ORGAN PIPES NATIONAL PARK
ORGAN PIPES CLOSE UP
The Keilor Plains was settled in the 1830s, very early in the European occupation of Port Phillip by Tasmanian sheep-farmers, and the vegetation was seriously damaged very quickly. When rabbits and foxes were released, they soon invaded the grasslands of the plains. The land was already very marginal farmland, with thin soils and rocky, uneven surface. But smallholders tried anyway and in the process did a lot of ecological damage. There is a history of dairying and oat cropping. Oat grass is still a major weed in the park. The area was a focus for Field Naturalists excursions
In the 1950s Edward Green, a property speculator, purchased the property from the Bartlett family of dairymen. After his death in 1961 the trustee of his estate tried to separate the unsaleable steep valley of Jackson’s Creek from the saleable properties on the plateau and donate the useless bit to the state government, which was very reluctant to take responsibility for it.
Eventually the transfer was achieved and the government wondered what to do with this ecological disaster zone, surrounded by a devastated landscape. Geologists wanted protection for the basalt formations and the only option at the time was to make it into a National Park. The National Parks Act of 1975 created other options but in 1972 these were not available. So a line was drawn around a property totally covered in weeds and farm rubbish, suffering severe gully erosion, and it was called a National Park. It was gazetted just 30 years ago last month, so this seminar is its 30th anniversary celebration. The trustee of the Green estate, Stan Payne, was asked to recommend someone as caretaker of the property and named the husband of his office receptionist, Jack Lyale. For several months Jack was caretaker, then when the property achieved National Park status he was appointed its first ranger and stayed until he retired 17 years later.
First tasks were to replace the dilapidated fences and create a barrier to exclude rabbits and foxes, start efforts to control those within the boundary, set up an entrance road and car park for the rapidly increasing number of park visitors (estimated to have been about 30,000 in its second year!), and get a shed erected for an office. For almost two years there was no building on the property to use as an office or to store tools, no telephone, no power, nowhere to shelter when it rained and nowhere to house any educational material for the large number of school groups taken on excursions to the park – a fibro box was built late in 1973 and within 9 weeks was broken into and tools stolen. Jack was allowed to employ several labourers to get on with the tough work of fencing steep rocky slopes and tackling the huge quantity of boxthorn and Artichoke Thistle covering much of the surface. The National Parks Service poured vast quantities of herbicide onto some parts of the park to control Horehound and thistles. The corps of labourers cut and painted boxthorns by the thousand and many dried-out stumps can still be found on slopes all around the park.
The weeds were mainly garden escapes and pasture grasses. Heavy grazing by dairy cattle had prevented effective regeneration of nearly all species indigenous to the area. By 1972 there was almost nothing left of the original flora – about six trees were still standing. And there were very few surviving native animals. A survey of birds in 1972 found 30-40 species, compared with the nearly 200 species recorded by Isaac Batey in the mid 19th century.
The Maribyrnong Valley Committee, started about 1969 by three friends, Don Marsh, Bob Osborne and Lawrie Groom (Keilor Deputy Town Clerk), spent its first three years lobbying for protection of properties in the west of Melbourne with conservation value – Werribee Gorge, Williamstown Rifle Range, Altona Lake, Pt. Cook, Djerriwarrh Creek, Humes Pipes, Gellibrand, Lerderderg gorge, etc. All these are now protected.
By 1972 the MVC decided to focus on the new Organ Pipes national park and try restoring it to its pre-European state. The most immediate problem was to stop the serious rate of soil erosion due to the denuded surface. The group surveyed local valleys for remnant vegetation, collected seed, propagated seedlings in their back yards, conducted 15 working bees a year, and started planting trees, on the basis that large plants with big root systems would quickly stop the erosion (slides 107, 210). They also made initial efforts to establish herbs and grasses in a network of fenced enclosures, hoping they might eventually expand. Tubestock was at first grown in artificial tubes made of rolled lino or peeled-and-soaked plywood, as this was a period before the wide availability of moulded plastic plant tubes. Don maintained a bird survey for 15 years, chronicling the slow return of indigenous species to the area as the flora recovered.
PLANTING AMONG THE THISTLES 1978
Barry Kemp, an amateur botanist, joined in 1973 and took on the revegetation planning, developing a zoning system based on the published work of earlier botanists, and his own surveys of soil types, slope and aspect. He produced a grid map with patches scheduled for replanting each year (slide of map), organised seed collection, propagation via Macedon nursery, and supervised the planting program. He set up a nursery seedbank at the park in 1985 and made a collection of dried herbarium specimens from remnant sites. He and the group lobbied for transfer to the park of management authority over a property owned by City of Keilor, which was achieved in 1986 after much bureaucratic dithering, then organised three seasons of planting on the valley floor and gorge slopes.
Rabbits quickly ate the first seedlings planted so a program of making thousands of little cylinder frames of chicken wire was started, to protect seedlings in their early years. Despite this, the harsh drying winds quickly desiccated many young plants so the frames were protected within a layer of hessian, which slowly deteriorated until just shreds flapped in the wind
Jack Lyale, a long-time scout master, encouraged scouts to help the Friends group at planting days, with Men of the Trees, bushwalking clubs and other groups. The MVC group organised a winter planting season, May to October, in the wet season, and maintenance work November to April, a pattern still followed. Within 6 years, the group was awarded the Institute of Architects Robin Boyd medallion for landscape and in 1982 won the Garden State Award for improvements to the park. Don pushed for the release of Sugar Gliders into the reafforested park - eventually achieved in 1989-90 – the first release of wild-captured gliders into a park. The founders all retired in the late 1980s, and CF&L took more responsibility for managing the revegetation.
An effort was made in the mid 1980s to create a seed-bank nursery on the grassland paddock fronting the freeway, but maintenance was too difficult in this weedy area, so now the park’s nursery is behind the Works Depot, protected within a fence covered with shade-cloth. Much of the weeding is still done by the Friends. The front paddock has recently been the site for release of several Striped Legless Lizards, a project managed by the park staff.
The next ranger, Matt LeDuc, arranged with City of Keilor for installing 3 exclusion fences around five old Cypress Pine trees on the escarpment of neighbouring Sydenham Park in 1991 (slides 79, 74, 75). The Friends have taken responsibility for maintaining these enclosures since then, with working bees and individuals’ visits to remove Boxthorn and Prickly Pear, and to monitor several seedlings that appeared in 1997. Seed had been collected from these old trees in the 1970s and about 100 seedlings planted around the park. One fenced enclosure has had seedlings since 1995, which have been monitored monthly, showing how few germinated seedlings successfully establish themselves – about 35 survive out of well over 250 cotyledons found to date. Matt also started the project of setting up the nursery on its present site.
Another monitoring project, started by Robert Irvine, concerned the problem of lack of natural regeneration of the thousands of Casuarinas planted on the escarpment in the 1970s. This involved fencing around 4 small plots of Casuarinas, to see whether rabbits were the main factor in the lack of regeneration. These enclosures are monitored irregularly, and we have found young trees, possibly suckers, inside and none outside the fenced plots, which seems to implicate rabbits as the culprits
When the Sydenham growth corridor was approved by the Cain government in the mid 1980s, an effort was made to transplant as many grass tussocks as possible from this rich grassland (it was ranked as being of State significance until the housing estates destroyed it all), and of harvesting the Kangaroo Grass and using the seed-rich hay to spread around the National Park and start native grass patches, some of which have been very successful. The Friends obtained grant funding and provided quite a bit of labour for this over several years. Matt LeDuc’s successor, Mark Hammett, started a program of progressively setting up small paddocks within exclusion fences along the creek, poisoning all the rabbits with 1080 baits and swamping out the multitude of weeds with mass planting of Tussock Grass, followed by infill plantings of Callistemons, Tea tree and other shrubs, for which the Friends provided a significant amount of labour. This project has been a great success
In the late 1980s, Vic Roads took on the project of turning Calder Highway into a freeway, duplicating the existing two-lane road into two separated roadways of 2 lanes each. A small strip was removed from the frontage of all properties along the north side of the road, including the national park. They routinely plant groups of trees along freeway verges. Don Marsh contacted them in the hope that a suite of species would be selected that is indigenous to the Keilor Plains. The project management were very cooperative in amending their species list to Don’s satisfaction, and Matt LeDuc arranged for seed collection within the park. So in 1991-2 over 20,000 young trees were planted along an 8 km. segment of freeway, that has become in effect an extension of the park. It started what has become, in the hands of our committee member, Ian Taylor, a general program of selecting indigenous species for freeway plantings.
In response to a 1988 fauna survey by two biologists from Arthur Rylah Institute, in 1992 10 bat roost boxes were installed, now expanded to 34. Bats started using these in 1994. The colony has increased from 35 to now over 150 insectivorous bats, it is the longest-running monitoring project in Australia and a model for similar projects being started elsewhere. Out of this has arisen, in 2001, a nationwide Bat Roost Box Network of people interested in such projects. The Friends is still used almost every year by Scout Venturers wanting to do field conservation work for Environment Badges as part of the Queen Scout Award program. These Venturers come along to planting days and bat box nights and we have converted several young people who started off very anxious about being close to bats into people who love these amazing little animals.
Frog surveys were conducted, initially by Robert Irvine and Mark Scida, to establish a list of 7 species for the park, including the rare Growling Grass Frog. Participation in the Fungimap project conducted by the State Herbarium involves an ongoing fungi survey at the park and a steadily growing list of species recorded.
The group has become a vehicle for obtaining grants for specific projects, all of which add to the park’s value. In 1992 Carl Rayner organised grant funding and permission to fence and signpost four high-quality grassland patches along the Sydenham-Sunbury rail line, which are visited annually for maintenance weeding and litter collection. Research has shown that such small remnants, especially along rail lines and roadsides are rapidly being destroyed so this effort to protect four sites is very important. They require ongoing maintenance, occasional burning and weeding. One grant-funded project under way at present is the fencing of 16 young Callitris (Cypress Pine) trees in the northwest of the park in the hope that excluding rabbits will create the conditions for natural regeneration of this species.
Prickly Pear infests the park. A project to remove it started in 1992 and still continues, with several hectares having been cleared of this very nasty weed to date, and a beginning made at fencing and regrassing the largest area, in the park’s northwest.
Since 1997 the group has been planting a visitors’ loop trail behind the Visitor Centre, to show off the herbs and grasses of the Keilor Plains, with plants supplied by Ian Taylor.
We have mapped sites at which Aboriginal stone tools have been found, and sites containing European ceramics and glass from 19th century settlers at the rubbish dumps around vanished bush huts.
Right from the start the fact that the park is surrounded by very degraded private properties has been a problem. They are covered with weeds, as was the park when it was first protected. Weed seeds blow in, and are brought in by birds and mammals, rabbits and foxes quickly repopulate the park after poisoning of the animals inside the boundary. So from the early years there has been much lobbying to get neighbouring properties purchased and added to the park, and a revegetation program started to reduce the flow of weed seed and expand the area of recreated indigenous bushland. Two more properties north of Jackson’s Creek were added in 1980, expanding the park northwards. After a very long delay several more were added in 1998 (properties compulsorily acquired by VicRoads as part of the Calder Freeway duplication project). In 2001 a property completely enclosed within the park, that had been owned by City of Brimbank and was donated to the State added another 13 hectares. But other efforts have been fruitless to date. The major study by Melbourne Water in 1991, the Upper Maribyrnong Concept Plan, proposed a continuous linear park joining Organ Pipes with Brimbank Park 10 km downstream and this is the long term goal. In the past 2 years a major restoration effort has commenced in the neighbouring Sydenham Park, under the management of Jason Summers, making it in effect increasingly part of a corridor along Jackson’s Creek available for plants and animals to migrate along the waterway. Lobbying for park additions and improvements continues to be a major effort.
The Parks Service installed two lookouts behind the Visitor Centre in the mid 1990s and the Friends helped to fund a stairway joining them down a steep slope using income from money generously donated to the group by Don Marsh. So viewing the valley is now much safer.
We have 40 paid up members, mostly men, with a slow turnover. Two working bees monthly – one daytime, to plant or do maintenance work, one evening to check the bat boxes. Membership fee is $12 a year. We produce a bi-monthly newsletter of 14 pages, and in 1994 a book on the flora of the park and its region, written by Barry Kemp. Research papers have been published in the Victorian Naturalist and Indigenotes. One member, David Akers, set up a website in 1999, which was given a major upgrade as one of his Diploma of Education projects in 2000. Newsletters are attached to it at intervals so it maintains its status as an up-to-date guide to what the group is doing.
Three members, Don, Barry and Carl have received the Best Friend Award from the VNPA Friends Network committee: the inaugural one for Don Marsh in 1991, Barry Kemp in 1993 and Carl Rayner in 1998. The group was incorporated in 1990 and has a committee of 8.
In its early years the group was formed by a remarkable group of people who were, or became, close friends, and who did the major part of the planning for restoration of the park in co-operation with the first Ranger, Jack Lyale. It has not been possible to sustain this momentum since the founding members retired in the late 1980s, but the group has taken several new directions, and continues to make valuable contributions to the development of the park and to publicising its advance, through papers published about the bats, the Callitris work, the Sugar Gliders, and the revegetation program. These papers are increasingly being cited by other researchers as they contain basic data about the progress of particular aspects of the park not published elsewhere. Robert Irvine has been the main enthusiast behind this effort to get things published. This has only recently led to publication of two books, one an anthology of biographies of people associated with the park property, in its farming days and its restoration phase. The other is a historical analysis of one of the work diaries of the founding ranger, Jack Lyale, for 1973, the year after the park was proclaimed – seeing events at the park as part of local history and also of the wider history of the development of Victoria’s parks system.
Several members have opted to help manage the Friends Network Committee – Wayne Woods in the mid 1990s, Robert Irvine and Maelor Himbury more recently.
In the process of a small volunteer group slowly evolving as one generation makes way for another, directions alter, new projects are taken on and sometimes the whole purpose of the group has to be reexamined. Since the formation of Parks Victoria in 1996, in a lean decade for parks, and even more so since Organ Pipes was made part of a larger Grasslands Unit, responsible for several other properties, managed by a reduced staff, a general program of outsourcing of labour to contractors, and rapid movement of staff between parks, the nature of the relationship between the volunteer group, the park and its staff has undergone a major change. Adapting to it has been difficult and is an ongoing challenge. Despite its being the smallest of Victoria’s 36 National Parks, the opportunities for contributing to the advancement of conservation within this tiny area are without limit. It just requires a long-term commitment and some imagination as well as solid management support at the local level.
Thirty years ago this area was a patch of weeds, rabbits and farm rubbish. Its transformation into a showpiece of restoration has been achieved by a remarkably dedicated bunch of people and it is truly amazing that it should have reached such a stage, in a comparatively short time, as to be seen as a fit place to hold a seminar of volunteer conservation groups from all around the state. This is a tribute to the pioneers and to those who have followed them in maintaining the effort to repair the damage and preserve some fragment of what the Keilor Plains and its valleys used to be until 170 years ago.