Subtropical rainforest restoration at the Rous Water Rainforest Reserve, Rocky Creek Dam, 1983 – 2016

Key words: Lowland subtropical rainforest, ecosystem reconstruction, drinking water catchment, continual improvement process.

Introduction. Rous Water is actively engaged in ecosystem reconstruction within the drinking water catchment areas it manages on behalf of the community. The aim of these activities is to improve the functioning of essential natural processes that sustain water quality. The methodology used for rainforest restoration by Rous Water has evolved over time through an ‘adaptive management’ process at Rocky Creek Dam. This adaptive management approach has demonstrated that effective large scale sub-tropical regeneration at Rocky Creek Dam is achieved through complete removal of competing plants. The technique has become known as the Woodford Method and is now being applied at other Rous Water restoration sites.

The Rous Water Rainforest Reserve at Rocky Creek Dam is set in the northern headwaters of the Richmond River catchment, on the southern rim of the Tweed shield volcano. Basalt flows from the volcano have produced nutrient rich Red Ferrosol that supported diverse sub-tropical rainforest ecosystems across the region, until the rainforest was largely cleared for agriculture in the late 19th century. The Rocky Creek Dam site is adjacent to the Big Scrub Flora Reserve, the largest remaining remnant subtropical rainforest in the region. This reserve acts as a reference site for the restoration project (Fig 1).

Figure 1. Detail of the regeneration areas at Rocky Creek Dam, showing the areas treated and the year of the initial works

Figure 1. Detail of the regeneration areas at Rocky Creek Dam, showing the areas treated and the year of the initial works

Clearing of land in the vicinity of Rocky Creek Dam by early settlers commenced in the 1890s, with the cleared lands used for the establishment of dairy farms and a sawmill. In 1949, following acquisition of the site by Rous County Council (now Rous Water) for the construction of a water supply dam, this former farmland had reverted to weedy regrowth characterised by a mosaic of native/exotic grass, Lantana (Lantana camara) and Camphor Laurel (Cinnamomum camphora) which supressed any expansion or recovery of scattered rainforest remnants. Transformation of the site commenced in 1983 when Rous Water became actively engaged in ecosystem recovery by systematically removing weeds that suppressed rainforest regeneration, a practice that continues today.

Rainforest restoration methods. The practices and management tools used in rainforest restoration at the site have been previously described by Woodford (2000) and Sanger et al. (2008). The work method typically involves the systematic poisoning and slashing of weeds to promote recruitment of rainforest plants from the soil seed bank and then to facilitate the growth of suppressed rainforest plants, providing a structural framework for further seed dispersal by wind and, particularly, flying frugivores and thus further colonisation by later phase rainforest trees.

Since 1983, an area of approximately 70 ha has been progressively treated in 1-2 ha blocks using this methodology (refer Fig 1), with progressively diminishing amounts of follow-up treatment needing to be conducted in the treated areas over subsequent years to secure successional progression of the rainforest species.

Use of this method means that, due to recruitment from the seed bank and the use of stags (from dead camphor laurel) as perches for seed dispersing birds, very limited planting has been required on the site. This has preserved the genetic integrity of the Big Scrub in this location.

Results. A total of approximately 70 hectares of weed dominated regrowth has been treated at the Rous Water Rainforest Reserve since commencement in 1983 (Figure 1). This is approximately 35 ha since the report previously published in 2000 and represents approximately 30 % of the Rous Water property at Rocky Creek Dam.

This progressive treatment of compartments of weedy regrowth at Rocky Creek Dam has continued to lead to rapid canopy closure by shorter lived pioneer and early secondary tree species, with a gradual progression to higher proportions of later secondary and primary species with increasing time since treatment. All tree species that are listed as occurring in the reference site are not only now present in the restoration area, but informal observations suggest that most, if not all, are increasing in abundance over time (Figs 2-6)

Figure 2. Treated regrowth at the Rous Water Rainforest Reserve, Rocky Creek Dam After 1 year (foreground)

Figure 2. Typical regeneration of rainforest species 1 year after Lantana removal at the Rous Water Rainforest Reserve, Rocky Creek Dam (foreground).

Figure 3. Same photopoint after 6 years

Figure 3. Typical recovery after 6 years

Figure 4. Same photopoint after 12 years

Figure 4. Typical recovery after 12 years

Figure 5. Same scenario after 20 years

Figure 5. typical recovery after 20 years

Figure 6. After 30 years

Figure 6. Typical recovery after 30 years

The structure of the older treated regrowth areas sites appears to be converging on rainforest conditions, as noted by Kanowski & Catterall (2007). Thackway & Specht (2015) depict how 25 ha of systematically treated compartments that were covered almost entirely with lantana are progressing back towards the original Lowland Subtropical Rainforest’s composition, structure and ecological function (Fig 7). Overall the vegetation status in this area was assessed at between 85% and 90% of its pre-clearing status.

This process is, at its oldest 33 years old and in some locations much younger. So it is clear that the development of the subtropical vegetation still has many decades, possibly centuries, to go, before it approaches the composition, structural and habitat characteristics of a primary forest. Notwithstanding the large areas of natural regrowth that are yet to be worked, it is evident that a large proportion of the assisted regeneration areas progressively worked by Rous over the past 33 years now requires only a low level of ongoing maintenance. This shows that these sites are maturing over time and have largely reached a self-organising state, and in the fullness of time will achieve a high degree of similarity to the reference state.

Fig 7, Thackway fig rocky creek dam1

Figure 7. Assessment of change in indicators of vegetation condition in a 25 ha area. This depicts the degree of recoveery of Lowland Subtropical Rainforest found at Rocky Creek Dam, Big Scrub, NSW against a pre-clearing reference. (Graph reproduced with permission. The method used to generate the graph is described in Thackway, R. and Specht, A., (2015). Synthesising the effects of land use on natural and managed landscapes. Science of the Total Environment. 526:136–152 doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2015.04.070. ) Condition indices for transition Phase 4 were derived from prior reports including Sanger et al. 2008 and Woodford 2000. Metadata can be viewed at http://portal.tern.org.au/big-scrub-rocky-queensland-brisbane/16908 .

Lessons learned. Using this method of harnessing the natural resilience processes of the rainforest, we have been able to progress the recovery of an important water catchment area, restoring very high biodiversity conservation values in a landscape where rainforest was, and remains, in serious decline., The ability of the high resilience sites at Rocky Creek Dam to respond to the Woodford Method is clearly demonstrated, but there is ample evidence that application of this and similar resilience-based rainforest restoration methods can harnessed resilience at other sites in the Big Scrub that are at greater distances from remnants.

Figure 8. Distribution of management intensity classes across the Rous Water Rainforest Reserve at Rocky Creek Dam.

Figure 8. Distribution of management intensity classes across the Rous Water Rainforest Reserve at Rocky Creek Dam. (Legend for this map is in Appendix 1)

Current work and future directions. Work continues at the site and management is supportive of-site evaluation to assess the extent to which the treated areas are undergoing successional development using a range of available assessment tools.

To assist future planning, and in order to address the issue of how to best estimate and plan for restoration works and associated costs, Rous Water has adapted the methodology developed on the Tweed-Byron Bush Futures Project, where each restoration site/area was assigned a Management Intensity Class (MIC) based on a generalised assessment of site condition, weed composition and cover and other management requirements. (Fig 8) The MIC describes the frequency of restoration work required to restore the site to a minimal maintenance level and how many years this would take to achieve. The MIC aims to describe the extent of management intervention necessary to restore the site to a minimal maintenance level. For this analysis this equates to the establishment of a self sustaining sub-tropical rainforest buffer zone. Each management intensity class is associated with a particular restoration trajectory/cost per hectare, based on visitation frequency by a standard 3 person team and expressed in terms of number of visits required to control / manage weeds. Appendix 1 below shows details of the MIC classification, showing for each class, relevant site criteria, and the estimated level of bush regeneration resources required to bring each class to a low maintenance level.

Contact: Anthony Acret, Catchment Assets Manager,  Rous Water. Tel: +61 (0) 2 6623 3800, Email: anthony.acret@rouswater.nsw.gov.au

Appendix 1. Legend for Management intensity classes used in Fig 8. (From Tweed-Byron Bush Futures)

Appendix 1. Legend for Management intensity classes used in Fig 8.

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