Australian Geographic Society Gala Awards 2022: Conservationist of the Year, Linda Sparrow

By AG Staff 28 October 2022
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As president of Bangalow Koalas, Linda Sparrow is leading a grassroots conservation movement to create and restore koala habitat in the New South Wales Northern Rivers region.

The community group formed in 2016 when a group of Bangalow neighbours banded together to protect a 400m stretch of koala habitat. From these humble origins, Bangalow Koalas has evolved into a dynamic environmental organisation committed to creating a koala wildlife corridor.

The biggest threat to koalas is habitat loss. Bangalow Koalas’ wildlife corridor will stabilise and increase koala populations by expanding and linking sections of habitat from Byron Bay and surrounds. Despite their initial goal to plant 100,000 trees by the end of 2025, this figure was replaced by 500,000 in the wake of the Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20. 

Now, with the backing of community volunteers, landholders, NGOs, and local, state, and federal governments, Bangalow Koalas’ wildlife corridor has expanded west towards Tenterfield, south towards Grafton and north towards the Queensland border.

Since 2019, Bangalow Koalas has planted 215,160 trees on 63 properties across four shires in northern NSW. “Considering that we’re just a tiny community organisation, we never envisioned we would be where we are today,”
says Linda. 

Image credit: courtesy Linda Sparrow

It’s been a tough year for Bangalow Koalas, with La Niña rains flooding properties and destroying tree saplings. Despite these obstacles, the organisation is currently on track to plant 80,000 trees this year. Over the next three years, Bangalow Koalas must plant 90,000 trees per year to reach their goal by the end of 2025. 

“Koalas don’t have the liberty of time. We’ve only got a short period to turn this around, so we’ve got to work hard to do it now,” Linda says. “They are the most iconic animal in Australia and they’re known around the world. If we can’t save koalas, then there really isn’t any hope for any other wildlife.” 

Although koalas are the poster child of the organisation, this wildlife corridor is creating an ecosystem that will support up to 15 significant species and ecological communities. Linda and her team are planting trees that will support glossy black-cockatoos, grey-headed flying-foxes, native bees, reptiles, possums and other native fauna, including critically endangered trees. 

Considering that we’re just a tiny community organisation, we never envisioned we would be where we are today.

After the Black Summer bushfires, there has been a surge in volunteers. Linda says the community support is there; the only thing stopping them putting more trees in the ground is funding. 

“We’re just trying to get people to be more aware of koalas,” says Linda. “The more you involve the community, the better chance koalas have actually got.” 

Linda organises everything from sourcing trees and seedlings to weed control, maintenance and arranging community plantings. She runs workshops with landholders, presents at conferences and hosts educational workshops. With her weekends spent at fundraisers and community plantings, Linda admits it’s more work than a full-time job. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” she says. “There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this job. But it’s also really rewarding when you stand up on the top of a hill and look down at all the corridors you’ve created. You’ve got to be passionate, you’ve got to be dedicated and not be afraid of hard work, but you can make a difference. We can all make a difference.” 

Related: Heroes all: Meet the 2022 Australian Geographic Society Gala Award winners