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Contact Call | Volume 10 Number 3 | September 2021

There have been few campaigns more central to the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC) over the years than the fight to protect Trinity Inlet and adjacent East Trinity land from development overreach. The biodiverse Cairns mudflats have been part of that too. The Trinity Point mega-tourist development in the dog days of the Queensland National government proposed reclamation work for an artificial peninsula jutting out from the Esplanade and pier at a cost of $300 million. The vast majority of Cairns citizens opposed it and over 5000 people protested against it in 1989. This is still the biggest demonstration ever held in Cairns and the incoming Labor government scrapped the idea.

Then followed a decade long battle with, first of all, private developer Sailfox, which planned to build a $1.2 billion resort and artificial reef on East Trinity and then, with Emanuel developers and the NatWest bank over a proposed satellite city of 20,000 people with billion-dollar bridge spanning the inlet. A tunnel under it was also suggested!

The State Government finally bought the land in 2000 for around $4 million from NatWest after concerted conservation pressure from CAFNEC and the Far North Greens. This was a reflection of community sentiment that wanted to protect Trinity Inlet for posterity.

To background the story, the East Trinity land had been heavily acidified as the result of a failed sugar cane experiment in the 1970s and a decision was made by Government to retain the bund wall which had been built to keep the seawater away from the sugar cane and had led to the problem of acid sulphate soils in the first place. The bund had removed the tidal influence, lowering the water level inside the wall thus exposing the naturally occurring pyritic (iron sulphide) soils to the atmosphere. Oxygen then converted these soils to iron sulphate which became sulphuric acid after contact with water.

An extensive State Government program was started in 2001 to remediate the 740ha property using inter-tidal exchange through bund wall gates and adding lime to counteract the acid pollution. Birdlife in the freshwater and tidal marshes started flourishing with over 90 species counted in one morning visit.

Firewood Bund Wall 2001

Firewood Lower 2013

While remediation was taking place, conscious that empty land at East Trinity would forever pose a development threat, a group of CAFNEC supporters had established a group to strongly advocate for a Wetlands Park at East Trinity with a visitor centre adjacent to Hills Creek. The idea gained traction and Mandingalbay Yidinji Traditional Owners of East Trinity are currently forging ahead with a version of that proposal. A pontoon at Hills Creek is being built and there are plans to build watch towers for animal and scenic viewing.

Hills Creek 2014

The last destructive targeting of East Trinity had occurred in 2016 when, under the dredging proposal to widen and deepen Trinity Inlet for larger ships, there was a strong push to dump the spoil on the rehabilitated wetlands. Once again, pressure from CAFNEC saw that disastrous idea averted and the voids at Northern Sands used instead.

For the first time in 30 years, I have a strong feeling of confidence that things are moving in the right direction. Indigenous engagement has been key and although the East Trinity land is still owned by the State Government, it is now an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) with a conservation status under the Lands Act.

Over many long years the people of Cairns – reinforced by the tourists who look in wonder when they visit the reef – have emphatically stated that the magnificent green backdrop of Trinity Inlet and beyond, exemplifying the very essence of what this region represents, must be protected. Indigenous management and small-scale tourism seem the perfect fit to complement this natural jewel on our doorstep and keep the corporate wolves at bay – a great conservation success story!

Since the rehabilitation work began at East Trinity in the early 2000s, I have been making regular trips there. I used to go alone or with one or two others but in 2009 I started bringing groups of birders with the permission of Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) and the Mandingalby Yidinji Traditional Owners. The first official bird list, in recent times, was in October 2009 when we identified over 90 species between 6.30 and 11am. This has probably been the most thorough bird count conducted with my involvement, as it was a large group and we covered all the different habitats in the 740ha property, including rainforest. There was also a large number of migrants present and the tide was low allowing us access to a greater number of waders than usual.

Since then, groups have been smaller, sometimes the month visited has been before migrants return and sometimes the tide has been unfavourable when we have been able to visit. Nevertheless, the bird count has invariably been in the high 70s demonstrating the immense bird diversity of the area.

Great-billed Herons are now relatively commonplace as are Black-necked Storks. Black Bitterns are regularly seen, often on exposed branches of dead melaleucas that are gradually being replaced by returning mangroves. Birds, relatively uncommon on the lowlands, like Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike and Dollarbird (both seasonally) and Black-shouldered Kite are regularly seen. Northern Fantail and Grey Whistler have both been identified. Our sighting of a Red-necked Avocet was challenged by E-bird!

My favourite part of East Trinity is Peat Swamp which is a glorious mini-wetland replete with birdlife (and sometimes mosquitoes!) This was the area where dredge spoil dumping was proposed during the widening and deepening of Trinity Inlet for our now quiescent cruise line industry. I, personally lobbied hard against that beautiful place being used as a spoil dump to anybody and everybody who would listen with eventual success.

The future is brighter than I can ever remember for East Trinity with birds and fish returning aplenty.

Denis Walls

Denis Walls was spokesperson for Save Trinity Inlet and later, the Cairns Wetlands Park Committee. He is current President of the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC). Images by Steven Nowakowski.


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