The Inspiring Leadership of Lithgow Environment Group

lithgow environmental group

Left to Right: LEG members Chris Jonkers, Thomas Ebersoll, Erica Cavanagh, Julie Favell, Chris Oddie (Photo: Lis Bastian)

Story by Quintin Handley

Key Points:

  • Lithgow Environmental Group (LEG) hosted a screening of Tim Flannery’s documentary ‘Climate Changers’ at the Maldhan Ngurr Ngurra Lithgow Transformation Hub. It focused on investigating responsible climate leadership.
  • Equally as inspiring as the leadership shown in the documentary was the story of LEG’s twenty-year-long championing of the local environment.

“It’s not a film to be enjoyed, but I hope it will inspire us.”

These were the words with which Thomas Ebersoll of Lithgow Environment Group finished his opening speech before the showing of Tim Flannery’s film: ‘Climate Changers’. The film was shown in the Maldhan Ngurr Ngurra Lithgow Transformation Hub and focused on what role leadership plays in facing the climate crisis. It featured interviews with a variety of leaders, from politicians such as former PM Malcom Turnbull, NSW Treasurer Matt Kean, and 45th American vice-president Al Gore, to Polynesian chieftains and climate activists.

More salient than the examples of leadership displayed in the documentary however, was the living example shown by those presenting the documentary in that small auditorium in Lithgow. The story of Lithgow Environment Group, or LEG as its members call it, is a saga spanning nearly two decades. It is a story of their heroic struggle against fire, local habitat destruction, weak government legislation and in particular, irresponsible mining practices.

LEG was founded in 2005 when concerned members of the public contacted one of the founding members about reports of asbestos in the Lidsdale area. The first meeting was held in 2006 in Lithgow. and identified their primary concern for the local area was the water supply. Soon they had established over thirty water quality monitoring stations throughout the Coxs River, Farmers Creek, and other local watercourses.

Members of LEG checking water quality as part of their ‘Streamwatch’ Program’ (Photo: LEG)

LEG’s most notable achievement came in 2011 when, after two years of litigation, they collaborated with Blue Mountains Conservation Society to stop the pollution of the Coxs River with wastewater from the Wallerawang power station. Read more here

One of the founding members, Julie Favell, stated that “Everywhere I look I see weak legislation. That’s what’s got to change.” Still, they are undaunted in their struggle to preserve their local environment. Erica Cavanagh, another member of LEG, linked this to Tim Flannery’s documentary, saying of Julie “It’s not the collective, it’s individuals who are speaking out, leaders. It takes determination and a certain courage.”

Indeed, the words determination and courage characterise the members of LEG, and the attitude they hold to the endless work required, of just a handful of key members, in monitoring the endless square kilometres of bushland and waterways surrounding Lithgow. “It takes a long time to collect all that data, it’s a lot of fieldwork,” said Julie Favell of the thousands of aggregate hours she and Chris Jonkers have spent trekking the bush and meticulously recording water quality and local biodiversity.

Additional projects of LEG over the years have included monitoring local swamps for potential signs of damage that could occur from mining on the Newnes Plateau, an area now listed as a NSW Endangered Ecological Community.  Julie Favell said, “Those swamps have been there for twelve thousand years, and they’re a natural filtering system. If you destroy them it’s not only destroying the local habitat for fauna and flora, but drastically reducing environmental flow, the local water quality, and Sydney’s drinking water. Without water, nothing lives, retainment of water quantity and quality is paramount for all to survive.”

Left: The pristine Farmer’s Creek swamp Right: Chris Jonkers in the East Wolgan Swamp, damaged by mining operations draining the swamp (Photos: LEG)

In wake of the destruction of much animal habitat during the Black Summer Bushfires, LEG has organised a community-driven project to provide artificial nesting hollows, or ‘possum tubes’, for vulnerable species such as the Eastern Pygmy Possum throughout the Ben Bullen State Forest. With materials donated by Lithgow Bunnings, initial design training by Fauna Ecologist Andrew Lothian, the nest boxes constructed by the local Lithgow Women’s Shed, and then installed by concerned local volunteers and LEG members, the project stands as a testament to the ability of a few motivated individuals to organise and rally community effort to step up and do something for the environment.

On May 24th the group organised their 4th Annual Eastern Pygmy Possum and Nature Walk to monitor the progress of the project. Local fauna expert Andrew Lothian led a group in opening up the hollows and cataloguing the inhabitants. Seventeen volunteers inspected 15 nest tubes, and two happy residents were unearthed, a female eastern pygmy possum and a male feathertail glider, both in good health and enjoying the shelter provided by the plastic piping filled with soft doona stuffing.

Left: An Eastern Pygmy Possum blinks in the sun

Middle: The beautiful feather tail of the Feathertail Glider

Right: The Feathertail Glider being carefully held by local expert Andrew Lothian (Photos: Julie Favell)

Though their work may be inspiring, the future of the Lithgow Environment Group is uncertain. After twenty years of dedication its members are worried that in ten or fifteen years there may be no one remaining in Lithgow to carry on walking the trails, documenting, and supporting the local environment. As such the LEG is calling for new members from the Lithgow/Blue Mountains area. Julie Favell says they’re “seeking volunteers to join and learn, we want to educate and pass on our knowledge.” Any interested persons can find the LEG website and email address at the end of this article.

Any who make that step will find themselves welcomed with open arms and warm smiles into a small but committed community of local heroes passionate about their local environment, as I was for a brief but happy time when I stepped into the Lithgow Transformation Hub and tripped over the story of these true ‘climate changers’. Their existence answers in the affirmative to the overarching question in Tim Flannery’s documentary: do we still have those leaders out there with the determination and courage to stand up and rally us against climate change.

LEG members Julie Favell and Chris Jonkers at the screening of ‘Climate Changers’ (Photo: Lis Bastian)

‘Think locally, act locally, I think we really have made a difference in this little town’Chris Jonkers

Take Action:

  • Join! “If you have the passion, we welcome anyone, there’s no person we wouldn’t include if their passion was to learn more about the environment. The environment always needs passionate people and you can do it.”
  • If Lithgow is too far, start your own group “Don’t feel that you don’t have the knowledge, you’ve got to start somewhere, LEG started with very little knowledge, you’ve got to start somewhere”
  • Find out more at their website, or contact the LEG through their email address;

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Quintin Handley

Quintin is a student studying history at the University of Sydney and a graduate of Penrith High School. He is currently writing for the Blue Mountains Planetary Health Initiative’s Local News and wishes to pursue a career in journalism.

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