Greening the red in outback Australia - National Tree Day Blog

Greening the red in outback Australia

In far western New South Wales, the landscape is a play of contrasts between pale blue sky, scarlet soil and vibrant bursts of green from plants that have evolved to survive the harsh environment over thousands of years. The air is so pure it’s said to generate ‘perfect light’, casting an aura of timelessness over the outback towns that dot the land. Out here, untouched vistas can give you the sense of staring straight back through time.

Broken Hill is renowned for vibrant colours that have provided backdrops for iconic Aussie films like Mad Max and Wake in Fright. This oasis in the desert is one of Australia’s oldest mining towns and it’s been referred to as one of the world’s great ‘mineralogical rainforests’ due to its stores of silver, lead and zinc. It was also the birthplace of the world’s largest mining company, Broken Hill Proprietary, or BHP Biliton.  

Back in the 1930s, this arid zone was suffering from severe dust storms and erosion caused by early mining and grazing activities. At a time when arid land conservation was little understood, the Barrier Field Naturalists’ Club, one of the oldest naturalists' clubs in Australia, advocated for the protection of this fragile environment.  

Founded by Albert and Margaret Morris, pioneers of arid zone revegetation science in Australia, the club created an area known as the ‘regeneration belt’ or ‘green belt’ around the perimeter of Broken Hill. The club started their first fencing and planting project in 1936 when the natural area was fenced off to allow it to regrow. They planted 1,600 river red gums and 1,000 old man saltbushes in a regeneration reserve that still plays a vital role in protecting the town today.  

The ‘green belt’ is still going strong thanks to a new generation of dedicated volunteers led by Simon Molesworth. Simon is the Honorary President of Broken Hill Landcare, Queen’s Counsel and former Judge at the Land and Environmental Court in Sydney and co-founder of the Environmental Institute of Australia & New Zealand. He was the Chairman of the National Trust in Victoria and helped set up both the National Environmental Law Association and Environmental Defenders Office. In short, Simon knows a bit about conservation. 

In 2015, Simon was the force behind the City of Broken Hill being placed on the National Heritage List under the Commonwealth's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, making history as Australia’s first ever city to be listed.   

“I could see that eventually mining and industrial activity would come to an end, I was desperate to help find a new future,” Simon says. 

Simon and the team of dedicated volunteers at Landcare Broken Hill have been working on several environmental projects including an initiative called Greening the Hill Mk2, which is reinstating the wild beauty of the arid zone, providing habitat for the unique flora and fauna that live in the regeneration belt and engaging a wider cross section of the community in tree planting activities. 

There are many struggles in the arid zone. Between 2016 and 2020 Broken Hill suffered one of the most severe droughts in Australian history. 

One of the challenges is we can never guarantee rain. At the moment our current plantings have been watered by an elderly couple since mid-January. They go out two or three days a week to water the seedlings,” Simon says. 

There’s no nursery in Broken Hill or in any nearby towns so Landcare Broken Hill have created their own 24-metre shade house and a separate propagation area with around 10,000 plants. Funding provided by The Seedling Bank is helping to support this important propagation project.

“Self-sufficiency is important. If we have environmental problems, we have to deal with it,” Simon says. 

The team have dug augured holes and prepared them with soil for their community planting for National Tree Day. All the plants are endemic to the area and have evolved over thousands of years including a variety of saltbush, acacias and a range of eucalypts.  

“You can get colour, variety and beauty if you know what you’re planting,” Simon says.  

Broken Hill Landcare are also working on projects with the traditional owners of the land, the Barkandji people, whose Country spreads across approximately 128,000 kilometres, capturing the towns of Broken Hill, Wilcannia and Menindee. Barkandji take their name from the Darling River — Barka was the original name of the river, and ‘ndji’ means “belonging to”. The Darling River is the lifeline of Barkandji people with stories attached to every stretch of it.

In Mutawinji National Park, Landcare and traditional owners are collaborating on a seed collecting project. The groups propagate seeds endemic to the park to grow seed stock and have 500 seedlings ready to plant in spring to renourish degraded areas of the park.  

Simon and his team have big plans for the future. One of them is to create a Landcare Sustainability Hub that would be the largest nursery and seed bank in western New South Wales, large enough to produce 250,000 seedlings.  

There are also plans for a teaching facility called ‘The Meeting Tree’ where up to 60 people can sit and learn about the environment. The upper surface of this stylistic tree will be moulded with flexible solar panels and the under surface will house LED screens and lights. The facility will also feature a children’s garden, a pollinators patch and a giant sun dial.  

“It will be like visiting a fun fare but an environmental fun fare – you go there and walk away inspired,” Simon describes. 

This story was originally published in the 2021 edition of Tree Talk. Read the latest stories from The Seedling Bank here.

Jennifer McMillan

Jen worked as a vet nurse while studying environmental science and completing her master's degree in Journalism. She loves bushwalking, storytelling, caring for baby animals, Australian birds and river red gums. Jen works on the National Tree Day and National Recycling Week campaigns.