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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 124

Senator STEPHENS (10:00 PM) —At a time when all Australians are becoming more aware of their responsibility for contributing to a sustainable future for Australia, one organisation, of which I am very proud to be sponsor, lives by the principles that we should work to reduce our ecological footprint and educate others to do the same. This organisation is the Goulburn Field Naturalists Society—a thriving not-for-profit, non-political, natural history club, which was formed in 1965. The Goulburn field naturalists support all manner of activities undertaken by private and leasehold land users that protect habitats suitable for indigenous flora and fauna, and minimise negative effects of land management. They actively encourage the study of natural history through field excursions, club activities, public lectures and publications.

Last Saturday, it was my pleasure to launch an important new publication that continues the Goulburn Field Naturalists Society's tradition of education and community awareness of the importance of biodiversity and sustainability. The publication, entitled Down by the Riverside, is a guide to native plants in and about the rivers of the Goulburn district. Two years of effort went into this important project, which was spearheaded by Rodney Falconer—a local teacher, environmentalist, former executive officer of the Conservation Council of the South-East Region and former executive member of the New South Wales Nature Conservation Council. The launch of Down by the Riverside was attended by about 80 locals and took place at the Goulburn Historic Waterworks Museum at Marsden Weir on the Wollondilly River—a very appropriate venue, by the river, where people can witness many of the plants identified in the guide, as well as the impacts and degradation that are the consequences of encroaching development.

The Wollondilly and Mulwaree rivers have been the lifeblood of the Goulburn region for millennia; however, our ability to use rainwater tanks, to sink bores and to create large water storage reservoirs and dams have made us apathetic about these vital resources. We tend to forget that the water flowing down the waterways of the Goulburn district provides drinking water to Australia's largest urban population of the Sydney basin and to other towns and rural areas downstream. We all have a responsibility to maintain that water resource in pristine condition, otherwise that water supply will become increasingly polluted. The river is also a vital corridor for wildlife, allowing many species of birds and other animals to travel from one area of bushland to another. The loss or impairment of such corridors isolates wildlife populations leading to their gradual extinction.

The waterworks museum and the surrounding river banks are fine testaments to the tireless work of a number of community groups who have worked hard to restore both the museum and the river. I was delighted to hear that in recent months two families of platypus have been cavorting around the river banks there, sharing their habitat with many exotic plants and animals that now dominate ever-shrinking patches of native ecosystems.

Down by the Riverside is intended as a resource for individuals and organisations, those whom Rodney Falconer rightly calls `land managers—both new and existing'. It is a valuable field guide to understanding our natural heritage and encourages us all to preserve and work to restore the biodiversity of the region through careful planning, propagation and sound management within the catchment. But it is also much more than that—it is a wonderful catalogue of photographs, illustrations and information that is a fantastic educational resource. It is easy to read and able to be used by school children, individuals, planners, councils, developers, Landcare groups and gardeners. Down by the Riverside captures and illustrates at a very local level the global dilemma of the loss of biodiversity. Entire bushland ecosystems are being damaged or disappearing outright, taking Australia's native plants and animals with them. National icons like some of our gum trees and marsupials are at risk from land clearing and other threatening processes.

The early explorers described Goulburn's rivers as typical of Australia before white settlement—long pools separated by narrow channels or swamps, chains of ponds and lagoons. They supported an abundance and a diversity of habitats and wildlife. Fertile treeless plains were ringed with the most frost hardy of trees. In less frosty parts, tall open forest was mainly dominated by stately ribbon gums, with a layered storey of wattles, softer-leafed shrubs and ferns. All that remain of the old bushland today are stringy barks, scribbly gum forests and remnant stands of Argyle apples. Several native animal species have also all but vanished from the Goulburn district, including brolgas, bustards, rock wallabies, koalas, bush stone curlews and the southern bettong.

The evidence of all this is supported by the Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment—the biggest audit of our wildlife and bushlands ever undertaken, as new technology has allowed scientists to map the natural groupings of plants and animals and assess their wellbeing. This assessment, first published late in 2002, provided for the first time a comprehensive scientific assessment of the health of our wildlife and their habitats. The report found that nearly 3,000 whole bushland ecosystems are at risk, from Queensland's coolibah woodlands to Western Australia's heathlands.

These endangered ecosystems provide homes for species such as bilbies, spectacled hare-wallabies, Gouldian finches and hundreds more. At least 1,595 native plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, including some types of gum trees and wattles. This is proof that, in general, the more land clearing in a region, the more threatened the species and ecosystems that occur there. It is imperative that federal, state and territory governments renew their efforts to protect Australia's wildlife and bushlands for future generations. Nature conservation must be placed high on the agenda of governments at all levels, and significant funding must be put towards protecting intact bushlands and whole ecosystems.

Down by the Riverside provides an excellent example of how this can be helped to occur, on the ground and in our local area. Funded through the Commonwealth government's Envirofund initiative of the Natural Heritage Trust, with financial and logistical support from the Goulburn Mulwaree Council and the Goulburn Field Naturalists Society, Down by the Riverside continues the tradition of the Goulburn Field Naturalists Society, established almost 40 years ago by Molly O'Neill and her friends, to document local native plants and in doing so to encourage locals to think global, act local. The book is dedicated to Molly O'Neill; Tom Hone; Ros Stafford Dixon, who passed away just a short time ago; Garth Dixon; Mike Calcovics; and ecologist Carina Clarke, all great workers for the cause of protecting and repairing natural landscapes. I found this comment, which highlights the importance of having more than good intentions about our environment, in the book's introduction:

Our environment should neither be a weedscape nor simply an amateur botanic garden.

I recognised then that this field guide is a sincere effort to protect and nurture the biodiversity of the Goulburn district.

I wish to extend my warmest congratulations to Rodney Falconer for Down by the Riverside. It is an important and enduring publication. It is a significant achievement for all those who have been involved—those acknowledged formally by Rodney in the introduction and those who, in their own way, continue to support the work of the Goulburn Field Naturalists Society and other environmental organisations. These people and organisations include Bill Wilkes, president and long time member of the Goulburn Field Naturalists Society; the Goulburn Mulwaree Council and its Mayor, Paul Stephenson; Rainer Rehwinkel and the NSW Department of Environment and Conservation; Tim Hayes and the Goulburn chapter of the Society for Growing Australian Plants; and the many Landcare and Bushcare groups throughout the district. To the enthusiastic individuals who recognise the importance of maintaining biodiversity and our natural ecosystems, Down by the Riverside will be an invaluable resource. It is my intention to distribute this publication to all the schools of the district so that it can be used as a great resource in local environmental education and projects. It also serves as an enduring legacy to those like Molly, Tom and Ros, whose lives were defined by their commitment to the environment.