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March 3, 2024

Digging into the science of 4WDs on beaches

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Cr Kiri Dicker with some of the attendees at the Critical Conversations seminar, Lennox Head. Photo David Lowe.

Last night, a full house turned up at Lennox Hotel’s Seven Mile Room to participate in the inaugural Critical Conversations seminar, about the impact of 4WDs on beach ecosystems.

The event was organised by Ballina Shire councillor Kiri Dicker, and featured Sue Higginson MLC, beach ecosystem expert Dr Thomas Schlacher, environmentalist Megan Ward and OzFish Richmond River’s John Larsson.

Cr Dicker said her intention was for Critical Conversations to become a regular event. ‘I’m a big believer in local government,’ she said. ‘We can do so much more than just roads, rates and rubbish.’

Sue Higginson MLC opened by saying NSW’s newly elected minority government was going to be ‘very significant’, with the possibility of a genuinely progressive environmental agenda for the first time in many years. She said that preserving complex, dynamic coastal ecosystems was vitally important as the climate emergency worsened.

Sue Higginson MLC at Critical Conversations seminar, Lennox Head. Photo David Lowe.

‘We’re all here because we love the beach,’ said Ms Higginson.

While acknowledging that 4WDs on beaches were a complex issue, she said that the weight of evidence suggested that from a legal perspective, in the future there would definitely come a time when it would no longer be considered acceptable for recreational 4WDs to be on beaches.

She said the details would come down to science, and things which could be measured, and then applying the results of that scientific research to public policy.

Science and beyond

Professor of Marine Science at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Dr Thomas Schlacher, said that quality scientific research was useless without considering the social, cultural and political dimension of what to do with that knowledge. He also emphasised that mutual respect between all interested parties was vital for progress to occur.

Returning to science, Dr Schlacher said the fundamental which had to be understood was that the dunes, the shoreline, and the sea nearby were all ‘one system’, even though humans tended to only look at part of the complete picture. As an example, he explained that in a healthy ecosystem, small invertebrates living below the dunes at low tide (species often killed by four wheel drivers unaware of their existence) provide food for fish at high tide.

Dr Thomas Schlacher speaking at Critical Conversations seminar, Lennox Head. Photo David Lowe.

He discussed the hypocrisy of drivers criticising four wheel drivers, and said people who lived close to the shorelines of Australia were also changing habitat in fundamental ways, even with the best of intentions.

He said that once coastal ecosystems were destroyed in fundamental ways, they could not be replaced.

In terms of empirical scientific evidence regarding 4WDs on beaches, Dr Schlacher said there were around 500 papers which had been published internationally, with an overwhelming body of evidence saying 4WDs were bad for beach ecosystems, and not a single paper he was aware of showing otherwise.

At the same time, Dr Schlacher said that his experience in Queensland and elsewhere showed that local research was needed, containing locally believable data, about things local people were interested in, before the situation would change on the ground, with community involvement all important.

He said that once the science was in, the community would need to make a ‘judgement call’ about what was ecologically important.

Megan Ward speaking at the Critical Conversations seminar, Lennox Head. Photo David Lowe.

Oyster catchers returning

Megan Ward then spoke about the community campaign that culminated with the removal of 4WD vehicles from South Ballina Beach by the state government.

She said the initial problem was that there were many stakeholders at different levels of government, and no one prepared to take responsibility.

She said that bringing the stories of the local community to key stakeholders helped break the impasse (environmental storytelling), along with scientific research, finding a person to represent the issues to media (herself in South Ballina’s case), and building a group of people to advance the issue.

Ms Ward then spoke about the remarkably positive changes that have taken place on South Ballina Beach since 4WDs were removed, with massive improvements in key species including beach stone curlews and pied oyster catchers, with breeding pairs of this endangered species doubling from 20 to 40 in just two years.

OzFish perspective

John Larsson from OzFish said he hoped to find some common ground between recreational fishers and environmentalists when it came to 4WDs on beaches. He said that fishers were becoming increasingly interested in assisting with environmental issues, and blamed the bad behaviour of drivers on beaches on ‘an extremely small minority’.

John Larsson from OzFish (Richmond River Chapter) at Critical Conversations seminar, Lennox Head. Photo David Lowe.

Noting that Ballina and Lennox had begun as fishing communities, he said he felt for older fishing enthusiasts who would be unable to access beaches if 4WDs were banned.

Dr Schlacher said he had learned a lot about beaches from talking to older fisherfolk, and that a few cars driving sensibly on the beach had very little impact, but when it came to hundreds of 4WDs per day on the weekend it was a very different story.

Cr Dicker said that while she didn’t want to get into ‘too much council stuff’, many people had come to her suggesting local zoning permits for infrequent and wheelchair users, but staff had assured her there was no legal way Ballina Council could stop other users, including Queenslanders, from using the beach.

Members of the audience interjected at this point and said there were other places in the state where this had happened.


Community members and the panel agreed that coastline science needed to improve, become more localised, and be better explained to the community. Dr Schlacher said he was more than willing to return to the area and assist with this process.

Other speakers wondered why it was necessary for more science to prove that 70-120 vehicles a day, as had been reported on Seven Mile Beach in recent peak periods, were too many?

Sue Higginson drew on her background as an environmental lawyer to talk about the precautionary principle, which compelled decision makers to take action when there was evidence of irreversible harm, even if scientific uncertainty remained. She said Australian decision makers operated under this international framework, which was a key part of ecologically sustainable development.

Ms Higginson said community consensus in a big picture sense was unachievable, in political terms, which was why decisions needed to be made in the long term, broad public interest.

Pied Oystercatcher
Pied Oystercatcher on South Ballina Beach. Photo Megan Ward.

An audience member with expertise in endangered sea birds said that off-leash dogs were as much a problem as 4WDs. Another local man said that human safety issues needed to be looked at with 4WDs on beaches, especially where children were concerned.

Dr Schlacher acknowledged both issues, but said the Queensland experience showed that if 4WD safety became the main issue, then it became a matter of policing, which could be batted aside by politicians unwilling or unable to deal with the deeper environmental problem.

In terms of dogs and related issues, he used the analogy of someone who had a few beers and then switched to shots. He said that once large numbers of 4WDs were added to the beach recreation equation, then from an ecological impact perspective, things became really serious, really fast.

Dr Schlacher suggested that people who said their dog or 4WD hadn’t killed anything failed to see the damage done by the person before, or after them.

With Ballina Crs Simon Chate and Eoin Johnston in attendance on the night, hopefully science will be a bigger part of the future Seven Mile Beach 4WD debate.

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  1. A predicable comment from the MLC:- ‘ in the future there would definitely come a time when it would no longer be considered acceptable for recreational 4WDs to be on beaches.’
    Unless more people get involved in tackling a reasonable solution here, a slow strangulation of access rights is exactly what the extreme Green Agenda is planned to do.

    • The extreme Green Agenda is more Extreme than this – they actually want to put in place life on this planet, for us and the planets other species, that is sustainable, ie that it carries on (rather than the present unsustainable status, which means means it ends). The 4wd access to beaches has been framed around access for fishers – there is an approximate 100 mtres of accessible river front pathway, and another aprox 50 mtres of breakwall to fish off, if fishers cant walk to the beach

  2. There is a surprisingly high number of small to tiny critters living in the sand on our beaches, but in beaches used by cars studies identify that there are none. In addition to being an important part of the food chain, these small critters clean up the pollution from ground water, and underground water flows, before the water gets to the ocean.

  3. It breaks my heart to think that only in the future there would definitely come a time when it would no longer be considered acceptable for recreational 4WDs to be on beaches. It should have happened long long time ago.

  4. I have always thought that 4WD vehicles must knock the hell out of the pipis, which must have major consequences for both fish and birds.

    • Cameron, I think you will find pipis in their closed shells above the LWM are far tougher than you may realise.
      Certainly with a mere quarter of a tonne impacting on them via a single large area low-impact 4WD tire.

      • Rob I was 4WDing on Fraser Island back in the 1980s and have witnessed the destruction of pippi beds by 4WDs . The tyres passing over the bed causes it to come to the surface and is then then hit by the next 4WD (when convoys are occuring ) or high traffic .
        I have seen hundreds of cracked pippis on the east coast of Fraser Island back in the 80s before every Tom , Dick , Harry and Liz had a 4WD .
        Not sure if the same occurs with worms but can only presume they are killed also .
        I don’t see huge swarms of soldiers crabs like I did back in those days .
        Low number 4WDs may be ok but these days it is like a highway on some days .

  5. My thanks to Cr Dicker for her determination make decisions by Ballina Council take account of scientific evidence. Prof Schlacher’s main point was that in all the very many scientific beach studies evidence of harm by people’s usage is overwhelming, and none to the contrary. 4WDs hugely magnify the harm. Severe harm cannot be undone, less harm takes many years to reverse. The precautionary principle requires that we prevent this harm pending specific research of our own beaches not the other way around. Higginson was too conservative here.
    When I last read the Crown Lands Act, which I confess was some time ago , it clearly supported Council’s advice that its land, which includes Ballina beaches, belongs to all NSW residents equally and Councillors may not discriminate in favour of locals. If there are other Councils doing so their actions are most likely illegal.

    • That’s all very well and obviously has good intentions behind it Lyn, but responsible use of vehicles in the tidal zone can have very limited effects on sea fauna and even less on flora.
      As regards your interpretation of the Act, I understood that the State of NSW (Crown) has supreme control here so it’s certainly not just a matter for Green, Councilors/politicians and others to pontificate over controls.


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