In the field of biodiversity conservation (as with most land management) we constantly face the challenge of balancing stakeholder interests with the needs of the environment. A sometimes difficult question is determining the point at which a threat should be deemed unacceptable regardless of community values. But how do we respond when faced with outright public defiance? And how do we help the public to understand the value of conservation work beyond the immediate visual aesthetic?
My home town of Bellingen (“Bello” to the locals), nestled in the picturesque Bellinger Valley on the Mid-North Coast of NSW, provides a haven for artists, nature lovers, alternative lifestyle seekers and tree changers. Unfortunately, the favourable climate and relatively fertile soils also make the surrounding landscape a haven for an impressive array of weeds.
A particular weed of note is camphor laurel (Cinnamomum camphora), a large shade tree originating from Japan and China, and classified as a noxious weed under the Noxious Weeds Act 1993. The trees suppress and out-compete native vegetation, and the seed is easily distributed by birds. The shallow root system can cause undercutting of river banks (especially in flood-prone areas such as the Bellinger Valley) and the fallen leaves are believed to have a negative impact on stream chemistry. One tree can produce thousands of seedlings, each of which might last for hundreds of years.
A short drive out of town brings us to the Gleniffer/Promised Land area, where the beautiful Never Never River provides a favourite picnicking and swimming spot for locals and visitors alike. Like many riparian areas in the valley, this stretch of river is also infested with large camphor laurel trees, where their location on the riverbank makes these trees a considerable threat to biodiversity.
Last year, local Landcare workers and bush regenerators began working in public recreation reserves along the river, poisoning the mature camphors and planting native seedlings, and delineating car parking areas. Public outcry was quite vicious, with letters in the local newspaper describing the work as ‘vandalism’, a ‘waste of money’ and ‘spoiling a beautiful picnic area’ (Bellingen Courier Sun, Jan 15 2013). In some cases, bollards were burned out and boundary chains cut to allow visitors to drive their vehicles onto the fragile banks, crushing native seedlings and causing erosion damage in the process.
While it is true that the short-term aesthetic impact is less pleasing, as an ecologist and forester I know that the long-term result of the work will be vastly preferable, both in terms of ecological and visual amenity.
So how do we adequately communicate this to the public? In a town like Bellingen, where there is a prevailing public attitude of ‘power to the people’, intervention from perceived authorities is at risk of being written off before it is even considered. This story is not unique – around Australia we often hear public outcry about the removal of weed species (willows and poplars, to give a local example). Especially when there is potential for vandalism, public education and communication are arguably just as important as logistical planning in restoration work.
References and further reading:
Firth, D and Ensbey, R. (2009) . Camphor Laurel, Primefact 733, NSW Department of Primary Industries. Available from http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/agriculture/pests-weeds/weeds/profiles/camphor-laurel
ABC Radio National (presented by Kirsti Melville). The war of the camphor laurels. 360 documentaries. Aired 04/03/2012. Available from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/the-bellingen-camphor-laurel-wars/3842194
Bellingen Shire Courier Sun, Letters, 16 January 2013
GeoLink 2012, Arthur Keough Reserve Plan of Management, prepared for Bellingen Shire Council
Ellie Cheney is a 4th year Forestry student with an interest in bush regeneration and small-scale native plantation and agroforestry