The NPWS Bushcare team at Govetts Creek in the Blue Gum Forest ready for a day’s work in October 2021.
Remote Bushcare: Why?
Text and photosTracie McMahon
Planetary Health Initiative writer Tracie McMahon talks about her experience as a Bushcare volunteer with Remote Bushcare programs run by the Blue Mountains City Council (BMCC) and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). These programs are protecting habitat for koalas and other species, and ensuring we protect our native biodiversity.
Writing is my weekday job and, as strange as it may seem, the reason I became a Bushcare volunteer.
When I began writing in 2021 I would spend hours crafting words, hoping to bring the stories of nature to life through fiction.
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The NPWS Bushcare group near the site at the headwaters of the Grose River in Mount Victoria.
Katoomba Creek waterfall. The group checks the edges for weeds to ensure nsure that they do not go downstream.
Fiction writing is competitive, and I aimed high. I planned to enter a competition for , an Australian literary magazine for nature writers, and enrolled in a pre-competition webinar to hone my entry. At the end of the webinar, an attendee asked: “Does writing about nature really make a difference?” The panellist replied that whenever he questioned his work, he went out and pulled a few weeds with his local Bushcare group. It reminded him that both actions and words are important.
Getting involvedThe next day when I sat down to write, I also sent an email to my local NPWS office to ask about weeding. I’m a bushwalker and spend a lot of time in the Grose Valley so that seemed a good place to start. The ranger was quick to reply and asked if I wanted to join the remote team.
Remote Bushcare involves working in areas which are usually at least thirty minutes from emergency assistance. The work requires high levels of fitness as it can involve bush bashing, scrambling, rock hopping, working in
creeks and camping. It also involves visiting some of the most beautiful places in the Blue Mountains, many of which are only accessible to remote groups.
In September 2021 I joined the Great Grose Weed Walk for National Parks and became a remote Bushcare volunteer. This program has been in operation across the Blue Mountains for over two decades. At the time, the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20 followed by flood had revealed a seed bed of gorse and broom which was previously considered under control. Without the cover of natives, the weeds were sprouting and threatening to take over the Grose Valley.
What’s involvedOur group of six camped near Acacia Flat for three days, criss-crossing Acacia Flat and Govetts Creek to remove gorse and broom seedlings. Each was only a few centimetres high, but the ground itself was bare, making them relatively easy to spot. The ranger and more experienced bushcarers provided training to identify and treat the weeds appropriately.
A NPWS Bushcare team treating Crofton weed in the Blue Gum Forest, March 2023
A BMCC remote Bushcare group at Birdwood Gully, Springwood, July 2023
My first year as a remote Bushcare volunteer was revelatory. I was learning about native flora not from books and pictures, but with all my senses. The NPWS staff and other volunteers would take the time to point out the smell and the feel of the weeds, and how they can be differentiated from native flora. Everyone was happy to answer my many questions and discuss their own experiences. My fellow volunteers were a diverse lot. Many had science and ecology backgrounds, but there were teachers, lawyers, business managers and students, eager to get away from their desks.
Remote Bushcare activities usually operate on weekends and are seasonal or monthly, so people with weekday commitments can participate. The Acacia Flat three day camp is one of my favourite activities, particularly as it has allowed me to see the Blue Gum Forest recover after the recent fire and flood events. On our last trip in March 2023, gorse and broom were no longer the priority. Crofton weed and Himalayan honeysuckle are now the focus.
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Arum lily blocking the flow of Burgess Creek
The lily is removed and treated to ensure the creek can flow effectively
Bushcare Officer Steve Fleischmann demonstrating how to treat a large privet
Removing Crofton weed and Himalayan Honeysuckle near Mount Victoria, April 2023
Staying involvedBMCC also has a remote Bushcare program which operates monthly. The sites vary each year, depending on anticipated infestation and time since the team last “worked” the area. Sites can involve rough inaccessible terrain like Katoomba Creek or an offtrack bushwalk at Mount Wilson.
Steve Fleischmann, Bushcare Officer at BMCC explains that the goal of the remote program is to “keep an eye” on areas where problems can eventuate including sites of high ecological value. He says it is like “infection control in hospitals.” The topography of the mountains, as well as proximity of natural areas to urban settlement, can result in waterways becoming “vectors” for invasive species to enter bushland reserves and national parks.
Other sites have critical species populations or habitats. For example, Knapsack Gully in Glenbrook is a part of an endangered shale-sandstone transition forest, a unique ecological community found only in the Sydney Basin of NSW, and Burgess Falls in Hazelbrook has an extensive and diverse mycological (fungi) “forest”.
The remote program allows BMCC to target their resources to optimise their awareness of problems and be prepared to act quickly.
I’ve managed to get to two of their events in 2022-23 and was fortunate to be introduced to unfamiliar terrain in the lower mountains. The Bushcare Officers happily shared their knowledge while we worked, from the fungi on the forest floor to the bush tucker dangling overhead.
At Burgess Falls in Hazelbrook, activities were focused on arum lily. The lily, which is common in household gardens, had made its way into the bush and was blocking the flow of water through the creek.
As we chatted over lunch at Springwood July 2023, I asked the group about other sites they have visited during the year. At Knapsack Reserve in Glenbrook, the group tell me they had only travelled a hundred metres before being faced with a “wall of lantana”. This site is home to a known koala population and is also a critical “vector site”.
Tracie McMahon lives, walks and works on the unceded lands of the Dharug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri. She is a writer with the BMCC Planetary Health Initiative team and and a bushwalker with the .
Steve explained that African olive, lantana, and ochna are frequently found in this area distributed by bird droppings. Each of these species can out-compete native species ‘simplifying’ the landscape, which means an abundance of those species that can co-exist with them and a loss of diversity within the ecosystem. This endangers the endemic flora and fauna, including the koalas. The group of eight worked on the lantana, making a substantial difference to the area and the site will be revisited to ensure the treatment is effective.
At Mount Wilson earlier in the year the site was relatively weed free and the team instead enjoyed a stunning guided bushwalk through the rainforest area, with explanations from the Bushcare Officer.
Even though they found very little at Mount Wilson, the Bushcare officers consider this a good use of volunteers’ time. It is far better to keep visiting the offtrack areas of sites that are known to have problems or that are high impact, than to wait until someone reports a problem in an area which is walked regularly. Often the weed sighting that is reported is just the tip of the iceberg. By going offtrack and checking regularly, BMCC can treat infestations before they take hold and move into areas which are completely inaccessible.
The NPWS also focuses on ensuring weeds are stopped before they travel into inaccessible locations. Their remote program includes activities from the headwaters of the Grose at Mount Victoria through to the edge of the Grose Valley wilderness.
During a thank you event in June 2023, Monica Nugent, Senior Field Officer at NPWS, explained the importance of volunteers to weed management in the national park. Volunteers in the Upper Mountains Area contributed almost 3000 hours of bush regeneration during the previous year, allowing national parks to target their own activities to sites noted by the volunteer teams for intense work or follow up.
As I tap out the last few words of this article, I am thankful for the gentle reminder of that panellist from the webinar. I am grateful that I am physically able to volunteer for the remote Bushcare program, but also that I have the opportunity to share that experience with words.
Tracie in her first NPWS Volunteer Bushcare shirt. A very proud moment!
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