Saturday, April 17, 2010

Cassowary Coast Regional Council Mismanagement at Cowley Beach receives damning report card from DERM Principal Coastal Scientist Sel Sultmann

I sometimes strongly disagree with the management practices of the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management. In my story ‘Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service Upset Ma:mu Traditional Owners and Conservationists at Ella Bay’, I was mightily unimpressed with their beach driving antics and lack of consultation with traditional owners.

Well there is another side to the coin and after reading a recent report by DERM Principal Coastal Scientist Sel Sultmann I was very (read extremely) impressed with his work. It seems like DERM have some staff that are well and truly on the ball and Mr Sultmann is one of them.

This report was prepared for the council after Mr Sultmann’s inspection of damage to Cowley Beach on the 15 October 2009. Sadly the document disappeared like a fart in a fan factory and despite repeated requests by Cowley Beach scientist Mr Richard Piper to council for access to this document it never materialised. I was carbon copied in to these emails to councillor Jennifer Downs and other council representatives but for some reason Mr Piper was never given a copy of this report.

Smelling a rat Mr Piper obtained the report via other means and I thought in the interest of transparency and fair play you good people might like to see the contents so here it is… enjoy!

Report on: Vehicle use on Cowley Beach

An inspection of beach condition and vehicle impact on was carried out on 15 October 2009 with representatives of Cassowary Coast Regional Council and local residents..

The purpose of the inspection was to assess the recovery of the beach system following Cyclone Larry and determine what the vehicle impact was following closure of the old access track by cyclone damage. It was noted that Council has encouraged the use of the intertidal beach area by vehicles following an inspection about 12 months ago.

Cowley Beach south of the township is a long narrow spit backed by Liverpool Creek. The dune is a low terrace with little ridge and swale development typical of a typical beach ridge type dune. The dune is emplaced by wave over-wash processes with a small amount of sand blown up onto the dune crest. For comparison purposes aerial photos of Cowley Beach south in 2001 (pre Cyclone Larry) and 2006(post cyclone Larry) are presented as Attachment 1.

The primary observations at the inspection were that:
  • Vehicles were both using the intertidal beach and the dune crest for access to . There was also evidence in the recent vehicle tracks that vehicles move between the beach and the dune crest track, probably based on arbitrary decisions on track softness, slope etc.
  • The result of this broad area of vehicle use was that a larger area of land was impacted than if one or the other access was exclusively used. This impact between the tracks by vehicle cross-over was evident by a reduced vegetative ground cover/vegetation recovery; and
  • The old vehicle track further landward had not been reopened for most of its length.
Photo 1: Beach and dune crest tracks in active use by vehicles.

The above result is perhaps the worst possible outcome from an environmental management perspective in that there is now at least double the area being impacted by vehicles then pre-cyclone Larry when vehicles primarily used the dune crest track, and perhaps much more when vehicle crossover between the beach and dune tracks is considered.

Department of Environment and Resource Management policy and desired environmental outcomes as expressed in the State Coastal Management Plan and the Wet Tropics Regional Coastal Management plan. The regional plan has as its listed desired outcome for this area which include:
  • The physical and biological integrity of the dune system and associated beach is maintained;
  • Vehicle access and recreational use has minimal impact on the fauna that use the beaches
The policy does not seek to stop vehicle access to Liverpool creek but to restrict expansion of the impact of vehicles by limiting vehicle access to the established access (dune crest) and discouraging new access (beach). The substitution of dune crest access for beach access based on closure of the dune crest track by cyclone Larry damage can be supported where the vehicle impact overall is the same or reduced. However the current management arrangements are inconsistent with this policy in that the footprint of vehicle impact has expanded in the attempted shift to beach access and the abandonment of dune crest access has not been completely achieved.

Use of vehicles on beaches to access remote areas and camping /fishing opportunities is a common practice in some coastal areas of Queensland including all the large sand islands of south east Queensland. In this high wave energy environments the beaches are wide and relatively flat and are usable for much of the tidal cycle, but the high dunes backing the beaches cannot be used for vehicle access so vehicles are naturally confined to the beach. North Queensland beaches by comparison commonly have coarser sand, the upper beach slopes tend to be steeper and the width narrower. Therefore vehicle access along north Queensland beaches is more restricted by tidal conditions. Conversely the low flat dune terrace backing the beach is quite useable for vehicle and becomes an easy alternative when beach conditions deteriorate. The Cowley Beach has these characteristics.

The spit south of Cowley Beach is in a designated Erosion Prone Area and is vulnerable to erosion during tropical cyclones and to breaching by the Liverpool Creek in behind. Consistent with the State Coastal Management Plan DERM would not support development on the spit such as road works or hardening of any access track on these dunes, but low value works such as signage, bollards and fencing would be acceptable. Therefore management of this area needs to recognise that vehicle access needs to be controlled/regulated to minimise environmental harm, but road works are not appropriate for this area.

The following conclusions were drawn from this inspection:
  • Any vehicle access strategy for Cowley Beach must have as its primary objective the minimisation of the vehicle impact foot print and therefore the level of environmental impact.

  • A regime of beach access only for vehicles to access to Liverpool Creek will result in a restricted time envelope of use due to tide and weather constraints, and there may be periods when access is not possible for extended periods. Prevention of vehicles also driving along or accessing the dune terrace cannot be done by physical constraints due to the dynamic nature of this coast, so would require a regulatory regime (local laws and permitting/compliance/enforcement action) to ensure compliance. It needs to be recognised that dune crest vehicle use will always be a requirement for emergency purposes and a level of non complying use will be inevitable due to people being caught out by a rising tide. Therefore a beach access option will have the greatest environmental impact in terms of a vehicle use footprint.

  • A regime of dune crest access will provide a full time envelope for accessing Liverpool Creek as it is unconstrained by tidal and most wave conditions. The dune crest track is probably a more sensitive site in terms of it being the site of active erosion/accretion processes and vegetation regeneration, and potentially as a bird and turtle nesting site. The optimum strategy for the use of this area is to move the track as far landward as practical and preferentially use previously degraded/impacted areas for the track path. Compliance could be achieved primarily by education, physical barriers and signage, although a regulatory regime is a necessary part of ensuring compliance.

  • The switch to beach driving for vehicles access to Liverpool Creek following cyclone Larry may have solved a short term problem but may not be the best long-term solution in terms of the resources needed to ensure this compliance, the inevitability of continued dune crest driving and the reduced access times limited by tides.


It is recommended that:

1. The dual track system which has developed since Cyclone Larry must be abandoned and a single track option adopted to minimise environmental impact.

2. Either management option listed below is suitable for retaining the environmental values of this area, but a combination of the 2 is not acceptable:
(a) Confine vehicle access to beach use only with designated dune crossing points. This option will result in a restricted window of usage due to tidal conditions and will therefore require a strong regulatory regime and community education to ensure compliance, and a vehicle lock out system during periods when the beach is impassable.
(b) Confine vehicles to a dune top track placed as far landward of the seaward dune crest as practical. This may require reopening of the old access track, use of signage and limited physical barriers and a moderate regulatory regime to ensure compliance.

3. Vehicle management effort such as signage bollards etc, should focus on restricting vehicle use/movement onto sensitive environmental areas so as to harm such as on the eastern side of the dunes or close to the Liverpool Creek bank.

4. The vulnerability of the dune area south of the Cowley Beach township to sea erosion be recognised and works to harden, surface or upgrade this track not be considered. This does not extend to judicious vegetation clearing to regularise preferred vehicle access.

Sel Sultmann
Principal Coastal Scientist
Department of Environment and Resource Management

Attachment 1: Cowley Beach pre cyclone Larry in 2001 and post cyclone Larry in 2006.

Well there you go!

I would like to say that I admire the way in which Mr Sultmann has explained the situation on the ground in easy to understand terms and offered management solutions that unfortunately are not being acted upon.

My favourite quote from the report was “The above result is perhaps the worst possible outcome from an environmental management perspective in that there is now at least double the area being impacted by vehicles then pre-cyclone Larry when vehicles primarily used the dune crest track, and perhaps much more when vehicle crossover between the beach and dune tracks is considered.”

I think the reason why Mr Sultmann qualifies the statement with the word “PERHAPS” is that he has considered the possibility that council might sponsor dune buggy racing (or something similar) at Cowley Beach and I can imagine Councillor Downs waving a chequered flag and handing out trophies as the beach and dunes are decimated!

Then again I do have a rather fertile imagination!

Ok I am being silly here and there are no plans for council to do this… (I hope)

At the end of the day it is not a pleasant report card.

I’m sure CCRC’s Mr Paul Devine (Manager Parks and Natural Environment) would have been less than happy with this assessment of his/councils management performance. If I were in his shoes I certainly would not want this report attached to my resume or in any way linked to me!

I am disappointed the report was not given to the Cowley Beach Advisory Group for consideration.

I am disappointed it was not attached as an appendix to the Final Report prepared by Julie Murphy (Director of Community Services) and Paul Devine (Manager Parks and Natural Environment).

I am disappointed that in my opinion council appears to be more concerned with how Cowley Beach scientist Richard Piper obtained the report that rectifying the problems it has clearly identified.

I will have another story up soon about damage inflicted on this area over the Easter holidays and I still have to tell you more about the Ella Bay Cassowaries that are feeding on the beach after crossing the Ella Bay Road (I haven’t forgotten).

Cheers Russ


  1. Great to see this report come out at last. I visited Cowley Beach a couple of years ago and was shocked to see it's condition, hardly a square metre of sand not driven on. Reopen the dune crest track and get the vehicles off the beach entirely!

  2. Thank you for your comment Steven.
    I must admit that I cannot see why anyone has to drive this on beach or the dune track at all ...we are talking a track that should be a bit longer than a kilometre so we aren't talking Fraser or Stradbroke island here!
    However if council must sponsor such destructive laziness at least there is a chance to regulate traffic and keep it off the beach and environmentally sensitive river mouth with the dune track.
    I am very disappointed that Mr Paul Devine (CCRC Parks Officer)and CCRC Councillor Jennifer Downs failed to get copies of this document to the Cowley Beach Advisory Committee.It is one of the most important documents relating to environmental damage at Cowley Beach yet it was not made available to those who needed it.
    This Document would still be missing in action if not for the efforts of scientist and Cowley Resident Mr Richard Piper! Thank you Richard.

  3. Great to see you keeping up the pressure, Russell.
    Dune and beach sand damage is terrible for nesting birds in particular, and presumably Turtles too.
    Good on you.

  4. Thank you for your comments Dennis. You will be pleased to know that James Epong, a traditional Mandubarra owner of Cowley Beach and a man I consider to be a brother, were fortunate enough to give a power point presentation to our local council. We covered marine turtle nesting activity in this region and presented specific evidence of marine turtle nesting on Cowley Beach exactly where this traffic is occuring.

    Bird nesting also occurs at Cowley Beach. On clean up Australia day, James Epong, Henry Epong (his father) and I photographed what appeared to be red cap plover chicks (Charadrius ruficapillus) on the foreshore.I will slip them into a future story as I know you like your birds and will want to see them!
    A disturbing sadness overcame me as I watched these tiny birds scamper through the wheel ruts on such a beautiful sunny day :(

  5. Are the turtle nesting areas not covered under national parks or is it a case of no one in the department gives a shit?

  6. Thanks for your question Mark.

    Basically foreshore to high water mark is Marine National Park and the strip of land above the foreshore is under council control. Do they give a damn? Good question.

    Some have shown they care. Cr Bill Horsford sent a letter to the editor of the Innisfail Advocate making his feelings re the beach very clear and I admire his integrity, honesty and common sense.

    At a council meeting on 17 December 2009 Cr Jennifer Downs tried removing the following from resolution 808:

    "Further that Council resolve to remove, over time, vehicles from all parts of the beach, foreshore and dunes north of the boat ramp"

    and replacing it with this:

    "That Council Officers investigate a Permit System for vehicles utilising the section of the beach north of the boat ramp at Cowley Beach"

    Fortunately council had the sense to throw her amendment out the door and:

    THE MOTION WAS LOST – 2 votes to 5 with Crs J Downs and M Nolan voting FOR the Motion and Crs B Shannon, I Rule, B Horsford, C Silvestro and R Sorbello voting AGAINST the Motion.The original motion was passed instead thank goodness.

    This happened after Mr Sultmann submitted his report to the council and Cr Downs should well have understood just how environmentally inappropriate such an amendment would be. Cr Downs was also aware that both the military and Mandubarra traditional owners want no traffic north of the boat ramp period.

    Council minutes from this meeting are available at

    Do they care...yes and no. I believe all the councillors care to differing degrees about the environmental destruction at Cowley Beach and overall they are headed in the right direction albeit at a snails pace.

    However I believe for some a concern over obtaining votes in the future may be impairing their sense of responsible environmental stewardship.


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