IF you think Australia's tropical rainforests are safely under National Park protection, think again. As you read this, bulldozers and chainsaws are ripping into what may be the world's oldest existing rainforest.
It's all legal, and they're not after timber. They're clearing for housing.
For the fact remains that when the Daintree National Park/World Heritage Area was declared in 1988, two-thirds of the lowland Daintree Rainforest was excluded from the listing.
Under the Joh Bjelke-Petersen Government, a developer bought a huge area of forest from local farmers and landholders. He subdivided it into 1,100 lots and put them on the market. Around the same time, the controversial road from Cape Tribulation was pushed through, despite the famous blockade.
The Daintree was open for business.
Around the turn of this century, there emerged one of the most under-stated conservation organisations in Australia: As forest protests still rage around the country, Rainforest Rescue quietly goes about its work, buying back forest earmarked for development and placing it under watertight environmental protection.
The Mullumbimby-based organisation targets Daintree properties with the best conservation values and simply buys them from the local real estate agent. Rainforest Rescue tries to link properties to create wildlife corridors, with many backing on to the National Park itself.
It then ensures the properties are protected permanently by having them gazetted as a Nature Refuge through an Act of the Queensland Parliament or through Voluntary Declarations under the Queensland Vegetation Management Act 1999. All properties are then maintained by a manager.
It doesn't come cheap, and it's all done through public appeals. But over the past decade, Rainforest Rescue has bought and protected 19 properties. Some are recognised as essential habitat for the endangered Southern Cassowary and other rare and endangered species such as Bennett's Tree-kangaroo and the Spotted-tailed Quoll.
Now, Rainforest Rescue is stepping up the pace. The organisation's founder and CEO, Kelvin Davies, has just launched the Daintree 2030 Vision. This ambitious plan sets a deadline of the year 2030 for the purchase of the remaining 180 properties zoned for development between the Daintree River and Cape Tribulation.
"Each of these blocks supports tropical rainforest and is connected to the World Heritage listed Daintree National Park - they are part of this same forest. Their only 'crime' is that they are lower, flatter and were therefore more attractive to developers.
In 2030 we want to say to our supporters, to all Australians and to the international community, that all of the available undeveloped freehold blocks in the Daintree Rainforest have been purchased.
"We want to say that we have closed down the network of roads and returned them to habitat. We have 18 years in which to purchase these blocks. With each year that passes, more houses are built so the race is on to buy back the Daintree before it is replaced by clearings and houses."
And before the remaining estimated 1000 wild Southern Cassowaries are pushed to extinction by habitat loss, dog attacks or turned into road kill.
Mr Davies points to the success of this year's efforts as a guide to their chances.
"With five properties already purchased this year and more to come, we are confident that we can achieve our vision."
Three of those properties were bought with money raised from an appeal launched in May this year, and Mr Davies is heartened by the willingness of Australians and international supporters to back this practical conservation.
But he knows it will be a big ask to find the estimated $15 million required.
"It's actually a good time for us to buy the land now," he says. "Daintree residential property prices are at their lowest in many years."
But at the same time, he knows it's cheap for developers, too. Hence the urgency.
Rainforest Rescue has a cute marketing line: A donation of $5 protects one square metre of one of the world's environmental treasures. But Davies says it's no gimmick. That is the actual average cost of the land. To make it more enticing, any donation over $2 is tax deductible.
Dr David Suzuki, the globally respected environmental scientist, has described the 110 million-year-old Daintree as 'one of the most spectacular ecosystems in the world'. He has urged Australians to get behind the Daintree buy-back scheme.
Kelvin Davies welcomes that endorsement. But he knows it is the support of the Australian people that will preserve these priceless parcels of our heritage.
To get in touch with Rainforest Rescue, go to the organisation's website or phone 02 6684 4360.