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Byron Shire
December 7, 2023

Olivia Newton-John and FernGully

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Olivia Newton-John. Photo Peter Carrette

There have been many things written about Olivia Newton-John this past week. All good things. Beyond owning a property in the local area she was active in many environmental issues in the region. One in particular, the 12-year battle to save ‘Fern Gully’ in Coorabell from being dammed, is not well known to locals, but is one of the most important environmental battles won in Byron. This dam would have shattered the heart of the hinterland forever.

Olivia Newton-John. Photo Peter Carrette

In the early 1980s the region’s local water authority, Rous County Council (RCC), proposed building a $60 million dam that would have flooded the valley between Keyes Bridge at Federal, through to Goonengerry Bridge. There were 39 residential properties that would have been flooded (mine was one of them) and 35 species of endangered birds and animals would have lost vital habitat. Interestingly at this time no one paid for water supplied by the RCC. Water was free. The first letter of notice of the proposed dam arrived in 1983. The final letter to say the dam would not be built arrived in 1995. In between much happened, with many people involved. Olivia was one of them. An important one. She gave generously of her time and her credibility, which was instrumental in the community’s eventual win. 

When word of the dam got out, a community group sprang up to fight against it. The co-owners of Music Farm Studios in Coorabell at that time were Wayne and Diana Young and Eric Roberts. Diana wrote the book FernGully, which was made into an animated film by Youngheart Productions. Robin Williams was the voice of Batty Koda, a character created for Diana by her sons Stu and Nik. FernGully had its World Environment Premiere at the UN in New York on Earth Day in 1992. On that day Diana and Olivia became close friends after Olivia presented Diana with a One Earth Award for her outstanding work.


The mad dam

FernGully was a fantasy tale that became a reality. The media campaign to stop ‘the mad dam’ began when Rusty Miller rang his friend, Wayne Young in Los Angeles, to get him on board with the fight. Wayne was one of the creators of the ‘It’s Time’ campaign for Gough Whitlam. He knew how to do things and had the connections. Wayne rang Diana who was at the Brisbane Film Festival about to do press for FernGully, as it was getting an award for Most Popular Film. She said ‘Don’t Dam Fern Gully’. That led to a cover story in New Idea with Olivia and Diana, written by Jodie Harrison, with photos by Peter Carrette. The headline was: ‘Don’t Dam FernGully’. 

Olivia Newton-John. Photo Peter Carrette

Filming for our campaign was immediate. Olivia was spending a lot of time in Byron, particularly at The Music Farm, working on two productions with Youngheart: The Last Whale, for which she wrote a song; and Human Nature, a 52-hour series she also starred in, produced by Scott Young. He had a full film crew at the ‘Fern Gully’ waterhole and before we knew it we were meeting there with Olivia, Jack Thompson and Mandawuy Yunupingu. Manda was Australian of the Year, and Yothu Yindi were rehearsing at the Music Farm for their Treaty album world tour. 

Over the years of opposing the dam we did everything. We held concerts in local halls with the DamBusters gigs, built around Stu and Nik’s band ENRGY. We raised funds to engage local ecologist David Milledge to assess the environmental values of the valley. Water Engineer Brian Milgate was invaluable for the knowledge and energy he contributed. 

We wrote numerous submissions over the years. We won, and lost, many times as the goal posts were changed. 

We ran the ‘Dam Mad’ campaign all around Australia, and the DamBusters concerts in Byron. Richard Jones helped greatly as we called for the dissolution of RCC. Our then State MP Don Page walked through ‘Fern Gully’ one Sunday morning and came onside. 

Olivia Newton-John. Photo Peter Carrette

But, it was probably the Dam Mad video featuring Olivia, Diana, Jack Thompson and Mandawuy saying ‘No!’ to the proposed dam, that was sent to the then NSW Premier, John Fahey, which got us over the edge. How could they resist Olivia? She was a powerful force in her beautiful, sweet way. It was not long after that video was sent to the premier we got the final letter to forever stop the dam being built in our valley. However, it was just the beginning for the proposed Dunoon Dam. Within months of our win, RCC put in place the mechanisms to enable the Dunoon Dam to be built. And this is what the community there is protesting against today. 

The Sunday picnic afternoons with Olivia, sitting on the edge of ‘Fern Gully’ are times I won’t forget, nor the people we were with during that time. While we saved ‘the last rainforest’ in our valley, there are many more rainforests that need saving. And building a dam in Dunoon is also Dam Mad.

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  1. What a wonderful story, thanks so much for sharing this important part of the Shire’s history. Big thanks to all the eco warriors mentioned, including our very special ONJ for saving the valley, what a great team effort. I can’t image the beautiful hinterland without ‘Fern Gully’! Power to the Peaceful People!

  2. Wilsons River Dam would have provided a cost effective water supply to the Northern Rivers for a hundred years. It would have been a great gift to future generations, just like Rocky Creek Dam was a great gift to their generation. Instead the selfish generation that is now fading away decided to bequeath future generations large debt, an unreliable water supply and annual water bills hundreds of dollars more than they should be.

    • Yep, let’s dam the whole bloody country – that will bring our water bills down! You know, those bills that generally show service charges as the major component, far and above volume charges. More dams will bring service charges down won’t they?

      What use will future generations have for rainforests and their ecosystems?


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