The Society acknowledges the traditional owners of the Irwin Districts, their continuing connection to land, sea and community and pays its respects to elders and their cultures, past and present.

River Trails Submission from IDHS

Comments on Irwin River Trails Schematic Masterplan, March 2021

Download the plan here


These comments refer to the strategies and illustrated decal details provided in the Schematic Masterplan dated March 2021, received by the IDHS on 8 March 2021, and previously viewed by several IDHS members at the Shire planning day on 4 March 2021.  Our comments relate only to the natural and cultural heritage aspects of the scheme.

Generally, we do not oppose the strategies and actions outlined (unless specifically stated), but instead have suggested amended or additional strategies and actions for your consideration. 

The key point to make is that the estuary landscape is dynamic and constantly changing, there is no point in time that could be said to be its ‘permanent’ form.  We have around 150 years of images of the estuary to demonstrate this.  The key event in the estuary is periodic flooding, roughly once per decade.  Sometimes this is relatively gentle, at other times violent (see Appendix 1).  From the 1870s it led to the gradual abandonment of ‘Old Dongarra’ and the movement of the town to higher ground.  The most significant loss due to flooding was probably the closure of the Dominican Ladies College in 1971 (just east of the study area).  Part of the estuary’s history since the 1860s is the sweeping away of built structures by floods.  Alternately, there are periods between floods when the river channel has been quite dry and sandy with the body of water confined to the lower reaches near the rivermouth.  Accepting this dynamism needs to be at the core of the plan. 

It would also be useful to include some reference to the need for continuing maintenance of built structures and regenerated landscapes once they have been installed or completed.  Doing it once and just leaving it is not a sustainable management strategy.

We support measures for increasing universal access for all people to the estuary, and refer you to guides such as Access to Heritage Places Guidelines(2018) and Easy Access to Historic Landscapes (2013) for designing such access to heritage places.  Although neither is WA-specific, the guidance and principles are relevant to the estuary.

Strategies: Enhance landscape qualities

1st dot-point – agree with clearing weed species and revegetating with local native species, but question the application of this principle to known historic sites that retain historic plant material – two more nuanced alternatives we suggest are either (1) management to remove as much weed species as necessary, but retain and actively manage some specimens as evidence of historic land use – this applies specifically to the Agave at the Harbourmaster’s Cottage site, and, subject to preparing an inventory and assessment of extant plantings, the grounds of Denison House; or (2) replace the historic weed plants with sculptural/public art interpretations – the agave at the Harbourmaster’s Cottage site, for instance, could be amenable to such treatment.  Our concern is not to lose the visual markers of historic sites in what is a very complex landscape of many layers.  Two illustrations of such an approach to, for example the agave at the Harbourmaster’s cottage site,  are shown below.

Our concern is not to lose the visual markers of historic sites in what is a very complex landscape of many layers.  Two illustrations of such an approach to, for example the agave at the Harbourmaster’s cottage site,  are shown here.

3rd dot-point – strongly agree that all of the area should be reserved (ideally, in a single Crown reserve for the purposes of nature conservation, historic sites and public parkland) – but suggest the wording could be strengthened to include all of remaining Benedictine Estate that has not been sold-off (Lot 9003/057287 of 14 ha as recommended in the EstuaryManagementPlan of 2014 (p11 and figs 2.1, 4.1 and 4.2), including Quarry Bluff, and include provision for extending the reserve further up the river to include all land now in, or which in the future comes into, public ownership (whether in Crown or Shire ownership), and similarly southwards to include the surviving vegetated sandhills, beaches and dunes around Harbourmaster’s Hill down to Surf Beach.

  • 3rd dot point – agree that access to habitat areas should be restricted – if these are the Conservation Areas identified in some decals, that should be clear from the text here.

Strategies: Responsive environmental design

  1. Generally, we submit that infrastructure and track design needs to be physically flexible or responsive to periodic flooding rather than be rigid or otherwise likely to be damaged or washed-away by flooding.  Flooding is a natural feature of the estuary landscape, and design needs to respond to or accommodate this rather than try to control it.  There is a long history of built structures being destroyed by periodic flooding, and fruitless attempts to control flooding. 
  2. As noted earlier, regular and continuing maintenance of built infrastructure in the estuary is needed, including monitoring of environmental impacts on structures and vice-versa.

Celebrate local heritage and culture

  1. 2nd dot point – agree that heritage properties need to be enhanced, and suggest that the State Register of Heritage Places (SRHP) and Local Heritage Survey (LHS) structures and their property boundaries need to be marked on the plan to assist in the implementation of the plan. 
  2. We also suggest that the reference to ‘heritage properties’ be amended to ‘heritage properties and heritage values of cultural heritage significance’, using the wording in section 5 of the Heritage Act 2018.

Improve connections and activation

  1. 3rd dot-point – suggest that the reference to lighting include a principle that light pollution needs to be avoided to reduce impacts on night wildlife and views of the night skies.  Traditionally (before the Benedictine Estate subdivision) this was not a brightly-lit area, and lighting needs to be managed to prevent excessive illumination of the area – the impacts of illumination on wildlife habitat and wildlife activities when considering whether additional illumination should be installed needs to refer to objective thresholds for measuring such impacts.

Designed with community

  1. 3rd dot point – same comment as above with regard to lighting.  The potential for night-time activation to lead to demands for more lighting needs to be balanced with the extent to which night-time activation will impact on other principles such as nature conservation. 
  • Additional point – suggest that the community be invited to submit names for the new reserve, and a principle be adopted that the name should be bilingual (English and Nhanda/Nunga) or even trilingual (English, Nhanda/Nunga and Noongar). 


  1. Signs should be grouped together – include a principle to prevent the spread of numerous signs, or ‘sign blight’.  Signs should be located so as not to interfere with or obscure views and vistas, and signage overall should be kept to a minimum and not impact on the perceived ‘wildness’ of the place.
  • Some of the decals (eg Lookout) refer to replacing the current signage – is a particular design scheme proposed for the replacement signs?  No particular problem has been identified with the existing signs, and it is not clear what problem it is proposed to fix by replacing most or all of the existing signage?  Replacing signs seems to be a recurring action in all the estuary plans.
  • Signs in the reserve could also be bi- or trilingual, as noted earlier, and could also include braille.  These might be reasons for replacing current signage.
  • Trails or tracks – we prefer the term tracks, not trails.  Track, or path, are the traditional terms for describing walking routes in this area, and there seems to be no reason for dropping either term.  Specific tracks and paths should also be named – most have traditional names that could be more formally recognised.  There is also scope to develop new names for some tracks and paths that would reflect the character and natural and cultural heritage of the precinct or overall reserve.

Details (in each decal)

Lookout (traditional name Cemetery Hill)

  1. The decal image suggests a large new structure – we submit structures should be kept minimal, transparent and simple in design, and not detract from or compete with the views.  The view from the lookout has been photographed since at least the 1910s, it is possibly Dongara’s first tourist attraction, and it is important not to obscure the view in anyway.  The decal text could state this is a principle.
  2. Similarly, any streetscape improvements should not obscure the views.
  3. Note also the comment above regarding signs, which applies to this area.

Cemetery Link

  1. We understand there is another plan being developed by the Shire for the cemetery, although it is not clear to us who is doing that.  As a principle, we think a cemetery is not a park but a cemetery, and Dongara Cemetery remains an active cemetery, as it has been since the 1860s.  We don’t want to lose that purpose or character, and therefore it needs some privacy and solitude for people to grieve and remember, including external fencing (traditionally, a timber picket fence enclosed the cemetery).  We’ll provide separate feedback to the Shire about the cemetery as such.
  2. The decal could indicate that the link design should relate to the cemetery character, or provide a visual transition between the characters of the estuary and the cemetery. 

Pedestrian bridge

  1. There are historic examples of footbridges and fords across the river, all of which have been swept away in periodic  floods.  We note there were proposals in Thungarra in Black & White (1997) for a high-level footbridge in the general area shown on the plan.  We think the design principles for the bridge should include (a) fixing points on either side of the river for the structure should not impact historic fabric nor be visually bulky or overly-engineered, (b) the bridge structure should be as transparent and light weight as possible to avoid negative impacts on views, and (c) the structure should not visually obscure or overshadow Denison House.
  2. Generally, the structure really needs to be an outstanding example of accessible public art that enhances the estuary landscape if it is to be publicly accepted – it has to be beautiful as well as functional.  Perhaps a design competition could produce an outstanding design as well as engage the community in the design and decision-making processes.

Waldeck Street Park

  1. This is the historic site of the first school (1870-1902), and of Waltons Ford between Waldeck Street and Clarkson Street, which was the first formed river crossing (a stone structure).  Both of these sites are likely to have archaeological potential, and should be acknowledged in the landscape treatment.  This area is also the site of High Street, a projected commercial street from the river marked on old town plans but never built (see comment at ‘Trail Improvement’ on concept of ‘Old Dongarra’ for the historic context for High Street). 
  2. The suggested jetty may be better as a floating rather than fixed structure for easy removal when a flood is approaching or this reach of the river dries up, as periodically happens. 
  3. With regard to the term Waldeck Street Park, see our comment at ‘Enhance Landscape Qualities, 3rd dot point’, about a single Crown reserve for the whole place, and at ‘Designed With Community, additional point’, about naming the reserve – the naming of particular or distinct precincts within the overall reserve is supported, and in fact traditionally occurs, and we suggest that a principle be included in the Strategies text that a coherent place naming strategy be developed for the whole area.

Point Leander Drive

  1. We suggest that the decal text specify that the landscaping should be appropriate to the setting for the Historic Road Board Office, built 1910 (Poppies Café), the Memorial Park (1938), and the Tokos Building, built 1911 (Pannarai Café).  These sites are all LHS heritage items, and Poppies is also a SRHP item (note our comment on marking SRHP and LHS items on the plan at ‘Local Heritage & Culture’). 
  2. This has been the route to the river crossing since the first substantial bridge was built in 1889, and has close connections to the river.  The precinct also has its own Edwardian urban character with the principle building façades aligned directly to the footpath edge.  We suggest the text include a reference to enhancing this historic Edwardian streetscape character (the public art and universal access point might reflect some of this character).

Bridge Park

  1. We suggest the decal text include reference to retaining the River Gums and general riparian character of this precinct, and also to enhancing visual links across Point Leander Drive to Russ Cottage and its grounds, and a more visually obvious link from the parkland to the public footpath on the St Dominics Road side of the Cottage (a crosswalk, or distinctive paving?).  That could, in turn, also allow for some acknowledgment of the historic site of O’Connor’s Maternity Home (swept away in the 1971 flood). 
  2. The decal text could also include reference to interpreting the historic gardens in the Russ Cottage grounds (currently all lawn, but a project we are working on now, at a concept stage).  This could be a counter-point to the Regional Herbarium proposal (see Denison House Hub, point 6).
  3. Note comment on marking SRHP (Russ Cottage) and LHS items on the plan at ‘Local Heritage & Culture’
  4. Note comment at ‘Waldeck Street Park’, which also applies to the term ‘Bridge Park’.

Trail improvement

  1. The alignment of this path follows Old Port Road, the original 1850s track from the inland to the Mill, built 1859 (now Denison House), the Mill Quarry (1850s-70s) and the Harbourmaster’s Cottage (1857) and the ‘old port’ at the estuary.  Archaeological fabric may survive of the road, which possibly followed an older wajjoo, or ‘native path’, but this would need archaeological confirmation.  The ornamental stone gates to Denison House were located here, swept away in the 1945 flood. 
  2. This track + Clarkson Street + St Dominics Road generally follow the Old Port Road alignment, and together with sites such as Russ Cottage they mark ‘Old Dongarra’ where colonisation commenced before the reality of flooding forced the town to relocate in the 1870s to the Waldeck Street-Church Street axis on the edge of Dongara Flat.  The decal text could reference acknowledging this complex historical layering in the landscape treatment of the track.
  3. Note comment on marking SRHP and LHS items on the plan at ‘Local Heritage & Culture’.

Denison House Hub

  1. Suggest the decal text refer to ‘conservation and adaptive re-use’ of Denison House and its grounds, rather than ‘restoration’ (we use these terms in their Burra Charter meanings), and to continuing maintenance of the building.
  2. Suggest the archaeological site of Smith’s Mill needs to be marked on the plan in some way, with clear direction that any landscape treatments need to be preceded by archaeological investigation.  This is already a SRHP site, with potentially at least State-significant industrial heritage, and should not be disturbed except by qualified and experienced historical archaeologists.
  3. Suggest including specific reference to the landscape treatment of the interface between the grounds and Retreat Boulevard/Benedictine Drive, with design references taken from Denison House and its grounds (note also point 7 below).
  4. Suggest an audit of surviving garden plantings in the Denison House grounds, and assessment for cultural significance, before any removals are undertaken.
  5. Suggest include a specific reference to the conservation of the garden terrace stone walls and planning for their continuing maintenance.
  6. Suggest an approach to planting the terraces using local native species but in a gardenesque layout or style consistent with the Edwardian era of the house and garden construction (1897-1910s), and probably the period of its most notable aesthetic value.  In this sense, the terraces could have something of a local botanic garden character, and could form an element of the Regional Herbarium proposed in the Estuary Weed Management Plan 2013 (pp39-40).
  7. Suggest garden plantings and layouts in the grounds, away from the terraces, could also reflect the long period of Benedictine and Catholic residence and use of the place and the distinctive character of religious gardens (note also point 3 above).
  8. Suggest conservation and adaptive re-use of the chapel needs to retain a sense of its former religious and spiritual purposes for interpretive purposes.
  9. Suggest strengthen last sentence in decal text to ‘retain and adapt for cultural purposes, such as exhibition galleries, performance spaces, other arts, crafts and cultural uses, scientific research and education, with revenue-generating and supporting retail outlets’.
  10. Note comment at ‘Enhance Landscape Qualities, 3rd dot point’, about a single Crown reserve for the whole place – this includes the Quarry Bluff precinct west of Denison House that is greyed-out on your plan.
  11. Note comment on marking SRHP and LHS items on the plan at ‘Local Heritage & Culture’.
  12. Note comment at ‘Waldeck Street Park’ on floating jetty – suggest considering whether a similar structure could also be moored in the river where you have a jetty marked, that could also be moved midstream on occasion for performances that can be viewed from the terraces and other points.

Retreat Boulevard (Canoe Launch)

  1. Note comment at ‘Waldeck Street Park’, that also applies to the name of this precinct which is often simply known as Canoe Launch.

Ocean Drive

  • Suggest noting in decal text the importance of the samphire in this precinct
  • Note comment on marking SRHP and LHS items on the plan at ‘Local Heritage & Culture’
  • Note comments at ‘Enhance landscape qualities, 1st dot point’, and images, with reference to the green-shaded revegetation area (Harbourmaster’s cottage site).

Southern Trail

  1. Question whether a shade shelter is necessary – concern about deterring birdlife and/or obstructing views across the lagoon, and/or leading to calls in the future for more enclosed structures on the boardwalk. 
  2. The main observable issue with the boardwalk is the need for regular maintenance rather than additional building works.  Adding some simple bench seats along the boardwalk may be a less visually intrusive approach to providing rest-stops, and help maintain the ‘wild’ character of the lagoon.

Dune Trails

  1. Suggest a bird hide be located on the western edge of the shaded conservation area, with views over the lagoon and the sea, but perhaps a less visually prominent structure than the current hide.

Additional/new precinct – Rivermouth

  • Suggest not so much an action but a principle in decal text of ‘no opening or closing of the bar through human intervention – let natural river cycles and ocean activities determine timing and method of such events’.

5 Waldeck St
Dongara WA 6525
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