Protesters at the height of the Franklin River Hydroelectric scheme in Tasmania almost 50 years ago were labelled as “greenies”. For decades anyone who mumbled the word “environment” was called one, if not a “do-gooder”.
The reference is only whispered these days, and a new generation on Hindmarsh Island sees them as “doers of good”. It’s about the realisation of the global importance of caring for the environment; treasuring the bird life.
If we skim past the mountains of political hysteria, including the debate surrounding the building of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge almost 25 years ago, which included farmers causing angst among the environmentalists, we will certainly see “a lot of good”.
On June 5 – World Environment Day – the Hindmarsh Island Landcare Group (HILG) will plant its 500,000th tree on the island – at Ferryman’s Reserve – since it was formed in 2001. This doesn’t include the tens of thousands of trees and shrubs planted in the late 1980s by previous conservationists who recognised the diabolical need for a major restoration program.
Actually, there will be 10 trees planted as part of this ‘half mill’ ceremony, and while we will appreciate the promises of even greater support and encouragement from the various dignitaries present it will be the representation by the original “doers of good” who will epitomise this admirable environmental journey.
It also goes beyond Hindmarsh Island with the group taking an active role in the Community Nurseries Network since the Coorong Lower Lakes & Murray Mouth Project was operational in the wake of the 2007 drought.
Today the HILG has more than 100 volunteer members – but only 20 of them active so they need more help. It has a nursery where almost 50,000 plants of 80 species are raised each year, supporting its role of re-establishing the island’s original habitat. There is only 5 per cent native vegetation left between here and Wellington, and what is left is mostly fragmented and in poor condition.
Trees are currently planted on more than 80 sites including private land. Government, council and environmental organisational grants have predominantly fed this volunteer-driven operation, and now land owners are asked in some cases to contribute. They willingly support the cause.
HILG president Jill Masters, who has been with the group for 11 years, graciously doesn’t under-estimate the effort of past and present volunteers, including Richard Owen, who since 2001 has worked tirelessly on the Hindmarsh Island campaign, and is currently project manager for the all-important nursery operation.
Jill said land care was more than just saving or revegetating plants. “The south-east corner of the island has been mainly worked on, but there has also been funding for birdlife projects like saving the Orange Bellied Parrot a few years ago,” she said.
Incredibly, the Orange Bellied Parrot is one of Australia’s most threatened species, with fewer than 50 parrots thought to exist in the wild today. It is protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) and is listed as Critically Endangered. It is one of only three species of parrot that migrates, from south-west Tasmania to coastal areas including Hindmarsh Island.
“A lot of the vegetation along our coast has been destroyed so the plants they would normally roost in or eat during winter are missing,” Jill said.
Jo McPhee is the only employee – part-time as manager of the nursery – of the HILG. The operation includes collecting all of the seed that is treated and propagated, and is currently involved in writing a species list with Richard.
For Jo, it is more of a passion than a job. “Being around this landcare group makes you see why we need to care for the environment,” she said.
There are more than 11,000 junior landcare groups and schools, and 5400 landcare, coastcare and community groups that are registered on a national directory. Those that fall under the landcare umbrella are varied in nature, including coastcare, and productive farming groups Friends of… Bushcare Rivercare, Dunecare and indigenous ranger groups.
They each deserve recognition, and our own HILG has gone far from being unnoticed. It has won two national and various state awards, and its success at the State and Territory Landcare Awards last year will see it vie for the National Sure Gro Coastcare Award at a ceremony in Brisbane in October.
However, Richard believes the real reward for all of the environmental groups is seeing their work lead to revegetation; getting closer to how things should be.
“I can remember when I started with this group all those years ago having it thrown at me by a family who had a dairy farm that I was just a greenie who didn’t do anything, whereas the farmers here were doing things,” Richard said.
“When we got our first Coastcare grant we only planted one species of plants that year… driving to put Swamp Paperbark trees back on the island. They used to be all along the waterways and the river, and like most other trees on the island they were chopped down for mainly paddle steamer fuel.
“They virtually got rid of all the sheok, the gums, native pine. The story goes that they would only go in for 7km to pick the timber up to take to the river to float it – the island is 14km long and 7km wide. The island was virtually stripped.
“As you grow you get a much bigger understanding of the significance of the environment; the importance of the habitat, the bird life and animal life. If we had our chances again we would have never farmed it because it is just a sand and wetland island. The farming has severely damaged the island, which has happened all up the river. It is not unusual.”
The Coorong Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth region including Hindmarsh Island is one of 68 designated Ramsar Convention sites in Australia, signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971. It means they are said to contain rare or unique wetlands, or that they are important for conserving biological diversity to the List of Wetlands of International Importance.
In other words, the work by our Hindmarsh Island Landcare Group is of international importance. The frightening thing is that, despite next month planting its half-millionth tree since 2001, Richard says the group still feels it is only at the beginning of what needs to be done.
“Scientists tell us that to re-establish an eco system that has been destroyed can take a century,” he laments. That’s frightening.
If you would like to volunteer for this group ring Jill on 0428 843 327. Who knows, you might spot an Orange Bellied Parrot.