Leif Lemke owns 140 hectares of paradise adjacent to the Bellinger River National Park but only has to pay rates on a fifth of it.
That’s because a decade ago he entered into a Voluntary Conservation Agreement with the state government, which means his Gondwana rainforest remnant, roughly a square kilometre in size, is protected in perpetuity, even if the property is subsequently sold.
“You can’t do anything with that land – you can walk on it and you can work on it, restoring the environment, but you can’t do anything else,” Leif says.
Of course, whatever the modest advantage may be in terms of rates, such a commitment is not a money-saving exercise, it’s about dedicating private land and a great deal of personal effort to the cause of biodiversity.
And maybe, in Leif’s case, it’s also about atonement.
Originally a Danish seadog, a marine engineer, Leif was seduced by Australia and an Australian girl who is now his ex-wife, and after settling near Lake Macquarie he found himself working at a coal-fired power station.
“It sounds like a funny job for an environmentalist,” he laughs. “I was an operator, I was the one pressing the buttons and sending all this dirty smoke into the air.”
He bought the Darkwood property at auction in December 1992, after the bank foreclosed on its former owner, a notorious local identity who had gone to jail.
Parts of the rainforest had been scarred by logging, allowing weeds to move in, and Leif’s mission in retirement has been to rehabilitate those sections.
He’s been joined in this work by Inge Arvedsen, also from Copenhagen, and the two of them spend a couple of hours most mornings in the conservation zone, trampling dead lantana into mulch and pulling out weeds like senna.
Leif is 79 and Inge is 74 but neither of them regard what they do as ‘work’, more like a relaxing hobby.
Believing that it’s important to pace yourself with this kind of decades-long project, they take a day off on the weekend to go surfing (Leif) or to walk briskly along coastal tracks (Inge).
A series of three-year grants of $5000 per annum has helped defray some of the rainforest restoration costs.
Most of it pays for weed-combatting assistance, to allow the rainforest to regenerate itself, and a small amount is spent on plants from John Ross’s Lacebark Nursery in Coramba, chosen from a Gondwana-specific list of threatened species.
Their third grant has recently come through, courtesy of the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Trust, so they are funded to continue till the end of 2021.
Results from the previous years of steady work have been encouraging.
“All the indicator species are coming up to say this is rainforest,” Leif says. “We’ve even got the stinging trees and the lawyers vines that are found up in Dorrigo National Park.
“Considering that we have lost about 90 percent of rainforest in Australia, it’s really important that the remnants we have are conserved and the extensions we can create are pursued.”