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In the living mosaic of the Atherton Tablelands, mabi forest is being restored
It will take ‘hard yakka’ and a couple of hundred years to rebuild north Queensland’s critically endangered mabi rainforest
The centrepiece is a giant red cedar, a tree with timber once considered so valuable it was called ‘red gold’. Two men swing axes into the trunk, exposing pale wood. Nearby, a tree kangaroo watches a felled cedar being dragged away by a bullock team.
From the air, the Atherton Tablelands is a living mosaic. Visitors flying into Cairns from the south soar over tiles of dark green rainforest, light green maize and sugar cane, white iron roofs and rust red earth of harvested paddocks. The scene is framed by forested mountains.
But 150 years ago, the Atherton Tablelands was covered in a type of dense rainforest called mabi forest, named after the Ngadjon word for the Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo, which lives there. Many mabi species lose their leaves in the dry season, unlike the trees in wetter rainforests, allowing a dense shrub layer to fill the space between the trunks.
In the late 1800s, timber cutters came for the red cedar. When that dwindled, they turned to kauri pine, black bean and Queensland maple. In 1903, an experimental plantation was established in mabi forest at Wongabel near Atherton, and the nascent timber industry lobbied the government to establish reserves to ensure a steady supply. But the government had other plans for the area – the fertile basalt soil of the mabi forest was perfect for crops.
Clearing proceeded, sped up by the first world war soldier settlement scheme where removal of the “scrub” was a condition of occupancy.
Now mabi forest covers only about 860 hectares, less than 4.5% of its former range. Apart from two larger blocks – at Curtain Fig national park and Wongabel state forest – it is confined to tiny patches on private land. Mabi forest is critically endangered but committed locals are doing their best to restore it.
Every Friday at the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service nursery at Lake Eacham, near Yungaburra, about 50 volunteers gather to prepare and plant seeds from rainforest trees. The volunteers are members of Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands (TREAT), a community group formed in 1982 by botanists Joan Wright and Geoff Tracey with the aim of restoring fragmented rainforest. The organisation is still going strong 40 years later. It is the largest and longest running community conservation group in the wet tropics.
The nursery produces between 30,000 and 50,000 trees a year for reforestation projects on both public and private land. Their work continued even during periods of Covid-induced isolation.
“During the first months of the pandemic, seeds and pots were dropped off at volunteers’ properties, and picked up later,” the president of TREAT, Angela McCaffrey, says. “Production actually went up. People were so determined to help.”
Over 12 Saturdays from January to April, at the height of the wet season, TREAT volunteers plant seedlings from the nursery on sites across the tablelands. In early March, they joined a collection of organisations at Wongabel to plant mabi species on land formerly used for growing timber. The collaboration had a goal of getting 3,000 trees into the ground, about two-thirds of which came from the Lake Eacham nursery.
More than 110 people turned up to the planting day, and tourists stopped to help.
“People joined TREAT on the spot,” McCaffrey says.
‘It’s hard yakka’
Restoration of mabi forest faces challenges not experienced in coastal forest projects. The isolation of fragments, comparatively low rainfall and even occasional frosts shape the process. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to rainforest recovery.
The chief executive of NQ Land Management Services, Geoff Onus, is part of a team of scientists and community members focused on restoring the forest on the tablelands and building awareness. He is a dedicated advocate for mabi forest.
“Leave a block of land dormant and the rainforest will eventually colonise and come back, but it takes a couple of hundred years for this sort of forest to gain its integrity,” Onus says. “Replanting speeds the healing. It can take 30 years off the process and give the forest a kickstart.
“It’s hard yakka. It takes money and devotion from the community.”
The director of Biotropica and a specialist in tropical ecosystem restoration, Nigel Tucker, points to the fragmentation of mabi forest as a problem that can only be overcome with community help.
“With so little forest around, there is not much of a biological reservoir,” Tucker says. “We need to rely on the land between to build back resilience.”
The land between often belongs to farms. By planting along creeks and rivers, isolated patches are linked together without impinging on high-value agricultural land. In many cases, native vegetation can improve productivity by reducing the impact of pest species on crops such as sugar cane and macadamias. The benefits are shared.
These creek-side links allow animals and plants to spread between fragments. Rainforest birds are reluctant to cross open land but will travel through treed corridors. Birds bring seeds with them, taking over the restoration process that is kickstarted by community volunteers. Green threads connect fragments.
At Malanda post office, a few minutes’ walk away from the Early Settlers mosaic, is another view of the tablelands. In this mosaic, adults and children are planting seedlings in a paddock. The sky is clear, and a river flows through a gap in the mountains. To one side is a marquee with burgers on a barbecue and a tea urn bubbling away.
“It’s not just about conservation and putting the rainforest back,” McCaffrey says. “It’s also about the community.”
“Healthy environments make healthy people,” he says.