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Nature needs a hand – who’s going to give it?

Versions of this article have also appeared on the ABC’s website as “The new normal in nature” and the National Geographic Water Currents blog as A river recovering: Australia’s upper Snowy River

You could hear the roar. It reverberated between the soaring ridges of the Byadbo Wilderness in Kosciusko National Park. This was the sound of nature’s raw power as sixty thousand tonnes of water every hour crashed down the Snowy falls.

We felt vulnerable paddling the rapid above the roaring falls. Eight willow warriors, a voluntary adventure conservation group, setting out along a remote section of the upper Snowy River. It was easy to feel insignificant, and almost arrogant to believe our impact on nature was such that it needed a hand. For this was wilderness and weren’t we vulnerable and rare guests?

The “new” Snowy River tells us a lot about how our relationship with nature is changing. While nature is still ultimately in control, people increasingly manage that which we previously left to nature.

The Snowy River, once so big, irrepressible and powerful, virtually dried up overnight, after the Jindabyne dam was completed in 1968. The decision to take all of the water from the upper reaches of the Snowy River, is a decision from a different era. This was the Snowy Hydro scheme – nation building and taming nature was the mantra.

So began a battle over the next three decades. What began as an obsession for a few locals along the Snowy River, became a broader alliance, and ultimately cajoled New South Wales, Victoria and Commonwealth Governments to restore a fifth of the flow to the upper Snowy River.

After ten years of increasing environmental flows and riparian restoration, all that was needed was the drought to break. Finally flooding rains came producing a sizable natural flood and allowing greater environmental flows. Paddling on the back of these flows, our task was to help map and poison the remaining invasive willows in the more remote sections of the Snowy River.

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Being one of the few groups to paddle this section of the Snowy River in over fifty years added to the anticipation. And of course there was the mystique of the landscape through which the river passes. For the Ngarigo people Joona Mar Djumba was a giant spiritual area, more recently the Man from Snowy River imprinted the area on the national psyche, and local names like Wild Women Ridge and Devils Hole Creek makes you wonder what inspired such names.

What we found in autumn 2012 was a river starting to recover. The recent flushing flows had started to reshape the river bed. Below the Snowy falls, piles of dead trees, mainly willows, wrenched from the main channel by the river had been dumped high on the banks. A reminder of the power of the river.

One of the joys of being on a river is the wildlife. A highlight was catching a glimpse of a platypus surfacing for air and following their bubble trails as they foraged on the bottom. A promising sign. However, it is clear that the river and its catchment will require continued help.

The Snowy River is a new river. One entirely dependent on us – when it flows, by how much and even the water temperature. All determined by when the gates at Jindabyne dam are opened – by us. Whether the new Snowy River becomes a functioning and healthy river system is now in our hands.

The need to manage the Snowy River to try and mimic nature is not unique. Across this land and its waters, people increasingly manage that which we previously left to nature. Deciding when rivers flow, when bush burns, where animals wander, what grows across entire landscapes, and what is in the air. Our impact is everywhere.

The Snowy River personifies our rapid transition from inhabitants of a natural world to managers of complete landscapes. A hundred years ago the Snowy River, and the plants and animals dependant on it, followed the natural cycles. Now we control the water, struggle to manage our impact on the catchment, and are in the early stages of replicate the natural cycles with all their complexity.

Our challenge is to acknowledge and quickly come to terms with this new responsibility. For while we play an increasing role in managing landscapes, we are still dependent on nature to deliver the life supporting and nourishing benefits to all. New ways of supporting those managing our public and private landscapes are required, so that nature can continue to flourish.

Nature needs a hand. Increasingly our communities and individuals will need to give it as governments struggle. People power is required as conservation must spill out of our parks and reserves and into the surrounding privately managed landscapes. A new way is needed to connect city and country people to support tomorrow’s landscapes, through volunteering, and increasingly by financially supporting conservation. If we are to rise to this challenge, we must first acknowledge our new role in a human-altered environment.

Kelvin Montagu has worked as an agricultural scientist, forest labourer, knowledge manager and gardener, and recently started ecoXchange to try new practical ways of connecting city and country people to support tomorrow’s landscapes.


The author wishes to acknowledge the help from the following people:

Sara Phillips, ABC environment editor;
Annette Macrae, for discussions and proof reading;
Jeff Cottrell, chair of Willow Warriors and Snowy River leader;
Danny Henderson, Snowy River Rehabilitation Project, Southern Rivers CMA
Simon Williams, Aquatic scientist with the New South Wales Office of Water

Further background can be obtained from “Snowy River Story the grassroots campaign to save a national icon.” by Claire Miller, 2005.