Under extreme weather conditions, a bushfire swept through the Lane Cove Valley in the northern suburbs of Sydney, Australia, on 8 January 1994. No lives were lost but 13 homes were destroyed or damaged and the highly intense fire burnt 332 ha (83%) of the native bushland of the Lane Cove National Park (Fig. 1).
Soon after the next substantial rains, abundant germination of native sclerophyll species occurred throughout the burnt areas. Of itself, this regeneration would not be unexpected or surprising. What was different about this fire was that it burnt a number of intensely weedy gullies and suburban boundary sites that had not been subjected to high intensity fire for many decades – and rather than only weed regeneration in these areas, native regeneration was also prolific. The wildfire was seen, therefore, as an unprecedented opportunity to achieve regeneration of degraded areas if weed could be controlled. This challenge galvanized bush regenerators already working in the Park to become involved in an effort to enlist the support of the broader community (Box 1, Fig. 2).
This article reviews the genesis, scope, approaches and results of the community-based bushland restoration program that was given a major impetus by this fire (Also see brief review in White 1997; p. 211). The program, managed by Lane Cove National Park, is now referred to as the Lane Cove National Park Volunteer Bushcare Program.
The Park and its catchment context
Lane Cove National Park (‘the Park’) covers an area of 600 ha along the Lane Cove River in Sydney (Fig. 3). It attracts up to 1 million picnickers, bushwalkers, cyclists, joggers and birdwatchers per year, including interstate and overseas visitors. The Park is surrounded by residential suburbs, a large corporate estate, and a cemetery, and most of the Lane Cove River catchment has been developed for various urban and suburban purposes. Because of this development, the catchment generates increased volumes and velocity of urban run-off (ultimately running into the river that bisects the Park), its streams and floodplain soils are subject to elevated nutrient, and its bushland is subject to altered fire regimes and invasion by weed (NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service 1998).
The Park contains a variety of vegetation communities no longer well represented in the region, ranging from closed forests along creeklines (dominated by Water Gum, Tristaniopsis laurina) through tall open forests of Blackbutt/Sydney Blue Gum (Eucalyptus pilularis/E. saligna), to open woodland and heath on upper slopes and mangroves along the Lane Cove River. It provides habitat for three plant species listed as vulnerable under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (TSC Act): Darwinia biflora, Tetratheca glandulosa and Prostanthera marifolia. In terms of fauna, a total of 156 species have been recorded within the park and its surrounds since 1950, including 19 threatened species. Threatened fauna found in the Park in recent years include the Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua), Masked Owl (Tyto novaehollandiae), Red-crowned Toadlet (Pseudophryne australis), Eastern Bent-wing Bat (Miniopterus schreibersii oceanensis), and Grey-headed Flying-fox (Pteropus poliocephalus; all these species are listed Vulnerable under the TSC Act.) The area supports particularly high numbers of Powerful Owl and Red-crowned Toadlet, contributing significantly to the survival of these species within the region and plays an integral role in the survival of a number of native animals within the region (NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service 1998; Department of Environment & Conservation 2004; Plant nomenclature used in this article follows Harden (1990–1993).)
Early days of Program
The genesis of the Volunteer Bushcare Program can be traced back to March 1991, well before the wildfire, when over 40 interested locals turned up to a breakfast meeting at Carters Creek organized by well known conservationist Nancy Pallin (Fig. 4). Nancy appreciated that many people actively used the Park for recreation and saw an opportunity for park users to ‘give something back’ through active involvement in bush regeneration.
The breakfast was followed by a well-organized introductory bush regeneration training session (Fig. 4). A small team of trained bush regenerators acted as supervisors for small teams of newcomers, imparting basic skills through hands-on weeding of Lantana (Lantana camara) and other weeds in the designated work zone. This led to the formation of a permanent group who met monthly; an initiative that was soon followed by the formation of another group that met weekly.
These regular Bushcarers realized that the Park needed more helpers. Late in 1993 it was decided, with the blessing of Park management, to establish a working committee to recruit more volunteers and extend the works into other needy areas in the Park. So a group calling themselves ‘The Friends of Lane Cove National Park’ was formed.
Wildfire galvanizes action
Events then took a dramatic turn. Before any action could be taken to involve the community, the January 1994 fire burnt the majority of the bushland in the Park, closing the Park for a month. This fire event inspired the Friends to plan an ambitious regeneration program designed to tap into the groundswell of public concern about the Park's future.
The proposed regeneration program required a lot of organization and resources. The Friends had the ideas but not the means of putting them into effect. So the Friends turned to two organizations; the Australian Association of Bush Regenerators (AABR; the industry body representing professional and volunteer regenerators) and the Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife (FNPW; previously National Parks and Wildlife Foundation; an independent organization supporting national parks). With AABR's encouragement, the Friends were able to draw upon the approach used at the first breakfast meeting at Carters Creek, that is, enlisting the support of 20 trained AABR bush regenerators to initially supervise and train small groups of unskilled volunteers. FNPW was able to attract donations from various sources totalling AUD$330 000 (see Acknowledgements). This allowed the employment of two Bush Regeneration Coordinators (both experienced regenerators) for a 3-year period. These coordinators would provide the infrastructural and technical backup to the program during its development phase.
When the Park reopened to visitors, the Friends were at the entrances handing out information about their group and encouraging participation in the planned future bush regeneration program. Names were taken, and in the following weeks, letterbox drops and media publicity invited the community to a forthcoming meeting in the Park.
Much to everyone's surprise, 150 people turned up to the public meeting including locals, committed conservationists, and regular Park users. At the meeting, people joined the Friends and signed up to work on sites selected for regeneration. The volunteer Bushcare Program was born.