Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Reflecting on Campaign to Save the Conondale Range

The remarkable Gastric-brooding Frog
With all the gloom surrounding environmental concerns, it's worth recalling that some solid conservation victories are in the bag. Here in the Sunshine Coast region, two critically important wildlife habitats - the forests of the Conondale Range and the wallum heaths of Cooloola - were saved for posterity,when both had once seemed like hopeless causes.

For the record, here I am publishing, with minor editing, an interview that Ian Mackay, president of the Conondale Range Committee, did with me in 2004 about the early stages of the campaign to save the Conondales in the 1970s. That era embraced some extraordinary natural history developments including the discovery and extinction of the remarkable Gastric-brooding Frog, and the rediscovery of the Plumed (Marbled) Frogmouth; some of those moments are relived here. 

Little Yabba Creek
Talking with Greg Roberts, in March 2004, about his involvement in the early campaign to save the Conondale Range.

Ian: Greg, can you take us back those 30 or so years. What were the issues, who were the people and what was the political and conservation climate?

Greg: Our initial involvement in the Conondales was back in 1971 when we camped at Little Yabba Creek in September that year. We had a little group called the Queensland Conservation Movement, which [poet] Judith Wright helped us form. It included like-minded young people like Greg Czechura, Chris Corben, Glen Ingram, Anita Smyth and a few others. We went up there and decided essentially that weekend to get cracking on a campaign to try and save the Conondales.

So if you like that’s where it began from my perspective, effectively in September l97l. At that time in Queensland it was a real slash-and-burn mentality. There were large areas of lowland rainforest being clear-felled for hoop pine plantations. The rate of logging was high and there was little consideration being given to catchment or watercourse protection and that sort of thing. So we decided to get moving on some sort of campaign to save the Conondales.

We initially put up a small proposal to protect 250ha of vine scrub and eucalypt forest in the Little Yabba Creek area [where Charlie Moreland Park is now]. We were stunned by the biodiversity of this place. For us being keen on birds and frogs, it had an extraordinary variety of habitat and wildlife. We were in love with it. This was before Charlie Moreland Park; there was a tiny clearing beside Little Yabba Creek - nothing more, a real contrast to today. It was a magical place. The hoop pine plantations hadn’t encroached down as far as they do now. We were very distressed a couple of years later [in 1973] to find that a lot of scrub had been cleared.

Conondale Range
In 1973, the Queensland Conservation Movement put up a proposal for a l6,000ha national park over the Conondales. It was the first big park proposal. In that year also the Wildlife Research Group (Queensland) grew out of the QCM. We decided we would have more impact if we focused on wildlife conservation. That was our area of expertise and we essentially changed the name of the group to reflect this. So we had that proposal, and over the years we kept at it.

We had a reasonably intensive effort going and it culminated in 1977, by which time l was on the executive of the Queensland Conservation Council and got QCC very much behind the
campaign to save the Conondales. We put up another proposal for a national park of 31,000ha including an 8,000ha core wilderness reserve in the Peters-Booloumba creeks catchment - the first area that eventually was protected as national park.

And in that year, in 1977, we campaigned big time. We had media conferences that were well attended and I did a lot of interviews. We put out the booklet, The Conondale Range. I was secretary of the Wildlife Research Group as well as the QCC spokesperson. So we had the campaign being co-ordinated by the WRG and QCC at the same time and with the resources of QCC at our disposal, it allowed us to be very active. We met with various ministers and union leaders and put a lot of work into it. We were always doing something to try to draw attention to the area. That sums up my role because at the end of l977, l left Queensland.

Ian: That was just after the Save the Conondale Range Committee came into being.

Greg: By then you had the Save the Conondale Range Committee set up. My role was in the mid-70s... just putting the area on the map. Until the early-70s, even conservationists and naturalists hadn’t heard of the Conondale Range. So I think we had a fair degree of success in drawing the attention of people to the area in a scientific way. All the people in the Wildlife Research Group had a serious wildlife bent. Some of us were professionally inclined that way and ended up working in the Queensland Museum or elsewhere. We had a specialist interest in wildlife and just kept discovering extraordinary things in the Conondales, like interesting rainforest skinks and rare birds like the Black-breasted Button-quail and Plumed (Marbled) Frogmouth.

l found the buttonquail in the Conondales in December I973. I remember it well as it was previously not known in this area. I will never forget an evening in October 1976 when Glen Ingram and l were camped up at Beauty Spot I00 on Booloumba Creek and I heard a mysterious "gobble gobble” call coming from inside the forest. Glen was down the creek working on his Rheobatrachus frogs at the time and I went into the forest and there was a Plumed Frogmouth sitting on a vine. It was extraordinary because the bird was almost mythical at the time; it hadn’t been reliably recorded for several decades. l’m talking about the plumiferus race of the Marbled Frogmouth. Some people doubted that it even existed and then we hear this extraordinary call and there's the bird.

Marbled Frogmouth in the Conondales
Later on that night, Glen and l were sitting around the campfire and there was another one calling right next to the camp and it was right out in the open. We had birders going up there from all over Australia to try to see the thing and it’s since been found to be quite common in the area. We were absolutely mystified as to how we’d missed it previously. All those weekends we were camping up there and we’d never heard it.

So we kept on finding these fabulous creatures. For the Wildlife Research Group, it was a perfect campaign in tandem with the Cooloola campaign to protect the western catchment of the Noosa River. We had these two campaigns going simultaneously. And every other weekend we were either up in the Conondales or up at Cooloola bashing people’s ears about one or the other. It's nice to know in retrospect that largely both campaigns succeeded but l make the point that there is still a way to go. For instance, I would like to see as the next stage some of those hoop pine plantations being allowed to regenerate back into lowland rainforest. lt’s satisfying because when you look at what has been achieved, at the time we were very pessimistic. There was every indication that governments were not interested in protecting this area at all.

lan: I understand that much bigger areas were destined to become hoop pine plantation. 

Greg: (Former Queensland Labor Environment Minister) Pat Comben has mentioned that initially plantations were supposed to be more extensive than what they are now. So that's satisfying that we had some success in limiting that. It could have been a lot worse. There were times when we thought we were not going to be able to stop this; it was very depressing to see this stuff happening. That clearing at Little Yabba was particularly depressing because it was a really beautiful vine scrub and it was just all gone, but that made us quite determined and we put effort into it and ultimately that effort paid off.

It may be too late for some things. It may be too late for Coxen’s Fig Parrot, for instance. We gather from the records that it was quite an important area for them. A friend of mine swears he saw two recently in rainforest near lmbil, so possibly they are hanging on. But you need large contiguous areas of lowland rainforest for birds like that to survive.

Ian: Tell us about Rheobatrachus, the Gastric-brooding Frog.

Greg: It was David Liem who first discovered the frog at Kondalilla Falls [in the Blackall Range, in 1972]. He wasn't a member of the Wildife Research Group but was one of a number of scientists who were involved with us. Then we subsequently discovered it in the Conondales and it was found to be all through the streams in those mountain rainforests, in the high mountain streams. We didn’t know anything about its breeding biology until we had some of the frogs at home in Brisbane in a tank.

We knew it was aquatic and it was interesting from several biological perspectives, but we didn’t know about its breeding biology. One day we were at home in [the Brisbane suburb of Red Hill], in 1973, and a female frog started regurgitating baby frogs in front of our eyes. What a moment! It was extraordinary, bearing in mind that no other vertebrate animal in the world other than a few fish had been known to do this [raise their young inside the stomach].

Gastric-brooding Frog
We were just stunned; we didn’t know what was going on. We sent off some of the animals to Mike Tyler in Adelaide and the paper was written up by Glen Ingram, Chris Corben and Mike Tyler. The joumal Nature rejected the paper, thinking it was a hoax. Like the discovery of the Platypus, they just thought it was too bizarre to be true. We put that name to it, Platypus Frog, early on because it was a truly aquatic frog; it would disappear under the water for much longer than other frogs. And the paper was eventually published by the journal Science. It was one of biggest zoological discoveries in Australia, further highlighting why this area was so important. [Rheobatrachus is now referred to as the Gastric-brooding Frog.]

l went up there in 1976 with a TV crew from the ABC's Landline program. We were doing it as part of the campaign and as far as l’m aware, that was the only television footage of this frog. They were so common that we just assumed they'd always be there. Fortunately the ABC still has this in their archives because there is no other footage. It was easy to find a specimen for them to film; you looked under rocks and there they were.

Of course you had the Southern Day Frog too. They were all over the place up and down those streams, as common as could be. And it too has disappeared. Pretty ordinary looking little things but they had a lot of character. The frog was out during the day, which is a pleasant surprise for frogs. They hopped about on rocks in the open - very visible and a real feature of those upland rainforests. [Postscript: Both the Gastric-brooding Frog and the Southern Day Frog were last seen in the wild in 1979.]

Ian: Mistweed is now found in all the creeks. How was it back then?

Greg: At Beauty Spot 100 there was no mistweed. We would drive down off the Forestry Department road and camp on either side of the creek. And now there is so much invasive weed that you can't get anywhere near [those old camping spots]. 

Even after our campaign activity in the 1970s, new things tumed up. In the 1980s, Chris Corben found the Eastem Bristlebird in the Conondales. Long afier we thought the area had no more surprises to offer - we thought we had done it all - this place produces so many fantastic animals. Along comes the bristlebird, the northem-most population. And today sadly it looks as though there are only a couple of birds left. [Postcript: the bristlebird population is now believed to be extinct.]

lt’s another example of what an interesting area it is. l went interstate for a decade from then and was out of the picture. The Save the Conondale Range Committee kept things going. Greg Czechura headed it for a while and people like Margaret-Ann Stannard became involved.

Ian: The conservation history of the Conondales is like a giant relay, passing the ball from one individual to another, from one group to the next.

Greg: The initial campaigning got the ball rolling, making a good basis for future efforts. The Rheobatrachus frog was the king-pin of the campaign. At our press conferences we would have a bowl of water with 7 or 8 frogs and they would be hiding under the rocks from the TV cameras. I’d be at the back of the bowl splashing away so that they would come out and make an appearance for the cameras. 

1977 Press conference - Gastric-brooding Frogs are in the bowl
They were the centrepoint of the campaign because they were such spectacular animals. There were lots of other fabulous animals to back the campaign up like the frogmouth, Sooty Owl and all those things. lt was such a wonderful area it was difficult not to campaign for its protection. The Wildlife Research Group got the ball rolling, not just a political campaign but we spent a lot of time up there looking for things. We might be up there a couple of times a month spotlighting at night, trawling the creeks, bird-watching during the day; just finding out what was there because nobody had done that. The Forestry Department controlled the area but didn’t employ researchers or zoologists. There weren’t govemment people doing that sort of thing. We were building up a database of animals while we were campaigning up there. I think we had a few achievements in that respect.

Sooty Owl in the Conondales
Ian: And Chris Corben went on to work with the Forestry Department?

Greg: Yes, Chris ended up living up there for a couple of years in the 80s. As a result of the campaign, Forestry employed someone full-time to do the important catchment research work. That was something that in the 70s was unthinkable.

Ian: As a result of your activities, Forestry did make some changes to its logging guidelines.

Greg: That's true. The cessation of rainforest logging and retention of habitat trees came in about that time. I think over the last 30 years there have incrementally been improvements. In the 8Os they were starting to do things not done before, like saving trees that might have importance as habitat for possums, and logging catchments in a more environmentally sensitive way. A lot of the damage was done before then. l think some of it is retrievable for birds but some may be irretrievable. The frog extinctions are probably not related to environmental damage but to the [chytrid] fungus. A similar thing happened to frogs in other high altitude rainforest streams in places like Costa Rica. Sadly it looks as though there is not a lot we can do about that.

ln respect of other things, I think the situation today is immeasurably better than when we started. In the early-70s we felt like we were bashing our head against a brick wall. Every time we went up there we saw another area cleared or a gully that had been logged. The damage was in your face and obvious and growing and there was not a huge amount of public interest in these issues at the time.

Ian: We're fortunate in Queensland to be free of the pressure of woodchipping. Was that always the case?

Greg: There had been a couple of proposals in south-east Queensland that were based on the premise they would be using sawmill residue, so-called waste... in other words, those trees left in the forest after logs were taken out - which is effectively clearfelling. lt’s what happens in Tasmania and elsewhere. We vigorously opposed those proposals. They never came to fruition because the government quietly knocked them on the head. Bjelke-Petersen did, on occasion, make sensible environmental decisions, very quietly. He did seem to have a bit of a green streak in him. It could be that he knocked them on the head and didn't want to publicise it. That would be consistent with his character. Perhaps they didn’t come to fruition for purely commercial reasons.

With Chris Corben in 2010
Ian: How was public support back then?

Greg: You did notice as time went on, public interest got better, but initially there was very little
interest. Environmental issues didn't get much space in the newspapers. We used to always be having to think of gimmicks. We’d go and get a python or something and wrap it around ourselves. The Gastric-brooding Frog was good for publicity but once we’d done that we couldn’t do it again. You had to come up with another gimmick to attract the media because to them it wasn’t a big issue.

Even though we were carrying on a lot, we weren’t getting massive amounts of publicity in the early stages. The odd National Party MP would meet us. We had a meeting with Mike Ahem who was the MP for Landsborough, later to become Premier. He sat there with his feet up on the table. We were trying to get him enthusiastic about gastric-brooding frogs and owls and things. He just had this glazed look in his eyes: “when’s the meeting going to be finished?” sort of thing. 

A huge amount of work went into the campaign. l wrote hundreds of letters. We were bashing everyone’s ear that we could get hold of. The amount of work we put into it and the submissions we did is not reflected in the media coverage we got. You can see how far things have come since then. When we used to camp at Booloumba Creek or Little Yabba Creek, we'd be the only people there, even at Easter. And you know what it’s like now. It demonstrates how far we have come. Now there are so many people, for better or worse, who like to go and camp at these places. It reflects the change in public interest.

Ian: That night (in 2004) that we went spotlighting, you and Chris showed an incredible ability to find things.

Greg: It’s just such a marvellous area. These frogmouths and owls and Yellow-bellied Gliders, Feathertail Gliders – there aren't really other places in south-east Queensland where you can do that and see such a variety of quite rare birds and mammals. lt’s a very special area. We’ve been spotlighting there for years. We used to drive up there, sometimes spotlighting just about all night. We are used to picking things up. We have refined techniques over the years - the use of sound, playing tapes of calls. It’s very easy to do now but when we would go to Beauty Spot 100, people hadn't got into any of that. Even though the Marbled Frogmouth was subsequently found to be common in the Conondales, it was a long time before people saw another one after the first discovery. Lots of people went looking for it and had no success. Chris Corben was tearing his hair out for months from not being able to find one until we got on to the recording equipment. Once we were able to do that, it was easy: they would just come into the tapes. We did a survey throughout south-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales and found they were a lot more widespread that we thought, although this is probably the best area for them and they are especially common in the Conondales. l’m not sure why, perhaps the association of rose gums and piccabeen palms which do particularly well there. Now that we have playback technology it makes it a lot easier to find birds.

Ian: The forestry campaign was pretty confrontational in other parts of the country. Was it ever like that here in your time?

Greg: There was that feeling in the Forestry Department that we were out to take their jobs. They really didn't know what we were talking about... it wasn’t important compared to
jobs. And they always insisted that what they were doing was environmentally sustainable.

Ian: Forestry mounted quite an aggressive campaign about their environmental sustainability.

Greg: We didn’t agree with that, obviously. First of all their logging was totally over the top. They were taking out huge trees from places we didn’t think they should, especially in prime habitat areas, taking them from steep hillsides and stream banks and all sorts of situations. Canopy retention in a lot of places where they had been logging was 40-50 per cent. When they were logging in the 80s it improved but in the early-70s it was rampant. Then there was the clear-felling for pine plantations. There was this sort of siege mentality but they [Forestry] didn’t regard us as much of a threat. There was a certain amount of aggression towards us. We’d meet it on the road occasionally; not physical violence or anything but a lot of defensiveness.

Agricola Gold Mine - Early rehabilitation work in 1996 
Ian: The Agricola gold mine came along a bit after your time.

Greg: Actually the gold mine was there in my time. Some activity was going on up there and we weren’t happy about it. It was part of our campaign. We were always going on about the mine; it was an obscenity as far as we were concemed. There wasn't large-scale work going on but
people were working there; sometimes two or three people, small-scale sort of stuff. It was just over the hill from Beauty Spot I00 and it was one of the issues we tried to highlight. We were trying to close it down. That mine should never have been there.

[Postscript: Excellent work to safeguard this area continues to be undertaken by the Conondale Range Conservation Association.]

1 comment:

  1. Interesting read Greg, it shows how much of an impact one can have if they work hard to achieve it. I often go camping at Conondale and agree that it has an incredible array of wildlife. Awesome work on protecting such a naturally significant area!