‘Opera house’ of the natural world rescued in covert operation
18 January 2020 at 12:00 pm
The prehistoric pine grove is the only one to exist in the wild
First, the prehistoric Wollemi Pines survived the dinosaurs, and nearly 200 million years on, it looks as though they will survive this year’s catastrophic bushfires.
New South Wales Environment Minister Matt Kean confirmed on Wednesday that an extensive air and land operation by specialist remote firefighters had saved the trees, which are the only ones in the world to exist in the wild.
With only 200 remaining, the exact location of the pines within the Wollemi National Park has been kept secret in a bid to protect them from contamination.
They are one of the world’s oldest and rarest tree species, belonging to a 200 million-year-old plant family, and were thought to be extinct until 1994, when park ranger David Noble discovered the plant on a bushwalk.
Kean said saving the trees was “an unprecedented environmental protection mission”.
“With less than 200 left, we knew we needed to do everything we could to save them,” Kean said.
He said the operation, carried out by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and NSW Rural Fire Service, involved air tankers dropping fire retardant, and firefighters being winched in by helicopter to set up an irrigation system in the gorge. As the fire approached, helicopters water bucketed the fire edge to reduce its impact on the groves of trees.
While some trees are charred, Kean said the species had survived this summer’s fires but he urged the public to stay away from the secret site to avoid damaging them.
“Illegal visitation remains a significant threat to the Wollemi Pines survival in the wild due to the risk of trampling regenerating plants and introducing diseases which could devastate the remaining populations and their recovery,” he said.
Richard Kingsford, director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of NSW, told the Sydney Morning Herald that preserving the original stands of the pines was “fundamentally important”.
“It’s something like the Opera House of the natural world… Losing it would have added to the catastrophe we have seen elsewhere,” Kingsford said.
The Gospers Mountain fire burnt through more than 512,000 hectares before crews contained the blaze in recent days. It’s believed to be the largest fire to have started from a single source.