The station was established in 1988 as the Cape Tribulation Tropical Research Station by Hugh Spencer and Brigitta Flick in the wake of the Daintree Blockade of 1984, which drew world attention to the plight of the area and to its highly vulnerable conservation status. The research station was set up to provide a platform for researchers interested in studying ecosystems in the lowland wet tropics and is dedicated to conserving this very fragmented ecosystem. The station has been operated by the Australian Tropical Research Foundation (Austrop), an independent, not-for-profit organisation since its founding in 1992.
In its 30+ years of existence, the station has produced approximately 50 research and conference papers, commissioned a major sociological study of the area, and carried out studies of local issues ranging from tourism, appropriate technology, impact of weed species, and the fringing coral reef. Through the Austrop Gift Fund it is able to support a range of groups involved with rehabilitation of flying foxes. It has also been intimately involved with the efforts to conserve the lowland rainforests of the region.
The station is at the northern boundary of the Cape Tribulation Basin, about 0.6 km from the Coral Sea. Behind the station are the mountains of the Coastal Range. Most of the flat land of the basin was cleared for farmland between 1932 and 1980, but areas of the original rainforest remain. (The research station property was completely cleared in 1970, and is now approximately 95% re-vegetated.) Tourism is the main industry in the area; there were four major accommodation businesses in the area (two 3-star resorts, 2 backpackers' hostels, and an assortment of bed and breakfast businesses, but these are now (2013) falling on hardtimes with the downturn in tourism. The area sees a continuous stream of visitors; in fact, in 2006 the Daintree region was estimated to generate over AUD$400 million annually from tourism-related activities.
The community of Cape Tribulation's permanent residents is very small (330 people according to the 2011 census) and very socioeconomically diverse, consisting of blue-collar and trades workers, business operators in the tourism industry, and a very few people engaged in academic, scientific or government work. Many of the permanent residents are self-employed, underemployed, or unemployed. In addition to its "official" population according to the census, Cape Tribulation is also home to a variable transient population which includes weekend residents who own property here, longer-stay tourists, people fleeing personal disasters in the cities or just trying to "find themselves", and backpackers on work visas. As a result of this community diversity, the community as a whole is very divided over conservation and environmental issues. Much of this division is exacerbated by a pattern of divide and rule politics applied to the area by successive governments, both state and Commonwealth, which keep appealing to the owning class with empty offers of longed-for "improvements" like grid power and a bridge over the Daintree river. The World Heritage listing of the area surrounding the Daintree lowlands in 1988 was accompanied by a massive dis-information campaign by the then Bjelke-Petersen state government, suggesting that this would result in compulsory land acquisition. The result of all this has been a very deep distrust of anything that might be considered restrictive of freeholders' rights.