At next month’s meeting Council will have a long-awaited debate about the future of 4WD access to 7 Mile Beach as part of the broader Coastal Plan of Management.

You may remember the foot stomping that occurred in mid-2021 when the State Government abruptly closed South Ballina Beach to 4WDs after reports of hooning and illegal camping, causing destruction of flora and fauna (including nesting sites for the endangered pied oyster catcher), threatening public safety and indigenous heritage sites. The move was welcomed by some and spurned by others, but to date, the beach remains closed with no plans to re-open it.

One of the knock-on effects of the closure of South Ballina Beach was a steep increase in 4WD traffic to 7 Mile Beach. In the month of April 2021, immediately after South Ballina was closed, Council recorded almost 3000 vehicles crossing the traffic counter. Numbers continued to remain high during the COVID period, however the beach was given a reprieve during wild weather and subsequent flooding earlier this year, which saw the beach closed to 4WDs for over 6 months.

I know you love 7 Mile Beach, so do I. I have countless memories of growing up on the beach: winter sunrises, summers spent lolling in the waves and digging in the sand for pipis, evenings going crab-hunting with my Dad. Rarely a day goes by that I am not down on the beach enjoying the same activities with my own daughter.

Call me crazy, but I’ve long been on the belief that cars belong on roads, not beaches. Our entire built environment is designed to accommodate vehicles. The ability to access every inch of our environment from the comfort and safety of a vehicle has become perceived right in modern Australian culture. In my first year on Council I’ve learned that the worst crime that Council can commit is to take away people’s parking spaces.

Decades of research from Australia and around the world has highlighted the negative impacts of 4WDs on beach flora and fauna. The environmental damage caused by 4WDs is cumulative, exists regardless of whether you are a “responsible” driver and is not always visible to the naked eye.

7 Mile Beach is home to dune-nesting birds such as the magnificent rainbow bee-eaters, who nest at the entrance to the dunes. Endangered pied oyster catchers have been sighted by local Landcare volunteers, although it is unclear whether they nest there. Vehicles driving along beaches can have a major impact on breeding success of nesting shorebirds. Disturbance from vehicles may cause shorebirds to fly off nests, eggs and chicks, or change activities.

7 Mile Beach is also a nesting site for green and loggerhead turtles, whose hatchlings emerge from between January and April. Vehicles driving over turtle nests can compact the sand above, crushing eggs or making it hard for hatchlings to get out.  A 2012 study by Griffith University found that 91% of green turtle hatchlings were unable to traverse a 15 cm tyre rut and spent 2.6 and 18.6 times longer to get through a 5 and 10cm rut, respectively compared to the flat sand.[1] Earlier this year, a section of Broome's famous Cable Beach was closed for two months during the wet season in a bid to save turtle hatchlings from being caught in tyre ruts.

A study conducted in Western Australia found that even low levels of off-road vehicle traffic was enough to cause measurable shifts in the diversity, density, and structure of invertebrate communities on sandy beaches.[2] Studies conducted on QLD beaches have found that 4WD activity was associated with significantly lower populations of the common ghost crab[3] and negatively affected the body condition and burrowing performance of Pipis.[4]

It can be hard to accept that our own behaviour is ultimately damaging the very place that brings us so much joy. We need to re-assess our relationship with the beach and commit to more sustainable and less degenerative forms of recreation.

So my question is, do you love 7 Mile Beach enough to preserve it for future generations?

[1] van de Merwe1, J.P, West, E.J, Ibrahim, K (2012). Effects of off-road vehicle tyre ruts on the beach dispersal of green sea turtle Chelonia mydas hatchlings. Endangered Species Research, 18(1):27-34 DOI:10.3354/esr00436

[2] Davies, R., Speldewinde, P. & Stewart, B. Low level off-road vehicle (ORV) traffic negatively impacts macroinvertebrate assemblages at sandy beaches in south-western Australia. Sci Rep 6, 24899 (2016).

[3] Mcphee, Daryl & Moss, D.. (2006). The Impacts of Recreational Four-Wheel Driving on the Abundance of the Ghost Crab (Ocypode cordimanus) on a Subtropical Sandy Beach in SE Queensland. Coastal Management. 34. DOI: 10.1080/08920750500379383.

[4] Sheppard, Natalie & Pitt, Kylie. (2009). Sub-lethal effects of off-road vehicles (ORVs) on surf clams on sandy beaches. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 380. 113-118. 10.1016/j.jembe.2009.09.009.