In 2020 we visited the bushfire‑affected communities of East Gippsland and south-eastern New South Wales to see the forests first-hand, hear how people are recovering and what they feel needs to change. On that journey, we caught up with Emerald Link Regional Advocate, Matt Stephenson, about what can be done to move forward.
Some people have an infectious, positive spark that lifts those around them. When everything you love is quite literally lost, like it was for so many following last summer’s bushfire season, you need people who can show the way forward and offer hope; people like Matt Stephenson.
On 31 December 2019, hundreds of people were forced to take refuge on the beach at Mallacoota, Victoria, near the border with NSW. Images of a blood red sky with people huddled together on the sand, awaiting evacuation as the surrounding landscape became engulfed in a firestorm, were shared around the globe.
In the aftermath people have been looking for answers, for hope, and a future that won’t see destruction on this level again. And in the near term a way to rebuild communities and the economies that power them. Matt was working on a solution long before the bushfires arrived last summer, a solution that now seems more pertinent than ever.
He’s an Advocate for the Emerald Link, a community-led proposal that will build social and economic opportunities in East Gippsland through improved management of the biodiverse-rich temperate forests and nature-based tourism. This area will be one of the highlights of the 120-kilometre Sea to Summit Forest Trail.
Matt has been giving talks, gathering opinions and discussing what it could mean for communities in the region. “What has been really encouraging to hear is that people are excited to be part of something that isn't simply a walking trail; it’s about economic growth for the area,” he says.
The Emerald Link stretches from the Nunniong Plateau south of Alpine National Park, through Snowy River and Errinundra National Parks and the temperate rainforests of Kuark. It then kisses the Pacific by way of Coopracambra and Croajingolong National Park that hugs Mallacoota. It represents the only continuous tract of vegetation left in Australia running from ocean to alps, all of it bursting with unique lifeforms.
These forests were badly affected in last year’s bushfires, and it’s important that they are now supported to recover. Warm temperate rainforests thrive in the wet gullies of East Gippsland’s lowlands where greater gliders can be spotted at night with torchlight. It’s home to powerful owls and rare oddities like the strikingly blue Orbost spiny crayfish, while ancestors of plants like Myrtle Beech were here when the region was part of the Gondwana supercontinent 100 million years ago.
Industrial clearfell logging has seen stretches of these forests turned into woodchip. Despite the bushfires, forests continue to be exploited. Victoria’s Andrews Government has declared an end to native forest logging by 2030, but forests and communities can’t wait that long. With the bushfires and now COVID-19 taking a toll on coastal and regional economies, Matt believes the Emerald Link proposal is a clear way forward for East Gippsland.
“There's a lot of interest in the natural environment in Mallacoota. A lot of these people are into the outdoors. They're into four-wheel driving here, hiking and so forth. They are really encouraged by a project like the Emerald Link that can encapsulate all of those different aspects,” says Matt. “There’s the potential for the Emerald Link to have a flow-on effect for local businesses, particularly during the off-peak season. Mallacoota has got enough people coming here during the middle of summer, but what we want are tourists to come here and go to local cafes, eat at local restaurants and buy fuel at the local service stations during off-peak.”
He has his own fledgling Emerald Link project: a walk called Coopracambra to Coast that takes in the local landmarks. Matt’s been consulting with local people on how it can work, negotiating which tracks will be open at certain times of year and the impact of tourism on the environment. “There’s been input from the community about how to manage rubbish disposal along the way with tourists coming into the area and having an impact. So there is a big level of pride there,” says Matt. “It pretty much centres around a number of landmarks like Genoa Falls, Genoa Peak and the WB Line, which is a quite extensive 4WD trail. Along the way you also get to see some great bird watching areas.”
Following the bushfires, the benefits of the Emerald Link for communities along this coast and its hinterland have been brought into sharp relief. “Mallacoota, Genoa and Cann River are pretty much the township hubs in this part of the world. I think it's really important to look at areas like hospitality, accommodation and also the potential for young people here to be engaged in tourism activities,” says Matt.
“So when I look at the Emerald Link proposal and I look at these townships, I think about the economic opportunities for existing businesses. But there are also opportunities for young people to find employment and be retained in these areas, because there will be tracks that need maintaining, weeds that need controlling and the possibility, hopefully, of tour guides.”
Weeding and caring for the bush is something Matt is familiar with, working as a natural resource management consultant to control invasive species like African lovegrass. He’s been passionate about the environment and working in its protection for some 20 years. His family have always been “lovers of the landscape”, growing up with stories of his uncles who worked as a park ranger and for the forest and fire department.
Driven by and for the community, the Emerald Link provides a way for people affected by the bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic to create a resilient economy in the coming years, while caring for the spectacular coastline, forests, bushlands and wildlife that drive people to come here in the first place. In advocating for it, Matt is continuing his family’s legacy; caring for the land, caring for the people.
And his job has lovely moments; even after the bushfires the surrounding bushlands and forests retain their rare beauty. “I went into some parts north of Mallacoota where the fire hadn't impacted at all. And some of those really, really nice rainforest gullies were still fully intact,” says Matt with a pride that can only come from someone who loves where they live. “It's an absolute photographer's dream because at the right light, at the right time of day, you get the most stunning scenery. You've got birds there; you've got the water dragons. It’s certainly worthy of a visit.”