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Volunteer on Scottsdale Reserve. Photo Bee Stephens.
Volunteer on Scottsdale Reserve. Photo Bee Stephens.

Green thumbs

Words by Coco McGrath
Location: Ngunnawal and Ngarigo Country, New South Wales 
Published 27 Mar 2023

A weekend of tree planting at Scottsdale Reserve restores the land and soul.

The sound of constant hammering is not what most people would call beautiful, but it’s a sound that brings joy to Phil Palmer, Reserve Manager of Scottsdale Reserve on Ngunnawal and Ngarigo Country, NSW.

“I love it when the hammering gets so intense that it sounds like rain. It’s a beautiful thing,” he says as he looks out over the green hills where 20 volunteers are hammering stakes into the ground during one of Scottsdale’s regular volunteer weekends.

The stakes support recyclable green tree guards, and within the tree guards are native seedlings that will one day form a thriving woodland.

Scottsdale Reserve, 45 minutes south of Canberra, was once farming land. Around 600 hectares of the 1,328-hectare reserve was felled, which resulted in soil erosion, habitat disturbance and species loss.

Knock-off time after a rewarding day planting trees. By Bee Stephens

Since Bush Heritage purchased the land in 2006, the site has been a hub of activity. Land managers, ecologists and volunteers have all worked hard to bring life back to the land, doing everything from survey work along the Murrumbidgee River to removing fences, tackling invasive weeds and, importantly, planting native grasses, shrubs and trees.

“To try and rebuild the ecological function and integrity, and maintain the cultural importance of this place… it all starts with putting a tree in the ground,” says Phil.

“Every plant is not only going to turn into habitat for wildlife, but will support carbon sequestration, soil health, and reintroduce genetic material – all helping to send this reserve on a trajectory of recovery.”

Affectionately known as the ‘People’s Reserve,’ Scottsdale is a testament to people power.


Volunteers from the nearby towns such as Bredbo and Cooma come to regular volunteer days, while others travel from far and wide.

Scottsdale volunteers take a well-earned break. By Eliza Herbert

Oota, a keen bush walker and nature-lover, has travelled from Sydney. Clad in high-vis with a sun safe broad-brimmed hat, Oota works her way along the rows, prising seedlings from their pots and gently lowering them into the soil.

“We know that the country has deteriorated since land has been cleared,” she says. “We need to plant trees to restore the country to some extent.”

But it’s not just the country that is restored. The volunteers all agree that they benefit as well. “It’s hard to explain … to me it’s so obvious that it’s much better to be outside in nature than in the city,” says Oota.

Yi Qing, a regular Scottsdale volunteer along with her daughter Abbie and partner Justin, agrees. 

“It makes me feel grounded and connected to nature. I feel good about myself when I volunteer in this beautiful environment.”

Tessa is a paramedic who, like Oota, has travelled from Sydney. “You get a bit overwhelmed with all of that [city life], watching the news and everything that is going wrong, but then there’s just this group of people giving up their time to volunteer.”

Volunteer Ute Foster. By Bee Stephens

The efforts of Scottsdale’s dedicated volunteers took a hit in the 2019-20 Summer bushfires. Around 73% of the reserve was impacted, including important habitat trees, culturally significant trees and thousands of the seedlings planted by volunteers.

“For those who had poured their heart and soul into this place there was a huge sense of loss,” says Phil. “But the support we got after the fires was life changing. It was a nice reminder that Bush Heritage isn’t just a reserve that we operate within. We work across the landscape, and we work within the communities.”

“There’s a sense of absolute satisfaction this afternoon,” says Dennis, Tessa’s partner. “We’ve contributed not only to Scottsdale, but in a small way to the planet.”

The planters celebrate a job well done. By Bee Stephens

Tessa looks out at row upon row that she, Dennis, Oota, Yi Qing, Phil and the other volunteers have planted in one weekend. “It’s just beautiful. They’re actually glowing in the light right now, which is insane. It’s like they’re all thanking us.”

This project has been supported by the New South Wales Government’s Saving our Species program. 

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