We don’t need large private developments in our parks, says Phil Ingamells.

How do we, and the rest of the ever curious world, satisfy our appetite for nature without loving it to death?

How do we accommodate visitors of widely different capabilities and expectations for comfort while still offering that increasingly rare experience — time in the wild?

These are questions park managers are wrestling with around the world. There are plenty of good, bad, and sometimes disastrous examples we can learn from. It’s always a challenge to get the right answers.

There’s Yosemite National Park, one of the world’s oldest, where a series of chalets and cabins were already in place in the late 19th century. More than 4 million visitors now come to Yosemite each year, with most arriving at the spectacular 18 square kilometre Yosemite Valley. But the wilderness experience so evocatively suggested by Ansel Adams’s famous photographs is now unattainable.

The National Park Service has been trying to wind back facilities there and in many other parks across the USA, but it’s proving a difficult job.

I once found myself in the middle of south India’s Periyar National Park, where an annual religious festival attracts a million pilgrims in one day. Lawyers, bus drivers and bankers, all barefoot and in black, walked for days to pay homage at the shrine of Ayappa, a socially-levelling, nature-loving, tiger-riding godling.

But will he, or the park’s managers, be able to protect the wild world his devotees are drawn to?

Then there’s Australia’s own Uluru- Kata Tjuta National Park. The first vehicle track reached Uluru (then Ayers Rock) in 1958, sparking a tourism boom that is now unstoppable, and could have been uncontrollable. But in the 1970s it was decided to move all accommodation-related infrastructure out of the park, and relocate it in a new Yulara resort area beyond the boundary, owned by the Aboriginal community. It was a brilliant management move.

The only facilities now in the national park are the modest Anangu Cultural Centre, and some well-sited tracks and viewing points. Even roadside parking is forbidden, to protect vegetation.

Visitors get a broad range of accommodation options close to the park, and they get to see an unencumbered national park in really good condition. Lord Howe Island’s remarkably successful World Heritage area also follows this model. But this time not just the accommodation but also the park visitor centre is outside the proclaimed Permanent Park Preserve.

Lord Howe Island and Uluru are the examples we should be following — they both show that vigilant protection of a park is no impediment to tourism.

 

We should have this sorted in Victoria

Thankfully Victoria’s policy settings and guidelines for national park tourism infrastructure, signed off in 2015 by then environment minister Lisa Neville, are also very good. They actually have the capacity to help protect nature in our parks, while allowing visitors the access, and the ambience, parks should be providing.

The trouble is, no one seems to be following them at the moment.

Current proposals for extensive tourism infrastructure in Mount Buffalo National Park, accommodation for the Alpine National Park’s Falls to Hotham track, and for boat cruises at the Prom all substantially fail to follow the current government’s Tourism Leases in National Parks published guidelines.

The so-called ‘community-led’ proposal for Mount Buffalo, which asks for six hectares of the park to be excised to allow a new private alpine resort development, is so outrageous it should be dismissed out-of-hand (see Park Watch, March 2017, pp 8-9).

The guidelines include the over-arching statement that “…the government will generally provide any tourism and recreation infrastructure or facilities aimed at improving the visitor experience.
However there may be occasions where private investment could be utilized to fund the installation of small scale visitor facilities in a manner which compliments those that the government provides”.

More specifically the policy states:

  • Any proposal that could be sited on public or private land outside the park would not proceed in the park.
  • Any development must be consistent with the objectives of park legislation (primarily nature conservation).
  • Any development must encourage visitors to appreciate and conserve the park.
  • A development must not impact on Aboriginal cultural and historic heritage, and must engage and benefit Traditional Owners.
  • Public access to the site must be maintained, and any impacts on the use and enjoyment by other park users minimised.
  • There should be extensive consultation with the public, and the outcomes of that consultation should be published.

They are wise and useful guidelines, more or less following the Uluru-Kata Tjuta model of fostering commercial developments outside, but adjacent to, national parks. The guidelines should have ended ad hoc, pie-in-the-sky proposals for developments inside parks that take time and energy away from park managers, governments and the community. And they should have handed a much greater degree of certainty to people and corporations planning to invest in regional tourism.

But they seem to be being ignored, or simply forgotten. It is hard to tell what’s currently really going on.

Some argue that the government and/or its agencies have inadvertently adopted the policies of the previous government. Or that a perceived policy void has been filled by the enthusiastic momentum from the tourism industry and other departments interested in developments in parks, and that has not been curtailed due to a lack of clear policy guidance.
And, if the flawed process for assessing the ongoing Prom boat-tour proposal is any guide, Parks Victoria is also arguably failing to follow the Department of Treasury and Finance’s important 2015 protocols for ‘market led’ development proposals.

 

So what should tourism in our parks look like?

For a start, we should strenuously stick to the Victorian Government’s idea that significant park accommodation should be situated outside the national park boundary. It’s a no-brainer really. It allows for any amount of private investment, expansion and re-planning of facilities as demand and expectations grow. It means those facilities can be built without impacting on a park’s natural areas.

They can also be protected by any mandatory firebreaks without these encroaching on the park. That gives investors far more certainty, and flexibility, when planning developments. It frees park managers from the onerous business of assessing proposals within the park.

And most usefully, it frees parks staff from the costly business of managing large commercial operations in parks and dealing with their inevitable impacts and tendency to expand.
Park funds can then be freed up to improve visitor access and interpretation.

In the major parks, well-messaged visitor centres can greatly improve public understanding and enjoyment. In Victoria, over the last couple of decades, most park visitor centres have been closed or greatly diminished. Most importantly, visitors get to enjoy nature at its best – the very thing our parks are there to provide.