Replanting woodlands in Australia – a volunteer rich process

David Freudenberger
Ian Rayner

The temperate grassy eucalypt woodlands of Australia have been extensively cleared for agriculture and plantation forestry since European colonization. Over the past 30 years there has been a recognition by farmers, conservation groups and government authorities that the unique flora and fauna of these woodlands are worth conserving and restoring. State and Federal government agencies have often subsidized the material costs of these plantings, but the labour for planting has usually been given by volunteers from rural communities, some out from the big cities, as well as by farm family members. These plantings have often been facilitated by a diversity of local and national non-governmental organisations.

Every one of the thousands of revegetation projects across the vast geographical diversity of Australia has its own story, all worth telling. Here we share the decade-long story of volunteers from the Canberra region who helped revegetate one of their water catchments devastated by the intense fire storm of 18 January 2003.

As many Canberrans vividly remember, the fires burning to the west in the Brindabella Mountains coalesced into a mega-fire that swept across the Cotter River and Murrumbidgee valleys and slammed into the western suburbs of Canberran, destroying 500 homes with the loss of four lives. Over two-thirds of the ACT was burnt in the fires, including the native forest and pine plantations of the Lower Cotter River Catchment. The fires left a legacy in the psyche of locals and dramatically changed the landscape of the national capital.

The Lower Cotter Catchment is the oldest part of Canberra’s water supply. Pines (Pinus radiata) had originally been planted by the ACT Department of Forestry to help repair the Lower Cotter from decades of extensive forest clearing and over-grazing and to provide a supply of construction timber for the ever growing suburbs of Canberra. The initial plan by the ACT Government was to replant the Lower Cotter with pines. However, after considerable debate (a story in itself) it was decided to replant the vast majority of the Lower Cotter with native woodland vegetation. This could have been done by professional planting teams. Rather, in an unprecedented show of goodwill to help others after the fire, Greening Australia and the ACT Government formed a partnership to engage the Canberra community in re-greening many of the fire-affected areas of the Lower Cotter. This repair became increasingly important and urgent as the ACT Government was committed to building a replacement dam on the Lower Cotter to increase the capacity from 4 to 76 gigalitres.

Greening Australia, with financial and in-kind assistance from the ACT Government, began a remarkable collaboration with the citizens of Canberra. During the next seven years, volunteers planted out about 500 ha of the Lower Cotter Catchment. Over 300,000 seedlings from 62 species of native trees, shrubs and grasses were used. These areas are now growing into a diverse native woodland ensuring better water quality for all Canberrans.

Figure 1. This pine plantation (upper photo) was completely destroyed by the 2003 fire. In its place (lower photo), a diverse grassy woodland is healing the lower Cotter river catchment thanks to the planting efforts of thousands of Canberran volunteers.

Large community planting events and small regular volunteer groups contributed their shares to the cause. In total, nearly 15,000 people were involved in this effort, dedicating over 47,000 hours of their time. Year after year, Greening Australia carried out the critical organisation needed to engage this many people in over 700 planting events. Buses were hired to transport volunteers from the city to the Lower Cotter. All the required seedlings were propagated from locally collected seed by Greening Australia with assistance from dedicated propagation volunteers. Large planting events included a barbeque lunch and often some local entertainment. These events were significant experiences for so many volunteers, as aptly summarised by this family:

The three of us enjoyed our day out. Besides the planting of the trees, listening to the music, poetry and munching on food, I would also say how much I enjoyed listening to the Yurung Dhaura (Aboriginal) trainees explaining their culture/food etc. They were very interesting, and I look forward to hearing more about their lives past and future.

Planting wasn’t the only volunteer activity. There were dedicated teams that removed nearly 30,000 pine wildings (pines regenerated from seed). There was also a small but very dedicated team of volunteers, led by Sarah Hnatiuk, who monitored the survival of every year of plantings across a total of 198 transects. They found a remarkable 70-90% survival rate of eucalypt and acacia seedlings across all years except the very dry year of 2006 when their survival was only 30%.

Volunteers have come from all walks of life, showcasing the diversity of the Canberran community. By getting their hands dirty, volunteers from across the region formed a deep and personal connection to their domestic water supply and its long-term management. One regular volunteer, Kolin Toivonen succinctly reflected,

It has been encouraging to see the success of our planting efforts, the return of a range of wildlife to the area and the knowledge that we are contributing towards improving the environment and the water quality of our dams.

The efforts by volunteer planters working for so long in the Lower Cotter is a remarkable story that will leave a legacy of long-lived trees that are likely to be self-sustaining for centuries to come. This is just one story of many thousands of revegetation projects around Australia. Each story deserves to be told, and each creates a unique legacy of environmental repair and social engagement.

The recent history of a nationally significant increase in woodland cover is fundamentally a consequence of millions of volunteer hours, by tens of thousands of volunteers planting one tree and shrub at a time for decades. A remarkable collective effort.

Figure 2. Over 15,000 volunteers of all ages were involved in 700 planting events to help restore some of the most degraded areas of the lower Cotter catchment.


We thank the thousands of volunteers and the organisations supporting this massive effort, particularly Café Brindabella, Scouts Australia, ACT Rural Fire Service, ABC Radio Canberra, Fuji Xerox, Greening Australia and the ACT Government.

About the Authors

David Freudenberger is a senior academic in the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. His diverse research career spans shrubland dynamics in California, red deer farming in New Zealand, the management of Australian rangelands and native planting for biodiversity. As Chief Scientist for Greening Australia he was involved with diverse collaborative restoration projects. He researches applied restoration practice.

Ian Rayner is Senior Program Officer for Greening Australia. His love for the outdoors drove him to study an honours degree at the Australian National University working on our direct seeding projects around the Southern Tablelands in New South Wales. On graduating he went straight into a full-time position with Greening Australia. His broad role includes working with corporate volunteers, assisting the crew with large-scale restoration work, or doing direct seeding in paddocks and national parks.

Further Reading

Kate Auty, Caitlin Roy, and Kirilli Dickson, K, The Heroic and the Dammed – Lower Cotter Catchment Restoration Evaluation (Canberra: Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment, ACT Government, 2015),

Allan Curtis and Marike Van Nouhuys, “Landcare participation in Australia: the volunteer perspective,” Sustainable Development 7 (1999): 98-111.

Greening Australia, Regreening the Cotter: a decade of community repair work in our water catchment (Canberra: Greening Australia, 2015).

Sarah Hnatiuk, Ian Rayner, Matthew Brookhouse, and David Freudenberger, “Survival of native seedlings planted by volunteers: The Lower Cotter, ACT case study.” Ecological Management and Restoration (2020) doi: 10.1111/emr.12410

David Salt, A brief history of agri‑environment policy in Australia: From community-based NRM to market-based instruments. In David Salt, Dean Ansell, and Fiona Gibson (eds). Learning from agri-environment schemes in Australia: Investing in biodiversity and other ecosystem services on farms (Canberra: ANU Press, 2016)