Proposed Dunoon Dam threatens irreplaceable rainforest, over 40 years after neighbouring Protesters Falls was saved

Proposed Dunoon Dam threatens irreplaceable rainforest, over 40 years after neighbouring Protesters Falls was saved

By Chris Byrne and Mark Dunphy

In a neighbouring valley to Protesters Falls – the birthplace of rainforest preservation – sits a less well-known but equally precious remnant of Big Scrub rainforest. The breathtaking patch of critically endangered lowland subtropical rainforest lies nestled between The Channon and Dunoon, alongside the banks of Rocky Creek as it winds from Whian Whian Falls to The Channon Gorge. 

The untouched remnants of subtropical and warm temperate rainforest in this pocket represent 6% of the remaining Big Scrub, a critical expanse given only 1% of the original Big Scrub remains. Growing on sandstone soils, these endangered ecosystems are even rarer than the characteristic Big Scrub remnants on volcanic soil and are of national significance.

This picturesque valley is the site of the proposed Dunoon Dam, which would flood 34 hectares of critically endangered ecosystems, as well as Wijabal Wia-bal cultural heritage sites and sclerophyll woodland, severing habitat corridors and impacting surrounding rainforest irreparably. 

With the case for the dam picking up steam (at a Lismore City Council meeting last month, the Council pledged its support to Rous County Council’s plans), the Northern Rivers is again at a critical juncture in its environmental protection record.

Just as the community did at Protesters Falls, now is the time to take a stand against destruction of the Big Scrub and its many endangered species. This unique remnant is around twice the size of Booyong Flora Reserve or Boatharbour Nature Reserve and of equal ecological value. It is less well-known and difficult to access so its significance has flown under the radar. 

But its destruction should not be overlooked. A direct neighbour to the World Heritage-listed Nightcap National Park around Protesters Falls, The Channon Gorge and surrounds is just as culturally and ecologically important, adding its own unique diversity to the Big Scrub due to its sandstone soils. The canopy trees are large and well developed, the mid and lower storeys of a highly diverse composition. The subtropical rainforest along the steep slopes of the gorge were never cleared and contain around 110 plant species, according to the Terrestrial Ecology Impact Assessment (TEIA) prepared for Rous County Council (however a short survey conducted by botanist Nan Nicholson identified at least 19 species not mentioned in the report). Fourteen of these are threatened species, such as the Green-leaved Rose Walnut (Endiandra muelleri bracteata), Southern Ochrosia (Ochrosia mooreii) and Corokia (Corokia whiteii). Seventeen threatened fauna (including frogs, mammals, 7 bat and 8 bird species), like the Marbled Frogmouth, Bush Hen, White-eared Monarch and Alberts Lyrebird, live in the gorge. And of course hundreds of other Big Scrub fauna rely on this rare habitat for a home. 

Under the current proposal, 28 of the 55 hectares of subtropical rainforest would be cleared for the dam wall. However, as the dam wall cuts through the middle of the subtropical rainforest it is clear the other 27 hectares will also be severely impacted. With most Big Scrub remnants around half of this size, its importance as a safe haven to endangered plants and animals is highly significant, especially to those that need a larger range to survive.

Echoes of Protesters Falls 

When plans to clear-fell the rainforest along Terania Creek emerged in the ‘70s, it took a dedicated group of locals four years of lobbying to save what is now part of World Heritage-listed Nightcap National Park. The campaign to save Terania Creek is credited as being a watershed moment for Australia’s environmental movement and rainforest protection. Lessons from the protests informed campaigns to stop the Franklin River Dam in Tasmania, logging in the Wet Tropics and coal seam gas mining at Bentley.                                                                                                                                                                         

As the community did then, we need to band together to raise awareness of the ecological and cultural value of The Channon Gorge and be the ‘voice of the rainforest’. This proposal should be treated no differently than if it were the destruction of rainforest in Nightcap National Park or one of the more well-known Big Scrub remnants, like Victoria Park, Booyong or Boatharbour Nature Reserves. If it was one of these under threat, I’d bet many in the community wouldn’t think twice about standing in front of the bulldozers. 

Big Scrub Landcare, private landowners and other community organisations have spent decades of back-breaking work and millions of dollars restoring and replanting rainforest which was cleared by short-sighted natural resource management. We estimate that these efforts over the past 30 years have increased the size of the remaining Big Scrub rainforest by 75%, much of it still maturing in its value as habitat. Rous County Council played a pioneering role in conducting and supporting substantial rainforest restoration at Rocky Creek Dam. The pursuit of a dam in Dunoon is a concerning departure from their longstanding commitment to rainforest restoration. 

It’s astonishing to think that in 2022 we have to fight to preserve a site of such ecological value when other water management options are available. Surely we have to look for an option that won’t push so many endangered plants and animals closer to the brink of extinction.