too bogged down in detail: Kerry Thompson, from Conjola Bitou Bush Control Programme, was the best example, spurning the technical approach for the personal and, in the process, making her commitment to and enthusiasm for her project very apparent. Others focussed on the minutiae of their own project, and while these addresses occasionally got a bit bogged down in local politics, what was very obvious was the whole-hearted enthusiasm for doing something constructive in the face of protracted buck-passing and procrastination from various government departments, and total apathy from the business sector. Possibly more enlightening was the presentation from Marinez Widmer, whose efforts in trying to restore a small patch of degraded beach dune in Brazil seemed to be an almost Herculean task: the projects undertaken in Australia look almost lavish by comparison.
The general focus of the event centred on coastal and dune ecosystems, though most of the principles and a large proportion of the problems were applicable to all Land Care projects wherever they may be taking place. Most of the participants and their projects had a relatively narrow focus, but the broader issues that arose from them would be familiar to anyone undertaking similar projects in other ecosystems: lack of interest and funding from business, disinterest or even blatant disregard from local residents, the reliance on volunteer labour and, most obviously, the fundamental desire to do something constructive about environmental degradation.
Some oddities did crop up whose relevance to Dunecare seemed tenuous - the offshore artificial reef project for one - though even these adhered to the principle of "at first, do no harm". Even the Environmental Defence Force seemed like a step in roughly the right direction, given the obvious widespread problems of ecosystem decline and weed infestation and the absence of any concrete interest from government and big business.
Relevance to PHPS
Though the conference focussed primarily on the care and protection of dune and coastal ecosystems, some points were relevant to organisations such as the PHPS, including the following:-
Despite the weather, the crowding, the temporary nature of the public address system and the absence of representatives from those sections of government and business who really needed to hear what was said, it was a highly informative and very enjoyable weekend. A copy of the Dunecare conference diary, along with contact details of the local Coastcare representative and details of all the participants, and a whole load of other brochures are with the PHPS.
On several occasions, keynote speakers and others reiterated the need to lobby all forms of government to maintain at least the current levels of funding, especially given that funds from the NHT will soon run out.
Currently, land title rights exist for foreshore properties right out to the Mean High Water Mark, and sometimes beyond, effectively stopping access across many beaches. Part of the conference will continue to lobby a Cabinet sub-committee which is currently looking at revoking these property rights, and the conference is urging all interested parties to make submissions to the Cabinet Sub-committee.
In order to stop, or at least slow down, the current spread of new weeds from urban areas into bushland, the conference passed a motion to urge nurseries to stop selling notified weeds: it would also like to set up an education programme for nurseries and the public alike regarding the appropriate choice of plant species in suburbs near bushland, as a substantial proportion of invasive species in Australia originated as garden plants.
The conference also stressed the need to conduct decent flora and fauna surveys before Management Plans or bush regeneration works are undertaken on any site, particularly for species protected under various pieces of legislation (e.g. Threatened Species Conservation Act, Environmental Protection and Assessment Act, Native Vegetation Conservation Act) and any species which are regionally significant or are considered "keystone" species.
The role of organisations such as PHPS is vital in community education, and needs to be kept up, preferably with the support of government and sponsorship by business interests.
The role of organisations such as PHPS is also vital in keeping up the pressure on all levels of government to stop inappropriate residential or commercial development.
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