1948 – 2020

A dream that began
in a swamp

Brian Gilligan was a resident of Seaham for over 47 years. He held senior roles in NSW EPA and NSW NPWS and worked for organisations nationally and internationally in environmental education, environment protection, land management and conservation. However it was the involvement with his local community of Seaham which gave him great satisfaction. Over 50 years ago, he campaigned to have the Seaham Swamp gazetted to its Nature Reserve status. His goal had always been to establish pathways to provide linkages between the Nature Reserve and Seaham Park for the community to enjoy. In his final months it became more important than ever to focus on progressing the project forward.

Brian passed away on 11 December 2020


Small and local

but valuable for the community and wider biodiversity

As reach and influence diminish, frustrations abound but opportunities to deliver worthwhile projects at a modest local scale, perhaps providing closure on project proposals that have been on the books in some form for several decades.

Cleaning up old files, I find a letter I had written on 3 July 1981 to Allan Walsh MLA, the then Member for Maitland. I was seeking his support for a proposal to link Seaham Park and Seaham Swamp Nature Reserve with an all weather trail and boardwalk. It seems the idea drew some positive media coverage but over time was obviously overtaken by a focus on other ideas.

The last decade or so has seen the establishment and empowerment of a very capable local committee constituted as a Section 23 Committee of Port Stephens Council. My contributions to the work of the Committee were very modest but it was good to be involved and we developed a draft management plan which provided a framework within which individual projects could be positioned as part of a cohesive whole.

In the last 12 months, as my health has deteriorated, I have been particularly involved in three specific projects:

• trying to identify the most suitable routes for the trails linking the Park and the Swamp;

• securing Tom Mc Clellan’s slab cottage and maintaining it as an educational resource;

• preparing an overview map highlighting points of historic interest  coupled with individual site signs providing detail on particular localities in the township and nearby.

These tasks have become quite engrossing, providing me with the opportunity to tidy off loose ends on some old pet projects; work with members of my family who also have an interest in the projects and re-engage with some old friends  and neighbours with whom it has been all to easy to lose touch as I became more busy working on larger scale projects further afield.



a small village case study
of the absurdity of current public land management

Seaham was a small cluster of land grants on the main road north through the Williams River valley when it was proclaimed a Town on 20th March 1885.  Some of the land grants dated back to the 1820s, but the ‘Town and Suburban boundaries’ were not formally ‘Notified’ until 15 July 1893.  The map that accompanied the ‘Notification’, with its compass point perfect grid of allotments separated by streets, largely oblivious to drainage lines and topography, may well have been drawn up by someone sitting in an office in Bridge Street Sydney. 

Centrally located on low lying swampland was an area variously designated for ‘Public Recreation’, ‘Drainage’ and ‘Water supply’. In December 1971 a parcel of this low lying land totalling 7 acres, 3 roods and 35 perches (some 3.5 hectares) in area, being vacant Crown land was advertised for sale by auction. The land covered the core of what has become known as Seaham Swamp.

I was a young Science teacher at a local high school at the time. I was concerned that the land to be auctioned was a small but valuable example of coastal floodplain wetlands rapidly diminishing in extent and that it should be retained in public ownership and managed to protect its ecological values. Representations through Milton Morris, my local state MP were successful, the land was withdrawn from sale and soon afterwards was gazetted as a Nature Reserve to be managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Around the same time, having built a home across the road, I became a member of the Seaham Park Trust, administering the adjoining Crown Reserve for Public Recreation which had been proclaimed as Seaham Park in 1838. In more recent years, the Park Trusteeship has been taken over by Port Stephens Council with local administration by a volunteer committee which prepared a Draft Plan of Management including provision for at least one adjoining unformed Crown Road Reserve to be incorporated into the park.

Several other unformed Crown Road Reserves also offer opportunities for improving community walking and cycle trail access by consolidating them under the one management regime. At least one was previously offered for sale to adjoining private landowners despite its obvious value as part of a community movement network.

Taken together, the parcels of publicly owned but separately tenured land total less than 20 hectares in area. The Nature Reserve always struggles to get much management attention from the NPWS because of the state wide pressure on limited resources. The Crown Road Reserves receive no management attention at all and have simply become weed infested fire hazards, barriers to the movement of pedestrians and cyclists. 

Seaham has grown rapidly in recent years, offering a rural residential lifestyle for people working across the Lower Hunter region. Many new residents have young families, value the natural landscape and are also looking for safe pedestrian and bicycle access between home, school and sporting facilities. For these reasons the publicly owned lands represent an asset of significant value, but the value is largely unrealised for want of some simple integrated management. Specific biodiversity, recreational, educational and community networking attributes all need to be recognised in a single plan ensuring protection or enhancement.

To be effective, management must focus on addressing threats to key values. In the case of Seaham, the threats are primarily local: malfunctioning septic tanks, straying domestic pets, weed infestations and the like. All are matters most appropriately the responsibility of local government. This leads readily to a conclusion that Ports Stephens Council is best placed to co-ordinate management. 

Whether integrated management requires tenure changes or simply innovative collaboration and targeted access to suitable project funding is worth exploring. Letting the current inadequate arrangements to drift along should not be an option. The public land assets should be properly valued and effectively managed.

There must be many hundreds, if not thousands of small communities like Seaham throughout the state.
When might we see their public land assets properly recognised, valued and managed to protect and enhance their public value rather than leaving them to degrade in an outdated tenure based management regime?

(Brian Gilligan lived at Seaham since 1972, was Director General of the NSW NPWS from 1998 to 2003 and had since been involved in various capacities providing advice to Governments on public land management.)