Conservation volunteer Jeff Cottrell spends much of his time fighting the spread of weeds along our waterways. 

Yet it was his love of remote area white water paddling that led him to become involved in organising weed control projects, for the access it gives him to rivers running through National Parks and private land that would otherwise be off limits.

With the volunteers in the Landcare group Willow Warriors, Jeff is dedicated to clearing New South Wales’ waterways of black willow, a pervasive pest that wreaks havoc on the ecosystems of rivers and creeks and spreads into our National Parks.

The introduced species uses more water than native plants, and the trees lose all their leaves at one time of the year. “That can be at times when there are low flows in Australia, so leaves drop in the water and they start to break down straight away, and they take oxygen out of the water,” Jeff said.

Another problem caused by the invasive pest is that a black willow’s root system can grow into the stream and take over the bed, which can affect native wildlife.

“Animals like Booroolong frogs lay their eggs in the crevices of rocks, which willows take over, so they’ve got nowhere to lay their eggs,” explained Jeff.

After successfully eradicating black willow from the Colo River area, its first project, Willow Warriors now clears the black willow from waterways from the Hawkesbury region down to the Victorian border, passing through important ecological bushland like the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area on the way.

Jeff’s journey with Willow Warriors, who this year received a Coca-Cola Australia Grant, started in the mid-90s when many areas within national parks were declared wildernesses, to help protect the bush by keeping people out.

“National Parks were locking gates on all the parks to stop people going in and lighting fires and hooning around in their four wheel drives. That meant that white water paddlers couldn’t get in to the rivers they used to paddle, without a long walk dragging a kayak” he said.

At a workshop to try to find a way to access his old paddling routes, Jeff met a National Parks ranger, who latter asked him about volunteering for a project attempting to eradicate black willow from the Wollemi National Park. “The ranger said he would fly us into the Wollemi Wilderness by helicopter so we could paddle out over five days, treating these willows’,” recalled Jeff. “That’s how I got involved.”

Even though Jeff didn’t call himself a conservationist when he signed up as a Landcare volunteer, he now recognises why access to some national park areas has been restricted.

“I understand more now why they made them into wilderness areas. When you see these areas where people can’t get access, you can really see a difference,” he said.