On the stark tablelands in the Monaro region just east of the NSW Snowy Mountains, a group of dedicated volunteers is working hard to restore the ghostly landscape to its former glory.
The grassy plains were once dominated by towering ribbon gums (Eucalyptus viminalis), but in recent years, a mysterious dieback event has reduced nearly all the trees to brittle skeletons.
“It just left a huge scar on the landscape,” says Margaret Mackinnon, volunteer and chair of the Upper Snowy Landcare Network (USLN).
The root cause of the dieback is still a mystery, but that hasn’t stopped Dr Mackinnon from pitching in to help reverse the devastation.
Since she joined the USLN in 2016, Dr Mackinnon has been working with landholders, community volunteers and researchers to get native trees back in the ground, including eucalypts, wattles and small shrubs.
“We can’t just leave it to business and landholders to spend the money on repairing the environment; we’ve got to get individuals involved and doing it in their own backyards,” she says.
their efforts are beginning to pay off.
Over the past five years, around 100 volunteers have planted roughly 1,000 seedlings in each of 36 plots across the region.
Dr Mackinnon says one of the most rewarding things about tree planting is watching the results grow before her eyes — literally.
“The satisfaction of seeing them grow is quite contagious.
“It’s a long-term legacy that will be there forever.”
friends worth keeping
Wherever we live, trees take care of us in more ways than one. But it’s easy to forget that we need to take care of our woody friends too, says Kylie Soanes, a conservation biologist at The University of Melbourne.
“I think we can take them a little bit for granted.”
In urban areas for instance, trees are nature’s air conditioners, cooling the air by releasing moisture through pores in their leaves and providing us with shade.
“Having an urban forest is such a big part of making a city a liveable, comfortable, pleasant space,” Dr Soanes says.
Even small patches of native trees in urban areas — particularly massive old ones — are like “wildlife hotels” for birds, mammals, and insects on the move, says Rebecca Jordan, a conservation scientist at the CSIRO in Hobart.
“It’s not just about having the trees in the big forests,” she says.
“All those other trees can provide connections so that our wildlife can move through the landscape and connect to other big areas.”
In cities along the east coast, gum trees are a favorite roadside pit stop for endangered swift parrots (Lathamus discolor), which fly from Tasmania during the winter months.
“That’s just a really big testament to how valuable even supposedly scrappy, isolated patches of trees are,” Dr Soanes says.
bush in the burbs
If urban trees are wildlife hotels, then Harry Loots’s garden is a five-star resort.
On a quiet street dominated by box-hedged front gardens in Sydney’s Cremorne, Mr Loots has created a slice of urban bushland in his backyard.
Mr Loots’s native haven is packed with around 200 species of Australian plants and trees, including eucalypts, banksias, and grass trees.
This bush in the ‘burbs spills out onto the street. On the nature strip, an old yellow-flowered water gum (Tristaniopsis laurina) towers over thick shrubs, such as a vibrant netted bottlebrush (Callistemon linearifolius) planted by Mr Loots’s mother half a century ago.
The flourishing garden is a favorite hangout for possums, blue-tongued lizards, water dragons, and native bees. It’s also popular among walkers, who often stop to admire Mr Loots’s handiwork.
“They get to walk through a bit of Australian nature,” says Mr Loots, who is treasurer of the Australian Plants Society NSW.
An avid bushwalker, Mr Loots says taking care of the trees in his backyard has given him a greater appreciation for the biodiversity in the bush.
“It’s a real education about how the bush functions, how it works, how the total environment works.
“It’s only with education and understanding that you really appreciate why different areas are important.”
Forests on the farm
For forest scientist and farmer Rowan Reid, taking care of trees on farmland is an investment that can pay dividends for future generations.
“The most degraded part of Australia is the agricultural landscape,” Mr Reid says.
“Trees are clearly going to have a role to play in repairing that damage, and doing it in a way that the farmers are in control and can also become more productive.”
Just west of Geelong, Mr Reid owns and runs Bambra Agroforestry Farm, a 42-hectare property with around 70 species of native and exotic trees.
Each tree plays several roles in keeping the wheels turning. Along the once-degraded creek running through the farm, eucalypts and native rainforest trees stave off soil erosion, shelter livestock, provide timber, and offer habitat for wildlife.
Mr Reid’s tree-dotted farm doubles as an “outdoor classroom”, where he shares his agroforestry knowledge with landholders who want to explore how tree-growing can support their farming and benefit the land.
It’s less about telling farmers why they should plant trees, and more about giving them the growing techniques they need to meet their goals, Mr Reid says.
“We’re trying to see what happens when you give them the knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm to go and do it themselves.”
Some farmers are interested in growing more trees to address soil problems like salinity, while others might want to grow timber and provide wildlife habitats that can help control crop-destroying pests.
Whatever the goal, cultivating a diversity of trees can future-proof a farmer’s livelihood.
For instance, if a disease wiped out a dairy farmer’s cattle, they could switch to selling timber, seeds, or flowers to keep their business afloat, Mr Reid says.
“You can make your whole farming system more resilient to the shocks that are potentially coming through.”
But there’s more to it than simply planting more trees or saving every last one. It’s really about managing an ever-changing system. As climate change looms, farmers need to consider which species will fare best over the next few decades.
Rather than planting tree species that have grown naturally in a particular spot for hundreds of years, Mr Reid now plants species that are more robust against hot, dry conditions, such as Australian red cedar (Toona ciliata).
While managing trees on farmland is a constant work in progress, watching the degraded landscape transform into a flourishing, diverse ecosystem makes it all worthwhile, Mr Reid says.
“That’s really important for a lot of families because they talk about passing their family farm onto the next generation in a better state.”
How to take better care of trees
So, what can we do to take better care of the trees in our communities?
Local tree-planting and bush regeneration groups, such as Landcare and Bushcare, are good places to start for people who enjoy getting their hands dirty out in nature.
In addition to planting trees, it’s important to protect the ones we already have, Dr Jordan says.
“It’s really important that we keep the big old guys in the landscape while that revegetation planting catches up,” she says.
“It can take up to 70 years to get all that habitat rebuilt.”
This means thinking twice before cutting down a large old tree that’s causing problems. If a tree has just a few limbs that are causing danger, it’s best just to remove those rather than chopping the tree down altogether, Dr Soanes says.
Even the gnarly stumps of dead trees are worth protecting, as they continue to provide homes for insects, lizards, frogs, birds and small mammals long after their leaves drop.
“There’s this real misconception that once a tree has died then its life is over,” Dr Soanes says.
“That’s really far from the case.”
For those who enjoy bushwalking, another easy way to take care of trees is to clean your bushwalking boots and equipment when moving between forests, Dr Jordan says.
“Making sure you’re not carrying any soil or plant material between our forests can help protect them and not spread those diseases that might threaten our trees.”
Ultimately, our relationship with trees needs to be a two-way street, Dr Soanes says.
“If we take care of trees, trees are helping to take care of us.”