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Stories of Destruction and Regeneration at Seven Mile Beach

March 7, 2021

By Howard Jones

This is a tale of two stories. The first tells of a small environment group’s fight to stop environmental destruction by a sand mining company at Seven Mile Beach near Gerroa. It is a war story covering thirty-five years and with no end in sight. The other is the resurrection story about the regeneration of the land destroyed by this company during that war. Both are remarkable stories of community determination and resilience. 

To show the destruction done by bulldozers clearing vegetation  at Seven Mile Beach, Gerroa
The destruction of Baileys Island. Bulldozers clearing vegetation at Seven Mile Beach, Gerroa in the late 80s. Photo credit: Howard Jones

Story one starts with the clearing of Baileys Island in the mid-eighties. This bushland adjoins Crooked River and Blue Angle Creek at Gerroa.

The vegetation on Baileys Island was remarkable. An assemblage of at least five Endangered Ecological Communities (EECs), it encompassed the only intact coastal zonation of vegetation in our area. The ecology ranged from freshwater wetlands through swamp forests, bangalay sand forest and littoral rainforest to coastal banksia and acacia vegetation.

The picture of GEPS president Warren Holder taken recently in front of one of the great rainforest figs that survived the carnage gives some idea of the lost grandeur of that place.

A giant fig on Baileys Island Gerroa. It shows what the vegetation of Baileys Island was like before it was cleared.
Warren Holder GEPS president, standing like a sentinel beside a giant fig on Baileys Island at Gerroa. It provides an indication of what some of the Baileys Island vegetation was like before it was cleared. Photo credit: Howard Jones

In 1986 the mining company bulldozers moved in and began clearing. Resident Les Robinson alerted us to the dreadful event unfolding. His picture appeared holding onto a tree stump protesting the destruction on the front page of the Illawarra Mercury. This picture was used as ‘evidence’ when the company prosecuted him for trespass. That was the year our small environment group formed. 

Shows the vegetation at Baileys Island before it was cleared in the eighties
Baileys Island, Gerroa before the 80s clearing. Photo supplied.

Altogether about 50 hectares were cleared over three years, prior to the lodgement of a sand mine application and Environmental Impact Statement a few years later. The mining company never was prosecuted for this environmental destruction.

Baileys Island in 1991 after it was cleared. Gerroa township can be seen to the right.
Baileys Island after it was cleared, 1991 (the red line indicates the area cleared between 1986 and 1989). Gerroa township is to the right. Photo supplied.

Kiama Council environmental policies at the time were weak and there was no will to protect this highly significant vegetation. In response to this inaction the Kiama community engaged in a political campaign and two environmental activists were elected to Council. 

In the early 90s our Society joined with the new ‘Green Council’ to successfully oppose this sand mine application in the Land and Environment Court where the application was disallowed. The damage however had already been done.

Many more battles lay ahead. The company began an ‘unauthorised’ mine in highly sensitive wetland vegetation nearby, claiming they had ‘existing use rights’. Council took the to court, and this time they were required to rehabilitate the site. More damage had been done.

In the late nineties they applied to mine a nearby area of highly sensitive Swamp Mahogany Forest EEC. This time Minister Refshauge disallowed the application.  This was the first and only time we didn’t feel that we were battling the government as well as the mining company. 

This photo shows the saved Swamp Mahogany Forest saved in 1999, Gerroa.
A win - Swamp Mahogany Forest saved in 1999. Photo credit: Howard Jones

In 2008, supported by the EDO, our group took Minister Sartor, the Department of Planning and the mining company to the Land and Environment Court in our second Court appeal after they approved a Part 3a application to extend the existing sand mine into sensitive Bangalay and Blackbutt forests further south at Gerroa.

The Court upheld our appeal, the judge finding the environmental responses by the Department to be inadequate. However he didn’t stop the mine. Instead he offset the losses with concessions that included larger conservation areas to protect the EECs adjoining the mine site and considerably larger areas of plantings.

So this really was only a technical win and critical habitat for the greater glider was lost and the vegetation further fragmented. 

Only last year, after many complaints to the Department of Planning, did the company finally complete the compensatory plantings the Court had ordered, and this was nearly ten years late. The role played by the Department of Planning in upholding the Court determination has been lamentable.

This photo shows the destruction from clearing of native trees of Baileys Island.
The clearing of Baileys Island from 1986 to 1989. Photo credit: Howard Jones

A new Part 3A modification for a sand mine extension is before the Department of Planning at this moment. It is a less damaging proposal mostly in adjoining farmland, maybe a win in itself, but this application still has the potential to fragment remaining habitats, destroy around 100 trees and impact adjoining groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

This never-ending fight has spanned over 30 years for our environment group. It could be said we won many environmental concessions, stopped mining in some sensitive areas and overturned an indifferent Council, enabling us to contribute to a range of environmental policies and reforms.

However this sand mining company has cleared approximately 80 hectares of mostly Endangered Ecological Communities, fragmented bushland and diminished the Seven Mile Beach vegetation and habitat in the process. With the support of successive state governments, the environmental impact at Seven Mile Beach has been immense.

Altogether around 80 hectares of vegetation were cleared at Seven Mile Beach for sand mining.
Altogether around 80 hectares of vegetation has been cleared at Seven Mile Beach (indicated in red) in association with sand mining and mine applications. Photo supplied.

The Resurrection of Baileys Island

Story two is about the resurrection of Baileys Island. I think this story is important, not just because of the outcome but also because it shows that determined and caring communities can achieve a lot.

The local Landcare group at Baileys Island are the real heroes in this story.
The local Landcare group at Baileys Island in 2003 - the real heroes in this story. Photo credit: John Howard

In the mid 90s when Sydney Water was looking for a location for a new Sewerage Treatment Plant (STP) for Gerroa and Gerringong they faced a lot of community resistance. 

Our environmental group was initially opposed to the Baileys Island’s location at Gerroa, which the sand mining company had recently cleared. The site was highly sensitive, surrounded by Blue Angle Creek and Crooked River, and adjacent to groundwater-dependent ecosystems and wetlands that we were concerned the effluent from the STP might further impact.

Aeriel image of Baileys Island in 2000 a few years after the clearing was completed
Aerial image of Baileys Island in year 2000 a few years after the clearing was completed. The Landcare project area is indicated in red. It shows how completely the project area was cleared by the mining company. Photo supplied.

However, we also assumed the mining company would make further applications to mine this now degraded site and were keen to get it into public ownership. There were signs of natural regeneration and we glimpsed an opportunity to regain community control and repair the area.

Dave Johnson, dubbed ‘Mr Sewerage’, was GEPS community representative on the STP community liaison group. He played a big role in convincing Sydney Water to build a quality STP that treated effluent to a high tertiary standard and recycle the wastewater.  

Finally, with community support, the Baileys Island site came into public ownership. The STP got the go-ahead and we gained the opportunity to rehabilitate a large area of Baileys Island. 

Landcare volunteers during early stages of the project between 2001 and 2003. Photo credit: Howard Jones

Early Landcare volunteers working on the Bailys Island site. These images show how open and depleted the vegetation was at the beginning of the project. Photo credit: Howard Jones

With Terry Barratt managing our Landcare project we negotiated with Sydney Water to access watering infrastructure and recycled water from the STP and accessed $120,000 in grants.

To show the regeneration of the bush after 8 years of Landcare work on Baileys Island
Eight years on, Baileys Island 2008

When revisiting the site to document its progress in 2008 we were encouraged to see our plantings thriving and the native vegetation regenerating.

Landcare project coordinator Retty Barratt checking plantings in 200llwidthimage
Landcare project coordinator Terry Barratt checking plantings with a volunteer in 2008. Photo credit Howard Jones
Plantings on the Landcare project at BAileys Island, Gerroa
Planting on the Landcare project after 8 years. Photo credit: Howard Jones
GEPS president Warren Holder noting the process of the Landcare project at Baileys Island in 2008
A young looking GEPS president Warren Holder noting the process of plantings in 2008. Photo credit: Howard Jones

With a lot of community volunteer support we planted 20,000 trees and fenced the area to promote natural revegetation. The pictures tell the rest of the story. They show that twenty years on Baileys Island is beginning its journey to return to a new near-natural state. 

Aerial image of Baileys Island showing progress of Landcare project with lots of natural regenaration visible
Aerial image of Baileys Island in 2016. Landcare plantings are progressing rapidly with lots of natural regeneration visible. Photo credit: Howard Jones

The plantings have attempted to replicate the original plant communities. These current images from 2021 show the project’s progress 20 years on of Swamp Oak, Bangalay, Blackbutt and Swamp Mahogany communities that once covered Baileys Island. The trees are now 20 metres or higher with lots of natural regrowth visible.

Regeneration at Baileys Island is progressing nicely
Photo credit: Howard Jones

Landcare project at Baileys Islands
Photo credit: Howard Jones
Landcare project at Bailees Island, Gerroa
Photo credit: Howard Jones
Native vegetation at Baileys Island recovering over time
Photo credit: Howard Jones

Although the vegetation is now returning to Baileys Island, this sandmining saga has been a tragedy for the ecology of Seven Mile Beach. Too many of our precious local ecosystems are disappearing and recoveries are slow and uncertain. The progress made by this small group of passionate nature lovers is testimony that people can make a difference.

Howard Jones is secretary of the Gerroa Environmental Protection Society (GEPS).

Feature image: Landcare project coordinator Terry Barratt checking plantings with a volunteer in 2008. Photo credit: Howard Jones

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    5 comments on “Stories of Destruction and Regeneration at Seven Mile Beach”

    1. Wonderful work Howard, Terry and Warren + all the other volunteers. Such shocking destruction and 30 years later the trees are thriving thanks to you all - how sad it had to take so long, with older trees and habitat decimated - but there's hope when a group of passionate nature lovers work together.

    2. A wonderful story of environmental conservation, resistance and perseverance, and one I was unaware of although having lived in the area for 30+ yrs. Along with the preservation of Bomaderry Creek and blocking of developers, these stories need to be published widely as celebration and incentive to other environmental warriors!
      The trees, birds and animals deeply thank you Warren, Howard & Terry and others!

    3. Thank you Howard for this insightful story of community spirit, it has been a pleasure working with you on this. What a tragedy that it has taken over 30 years of effort to protect this patch of habitat, and that this story is not dissimilar to many many others taking place across the country. Proof that individuals who come together with passion can achieve a lot. The replanted section from the air is testimony to that.

    4. Thank you hard working GEPS President Warren Holder, Howard Jones, Terry Barratt, Landcare and all those involved in keeping Seven Mile beach, a fragile precious local ecosystem that must be protected for future generations. People are finally waking to the fact we all need to do our bit. The bushfires of 2020 highlighted how important it is even more importantly now in 2021. Thank you again & well done.

    5. Congratulations Howard, I know how hard you and the team have worked for so long.
      This is a fabulous result, never give up , never give in.
      Wishing you all the very best.
      Robyn

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