Environment Opinion

Nightcap National Park: Celebrating the birth of environmental activism

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Protesters damaged equipment during the Terania Creek protest and slowly walked in front of bulldozers (Photo David Kemp 1979)

A celebration was held for the defining moment in modern environmental activism that led to the protection of rainforests across NSW, writes Charles Hunter.

*This article was the overall prize winner of the IA Writing Competition: Most Compelling Article 2023, as judged by Ranald MacdonaldAO, founder of the Australian Press Council and former CEO and editor-in-chief of The Age.

ON SUNDAY 18 June 2023, locals from Northern NSW joined National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) staff and the traditional owners Widjabul Wia-bal to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Nightcap National Park. It’s somewhat unusual to attend a party to celebrate the creation of a national park but there is an incredible story behind Nightcap.

The 8,080-hectare Nightcap estate, which is part of the Wollumbin Caldera, is located in northern NSW near Byron Bay and protects ancient Gondwanan rainforests containing trees with lineages dating back many millions of years and a forest that has the highest biodiversity in NSW. This is certainly worth celebrating, however, the true celebration was for the inspiring story of why the park was created 40 years ago.

The story begins almost ten years before Nightcap was gazetted in late 1974, the year Nan and Hugh Nicholson moved up from Melbourne to live a quiet life next to the ancient Gondwanan rainforest at Terania Creek in Northern NSW (Bundjalung Country), not long after the infamous Aquarius Festival was held in nearby Nimbin. But just a few months after the Nicholsons had moved, Hugh discovered some harrowing news.

Nan and Hugh Nicholson with their young children Elke and Terri (Photo: David Kemp 1979)

After hearing a vehicle up in the forest which the Nicholsons thought was strange (as they lived in a dead end and the vehicle hadn’t driven past them), Hugh went searching. He soon located a forestry truck and met two foresters who told him they were clearing out table drains on the side of the road because the NSW Forestry Commission was going to log, clear, burn and replant the ancient forest with seedling eucalypts.

Over the next five years, the Nicholsons tried desperately to stop the planned clear-felling of the ancient forest including a rejected request for an Environmental Impact Statement. This all culminated in August 1979, just a couple of weeks before logging commenced when the Nicholsons appealed to locals at The Channon markets. Within just a few days, they had formed an army of a few hundred people. Many of the protesters began to set up camp on the Nicholsons’ property in a paddock next to the rainforest and so began Australia’s first successful environmental protest to save the ancient rainforest.

In the initial days of the protest, there was a local police presence. However, it soon became apparent there were empty police stations across the Northern Rivers and protesters greatly outnumbered the police. The Wran Government was panicking and a few days later, busloads of over 100 armed police arrived from all over NSW including many recently hardened police that had been at the Long Bay Gaol Riot in Sydney just days before.

But the police were still facing an amassed army of over 300 peaceful protesters and as they blocked tracks, climbed trees and damaged felled logs there was fear of bloodshed, including threats from timbermen who would arm themselves with rifles and pick handles and clear the protesters out of the forest.

Bulldozers kept slowly moving, more trees were cut down and dozens of arrests were made. But then, so was history.

A young woman massages one of the local police in the initial days of the Terania Creek protest. The mood quickly changed when over 100 armed and hardened police arrived a few days later (Photo: David Kemp 1979)

The protest received immense national media coverage and just three weeks after it had begun, on 4 September 1979, NSW Premier Neville Wran ordered the logging to be stopped and ultimately the forest would be saved. Wran would later be noted saying that saving the rainforests was his greatest life achievement.

The non-violent, direct-action community protest at Terania Creek that preceded the Franklin Dam (1982) and the Daintree Blockade (1983) protests has been described by the author of Terania Creek and the Forging of Modern Environmental Activism, Vanessa Bible, as the birth of modern environmental activism that has since spread across the country and across the world.

In a 2020 interview, Hugh said that there was no rule book for the protesters or the police. But the protest was the defining moment in Australia’s environmental history that would not only lead to the creation of Nightcap National Park in April 1983 and more than a dozen other national parks, but also led to the decision by the Wran Government to protect the remaining rainforests across NSW.

Then in 1986, parts of Nightcap National Park and 40 other Gondwana reserves that contain the most extensive areas of subtropical rainforest in the world were given World Heritage status by UNESCO and it all started with a young couple in their early 20s simply wanting to protect a priceless ecosystem.

As the now famous location of the 1979 protest at Terania Creek, the aptly named Protesters Falls, is still closed due to severe 2022 flood damage, the location of yesterday’s event was held at the Rummery Park section of Nightcap National Park. Buses ferried ticketed guests (who had all parked at the top of the majestic Minyon Falls) through the failed plantations, some remaining Gondwanan rainforest pockets and decades-old tree stumps with pockets that held springboards for the axemen.

Guests at the event watch the young generation of Widjabul Wia-bal Dancers (Photo: Charles Hunter)

The day was filled with the magical sounds of the forest, laughter, music, food and of course, reminiscent speeches of the 1979 protest. Long gone were the sounds of the axemen and the sounds of chainsaws. Many of the 1979 protesters from Terania Creek attended and the event began with a Widjabul Wia-bal Welcome to Country.

Attendees heard wonderful stories and insight from NPWS staff, Nan and Hugh Nicholson, Michael Murphy, John Roberts Jr (who gave an inspiring Widjabul Wia-bal perspective), Dailan Pugh and Tricia Waters. Bob Brown and Bob Carr both gave recorded video addresses, Brown notably stating, “Without Terania I don’t think we would have got there with the Franklin Dam”.

After a lunch of burgers and delicious Indian curry (provided by NPWS), guests were treated to music from the Terania protest by Terri Nicholson, Ray Flanigan, Neil Pike and Nina Saunders. Local flora and fauna experts were also on hand to excite guests with afternoon talks about the plants, fungi, geology, mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs of Nightcap.

The celebration ended with filmmakers Paul Tait and Jeni Kendall introducing a screening of their 1980s documentary film, Give Trees a Chance: The Story of Terania Creek, followed by viewings of the Forest Protest Photo Exhibition with David Kemp, Michael Murphy and Greg Bork.

When I had the privilege of interviewing Nan and Hugh back in 2020 at their home in The Channon (I admit being one of my life highlights), Nan’s parting words were that there are not many wins when it came to activism but we should never become disenchanted and we should never give up. Today we all celebrated a win that benefits us all.

The rainforest was saved and 40 years ago, a new national park was gazetted in NSW. My favourite national park, Nightcap, created only thanks to the dogged actions of a community that came together and unintentionally ended up defining modern environmental activism both in Australia and across the world.

Charles Hunter runs a carbon-positive digital agency called Tailbird. In his spare time, he is an avid Twitcher, conservationist, podcaster and freelance writer.

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