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History

Early encounters

European explorer, Christie Palmerston, passed through the area in 1882 while seeking a possible railway route from the coast to the Atherton Tableland. With Aboriginal guides, he followed their traditional walking tracks for part of the way. Palmerston encountered many Aboriginal inhabitants of the rainforest, including Ma:Mu people and, in his own words did not hesitate to 'give them a taste of the rifle'.

Palmerston's track, although not chosen as the eventual route for the railway, forms much of the highway that today bears his name.

While some early Europeans, such as artists and botanists, were enthralled by rainforests as 'novel, contrary and eccentric', most newcomers valued the 'wild untamed scrubs' for the resources they offered.

In 1873 explorer George Dalrymple landed in the Johnstone River area where botanist Walter Hill recorded that 'the soil cannot be surpassed as the most valuable discovery in Australia'. Dalrymple's reports of dense rainforests were equally enthusiastic and cedar timber-getters arrived in the area in 1874. By the 1880s much of the accessible cedar was cleared.

Timber-getters were closely followed by gold prospectors. In the late 1890s there was a short-lived gold rush to the nearby Jordan Creek Goldfield on Jordan, Henrietta and Douglas creeks. Several hundred prospectors toiled in the rainforest but thick vegetation and deep topsoil hampered alluvial mining and yields were poor. By 1901 few prospectors remained.

Several gold mines were established but only one, the Jordan Creek Wyreema mine, had any success. Mining continued sporadically over the years but in all, little gold was won from the rainforest.

Timber

As the region developed, demand for timber increased, tree species other than red cedar were targeted and rainforest timbers became a very valuable resource. The timber industry created great wealth for the region.

Rainforest timbers were commonly held to be an inexhaustible resource. However, from the 1920s there was growing concern over indiscriminate cutting of rainforests and the pressure to settle and clear the 'rich scrub soils'. In the 1920s–1930s several State forests and timber reserves were gazetted in the Palmerston area, despite opposition from land settlement proponents. Managed for wise use of timber, these areas were logged but ultimately protected from clearing.

Although logging in the vicinity of the walkway continued until the late 1930s, logging in nearby State forests in the Palmerston area continued until the 1980s. All but the most inaccessible areas of rainforest were extensively harvested for 100 years—loggers from Millaa Millaa on the tableland eventually met up with loggers from Innisfail.

Farming

In the late 1880s a banana industry developed on the lower Johnstone River. Chinese miners left inland goldfields to farm bananas and a small fleet of sampans transported 1,000,000 bunches of bananas each year to Geraldton (Innisfail) for shipping to southern ports.

Sugar however, quickly became the major industry in the lower Johnstone River area. From 1882 Chinese, South Sea Islander and Aboriginal labourers cleared the rainforest, and in 1885, the Goondi sugar mill was established. It attracted labourers from all corners of the world, with many settling in the area.

On the upper reaches of the North Johnstone River, the Palmerston rainforest was more inaccessible. A tramway built through to Nerada in the early 1900s opened up the country for banana farming and timber removal. Little development took place however, until the Innisfail—Millaa Millaa road, following Palmerston's old track, was completed in 1935. Small lots (150–220 acres) were offered for selection. Settlers who 'won' their land in the ballot had to clear 25 ac of rainforest each year for three years. Most established dairy farms; others grew bananas and vegetables or fattened cattle and pigs. In the 1960s a tea industry began with plantations at Nerada. Land selection and rainforest clearing continued until the 1950s with the opening of the adjacent Maalan lands.

Tourism

From the 1930s rainforests began to be more appreciated for their scenic and recreational values rather than for the resources they offered. The new Palmerston road also opened the way for tourism as the rainforests, waterfalls and scenic gorges of the Palmerston area became seen as places for recreation—walking, picnicking and sight-seeing. The first national park in the Palmerston area was declared in 1941.

World Heritage listing

Community attitudes towards the use of rainforest resources, such as timber, were already changing when in the 1970s botanists, Dr Len Webb and Geoff Tracey, overturned accepted wisdom and argued that our rainforests originated in Gondwana more than 100 million years ago.

This realisation, along with new scientific discoveries and recognition of their beauty, saw rainforests gain symbolic value. Logging of rainforests began to be questioned and the fight for their preservation for ecological, aesthetic and scientific values began.

In December 1988 the Wet Tropics (900,000 ha) was inscribed on the World Heritage list and the logging industry was shut down to conserve the rainforest. The Wet Tropics gained World Heritage listing for its outstanding and important natural values:

  • living records of the evolution of land plants, marsupials and song birds
  • high levels of biodiversity and endemism (species found nowhere else)
  • habitats important for the conservation of threatened species
  • areas of exceptional natural beauty.

Today much of this area is also protected as national parks, providing for conservation of natural and cultural values and the enjoyment of visitors.

Community attitudes

Today the Wet Tropics community plays an active role in rainforest conservation. Each year hundreds of landholders, Landcare groups and volunteer groups lend a hand. They plant native rainforest trees in agricultural and residential areas, create wildlife corridors, protect riparian habitats, help control weeds, operate plant nurseries, educate the public and survey wildlife. These community conservation activities create a 'culture of caring' for the natural environment and encourage others to appreciate the value of our rainforests.

Ma:Mu people are also involved in rainforest restoration and conservation. They have witnessed immense changes to their traditional rainforest country and culture. Today they are reconnecting with their culture in modern ways, while still respecting the old ways. They are involved in bush tucker gardens, revegetation programs and tourism ventures.

The Ma:Mu Aboriginal Corporation collaborated with QPWS and local artist, Jill Chism, to produce artworks that present various clan’s culture and connection to rainforest country. The panels have been installed at key points along the Forest walk. Ma:Mu people provided images, words and artwork that represent important aspects of the Ma:Mu Aboriginal people’s culture. The artworks thus provide a sense of the ongoing ‘presence’ of the traditional custodians of the Mamu rainforest. The artworks were funded under Arts Queensland’s Art Built-in program and installed in late 2009.

Constructing the Mamu Tropical Skywalk

Consultation and cooperation

A consortium led by Hutchinson Builders Pty Ltd was contracted by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service to construct the skywalk during 2007–2008. Regional and state tourism organisations and the Cassowary Coast Regional Council as well as the Wet Tropics Management Authority were closely involved with the development of the original walkway proposal.

During construction, QPWS consulted with the Innisfail Disability Focus Group, Disabilities Services Queensland and Guide Dogs Queensland to ensure that facilities cater for people who have impaired mobility or vision. The Johnstone Ecological Society provided input about the protection and presentation of the natural values of the rainforest.

Skywalk design

The main design challenge was to find ways to build the eleated skywalk safely and efficiently on a steep slope, in thick rainforest and in a high rainfall area.

The skywalk was built in sections. Each section is supported by a steel tower up to 15 m high, 2 m by 2 m square with a 4 m diameter circular top. The circular-tower-tops serve as resting points and passing locations for larger groups of visitors, preventing congestion on the skywalk and enhancing visitors' experiences.

The prefabricated skywalk sections between the towers are 10 m long and 1.5 m wide. The relatively short skywalk sections allowed the builders to move them into place through the existing trees with minimal clearing of vegetation required.

The cantilever is a straight section of skywalk, 40 m long and 2 m wide, that extends 10 m beyond the last supporting tower. A glass viewing panel at the end provides for an unobstructed and excellent view. The observation tower is 5 m by 5 m square and 37 m high with two viewing levels and a roof shelter. The skywalk, cantilever and observation tower have been designed to withstand cyclonic winds.

Environmental sustainability

Every effort was made to construct the skywalk in an environmentally sustainable way; that is, minimising adverse environmental impacts during construction and for the life of the structure.

Cyclone Larry tore through this area in March 2006, opening the canopy in several places. The route of the skywalk uses these natural openings to reduce the need for further clearing. A detailed botanical assessment was carried out before the walkway route was finalised, to reduce even further the risk of damaging significant plants.

An old forestry track was used for access to the construction site. When the skywalk and tower were completed, the access track became the ground-level Forest walk.

Cyclone debris and vegetation that had to be cleared were retained and used as mulch for rehabilitating vegetation around the construction site. Plants grown at the QPWS nursery at Lake Eacham, from seed and seedlings sourced around the skywalk site, were used for revegetation.

Environmentally sustainable, durable materials were selected for the project. Planks made of 100 per cent recycled plastic were used for the skywalk decking and for the wall cladding of new buildings. Recycled plastic was also used for seats. Using recycled plastic products reduces the amount of plastic waste sent to landfill. The recycled plastic planks are resistant to rotting and corrosion, and can be expected to outlast timber by many years. Using recycled plastic also reduces maintenance. Unlike timber, plastic does not become quickly coated in slippery growth, so there is no need to clean it with chemicals and high pressure hoses.

Unpainted galvanised steel was chosen as the most durable material for the supports and beams of the skywalk, cantilever and observation tower. Using materials that do not need to be painted reduces maintenance and minimises the risk of paint flaking and leeching into the rainforest. To reduce the risk of corrosion, the steel sections are open rather than closed.

QPWS and Hutchinson Builders carefully selected construction materials and equipment that reduced impacts during construction. These included:

  • prefabricated sections for the skywalk, cantilever and observation tower
  • a lightweight, extendable tower crane with a small 'footprint'
  • a fully enclosed generator that is almost silent and is sealed to prevent fuel spills
  • equipment that is as small as possible for the job.

Strict hygiene procedures were used to reduce the risk of introducing weeds or diseases to the site via soil brought in from other areas. These included:

  • a wash-down bay to clean construction machinery, vehicles and people's boots
  • cranes and other site vehicles kept on site at all times during construction, to further reduce the risk of contamination
  • new portable toilets bought for the construction site to prevent soil contamination from previous use at other sites.

A site induction video was shown to all staff to familiarise them with the importance of the site and the environmental protection measures required. There was regular monitoring of work practices to ensure compliance with the project's Environmental Management Plan.

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