The Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO) has been running citizen science camps in Goongerah and Kuark Forest for multiple years. These camps captivate and connect environmentalist from all over Australia to highlight the pristine beauty of the rainforest in the East Gippsland region and also reveal and publicise the conservation issues these areas face. The camp is run free of charge in an area of bush approximately one hour from Orbost. The camps are family friendly and also offer five-dollar, vegan-friendly meals that help generate funds for the conservation of Kuark Forest.

The citizen science forest camps usually consist of four days over a long weekend and are run multiple times a year. Volunteers assist in camera survey techniques, vegetation surveys, rainforest plant ID, nocturnal spotlighting and creek surveys, all for protected species found in areas scheduled for logging.

Kuark Forest lecture theatre

The forest ‘lecture theatre’ allows volunteers to present or learn about a variety of topics. Click to enlarge.

Volunteers also get to engage in seminars on different threatened species found in the area, rainforest evolution in Australia and environmental policy, which is held in an outdoor-style lecture theater. This event is especially relevant for environmental science students who wish to gain in field experience in these skills, and it’s also very eye opening to witness environmental conservation issues first hand.

The habitats found in the Kuark Forests are both unique and awe inspiring. The location boasts a collection of rare fauna and flora species, as well as being one of the only places in Australia where cool temperate rainforest intermixes with warm temperate rainforest. The multi-species symphony birdsong can be heard echoing through the rainforest in the misty mornings and as dusk descends, the avian calls are then overtaken by frog choruses and owl calls at night. It’s hard to truly conceive of the sheer diversity of plants and animals in this region. Every ten steps you take, you become surrounded by a new set of plant species.

Unfortunately, VicForests does not do comprehensive environmental impact surveys here, which often leaves rare, threatened and protected species and rainforest in the path of a forest demolition crew. GECO and other keen environmentalist therefore scramble to survey the scheduled logging coupes properly before logging takes place. In almost every planned logging coupe surveyed by GECO, volunteers reveal threatened species and threatened plant communities that are supposed to be protected under Victorian law.

Spiny crayfish by Chad Beranek.

A yet-to-be-described species of freshwater cray, closely related to the endangered Orbost spiny crayfish. Photo: Chad Beranek.

On field trips during the recent camp, multiple threatened and protected species were found in areas scheduled to be logged, some of which are critically endangered. Threatened species found included: long-footed potoroo (Potorous longipes) listed as endangered, slender tree-fern (Cyathea cunninghamii) listed as vulnerable, an unsubscribed crayfish in the Orbost spiny crayfish complex (Euastacus sp.) listed as endangered, and a healthy population of the East Gippsland galaxias (Galaxias aequipinnis) listed as critically endangered.

These finds of threatened species will result in a report to be submitted to the industry regulator, the Victorian Department of Environment, which should conserve some of the forests where logging is planned. It just goes to show that if this particular citizen science camp did not take place, the East Gippsland galaxias could’ve been a step closer to extinction, with a reduction of the already narrow distribution of this rare fish species. The critically endangered fish is only known to occur in the Arte River catchment in Kuark Forest.

On another survey undertaken during the camp, unlawful logging of protected warm temperate rainforest was discovered. GECO have submitted a report to the Department of Environment, alerting them to the rainforest logging breach and urging them to take action. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done, as protected rainforest had not been appropriately identified prior to logging.

VicForests has demonstrated systemic failure to apply legally required protections, such as vegetative buffers, to rainforest areas occurring within planned logging coupes. Literally dozens of cases of unlawful rainforest logging have been reported by GECO, however the Department of Environment has only used their powers to take VicForests to court on one occasion in 2012, when community-generated information alerted them to the destruction of eight hectares of protected rainforest.

Long-footed potoroo photographed by GECO.

The endangered long-footed potoroo was captured on nocturnal camera trap in an area where logging is planned.

The proceedings never went ahead and an out of court settlement was reached in which VicForests committed to train staff in rainforest identification so required protections could be better implemented. Logging continues to impact upon protected rainforest areas in 2016, suggesting VicForests staff have a lot more to learn.

Without the work of the dedicated citizen scientists at GECO, threatened species that are protected by law would not be identified before logging takes place and the legally required protections would not be implemented. In this sense GECO act as the unofficial regulators of the native forest logging industry.

Recent successful surveys over the 2015/2016 summer also resulted in protection of habitat for a number of species. GECO surveyed old growth forest on the Errinundra Plateau in January and detected 15 greater gliders, Australia’s largest gliding marsupial.

The law requires significant populations of this species to be protected by creating a 100 hectare conservation zone. GECO found the gliders just as logging commenced. After reporting their findings to the state government VicForests were forced to stop logging. In the ABC‘s reporting on the survey, VicForests admitted they would not have found the protected species themselves. Without GECO’s survey logging of habitat for protected species would have occurred in breach of the law.

East Gippsland’s threatened species are lucky to have GECO, who are doing the work VicForests and the state government should be doing to ensure threatened species are given the protection they are afforded under the law.

We encourage anyone interested in forests, ecology and wildlife to get down to East Gippsland and experience the amazing old growth rainforest for yourselves! To help in conservation of the unique rainforests of East Gippsland donate or volunteer at one of the survey camps.

See the Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO) website for more info.