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  • Writer's pictureAmy Gould

Rainforest revival: the bush regeneration story of Rocky Creek Dam

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

I didn't expect to be awed by Rocky Creek Dam - I went in search of a swimming hole and not to marvel at the site's human-engineering. What I found there was a fascinating bush regeneration story seeded four decades ago by a hippie named Ralph Woodford.

Rocky Creek Dam sits on Widjabal/Wi-abal country of the Bundjalung nation and is the primary water supply of New South Wales' Northern Rivers communities, between the boundaries of Woodburn, Ocean Shores and Lismore.

The reserve is a great spot for roaming, with a picturesque lake and sweeping grassy slopes, bush tracks, swimmable rock pools, a platypus creek (none sighted during my mid-morning visit), and varying heights and scales of vistas stretching out across the lake.

I rambled through clutches of intact rainforest and sensed this was a site of ecological integrity, soon to discover it was evidence of a visionary restoration project of 'Big Scrub' rainforest going back some 40 years.

Image: Rocky Creek Dam 2021 / Meredith Philistin

The 'Big Scrub' of northern NSW was recorded (by Europeans) as the largest swathe of subtropical rainforest in Australia, covering an impressive 75,000 hectares. Much of it was cleared in the mid-late 1800s as dairy farming gained its foothold in the region.

When Rocky Creek Dam opened in 1953, cattle were moved on and the dairy farms slowly relinquished to weeds like lantana and camphor laurel. A few native species competed successfully and began to reseed, with the aid of birds and bats to disperse seeds from the nearby remnant section of Big Scrub.

The reserve was left mostly to its own devices for the next 30 years, until 1983 when intentional restoration work began. Ralph Woodford, a self-confessed hippie from Victoria who knew a thing or two about landscape restoration, was unemployed at the time and saw a role advertised that piqued his interest. He started leading the restoration project as a temporary worker - initially - yet it was to became a 30 year labour of love.

Image: Rocky Creek Dam c. 1950 / Daily Telegraph

Woodford developed the now famous 'Woodford Method' - the prevailing regeneration model applied to lowland subtropical rainforest such as the Big Scrub. An adaptive management approach, it responds to environmental feedback and essentially involves removing invasive species and replanting native species to create habitat for a range of wildlife species.

Around 70 hectares of weed-logged land has been regenerated, resulting in improved water quality in the creek and increased biodiversity, while 25 hectares of previous lantana growth now resembles almost 90% of its original rainforest composition, structure and ecological function.

Images: Stuart King 2022 (1-2), Kelsie Moore 2023 (3)

Rocky Creek Dam's regeneration project also provided opportunities for community involvement and education about the importance of rainforest conservation.

Land clearing remains a significant threat to Australia's biodiversity - Australia is the only developed nation on a world list of deforestation hotspots. New South Wales and Queensland in particular are singled out for their high rates of clearing in analysis by WWF.

With many of our unique species facing ongoing population decline due to habitat loss and fragmentation, Rocky Creek's regeneration story offers a nature-based solution to the biodiversity and climate crisis that can be achieved in a relatively short space of time through dedicated conservation efforts.

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