PARK WATCH March 2021 |

Parks Protection Campaigner Phil Ingamells takes a look at the Greater Gariwerd Landscape draft management plan.

After a bizarre group of bare-chested neo-Nazis stormed Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park in January, burning a cross and waving supremacist symbols atop the landscape, it might be time to take a deep breath and consider, coolly, whose park it actually is – and why we manage it.

Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park is public land, but that requires a bit of clarification. There are many categories of public land established under various old or new laws, and though the “public” might own these areas, activities on that land are commonly restricted.

The hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground is public land, for example, but you and I can’t plant potatoes there.

The native plants and animals of Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park, as for all of Victoria’s national and state parks, are given prime protection status in Victoria’s National Parks Act (1975). Any other activity in the parks must surrender to that level of natural heritage protection. In that sense, the law states that a national park pretty much belongs to that remarkable multitude of life forms or, at least, that their occupancy and welfare must be guaranteed.

But we should take a step back in time.

In a recent article in The Age, vigilant historian Henry Reynolds pointed out that in 1788, when the first fleet of soldiers and convicts enthusiastically assumed the Great South Land was unoccupied (the infamous and discredited ‘terra nullius’ call), they were acting contrary to the laws, the policies, and indeed the instructions of the British government of the day.

It was an almighty legal and ethical stuff-up, and it will reverberate through our parliamentary corridors and social consciences for a long time.

That act of dispossession brought about many wrong things, driven by a general lack of respect shown to Aboriginal people over the last 230 years. As people without property they were deprived of rights, influence and authority.

The current Victorian Government has been in the process of redressing this situation, and that process is accelerating; Victoria may soon be the first Australian state to reach a treaty with our first peoples. But in advance of that, the government has set up the Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010 (TOS Act), a far simpler process of awarding Native Title than the federal government’s cumbersome and costly High Court process.

So far, recognition under the TOS Act has established joint management over many national and state parks (and a number of smaller reserves), while still honouring the over-riding objectives of the National Parks Act and other Acts involved.

For some reason though, the TOS Act hasn’t awarded native title over any substantial area of state forest in Victoria, and never over an area earmarked for the extraction of timber. But that’s a story for another day…

With a management plan for Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park well overdue, Parks Victoria faced a bit of a dilemma: Traditional Owner status has not been legally established, but almost certainly will be during the life of the new plan.   

Parks Victoria has (consistent with government policy to work with Aboriginal communities regardless of legal status) engaged strongly with three local Aboriginal organisations in the process of drawing up a draft plan for Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park, nearby Black Range State Park, and a number of smaller reserves they manage: the “Greater Gariwerd Landscape”.

Those communities have put forward strong views on a number of issues, including increased protection for flora and fauna, more traditional fire management, avoiding light pollution of the night sky, and the restitution of Aboriginal place names.

But the most contentious issue is a re-assessment of the impacts of rock climbing and bouldering on the extensive rock art sites and other culturally significant places.

Largely through a lack of activity management by Parks Victoria in recent times, rock climbing has expanded beyond control. And, a bit like the claims of the cattlemen of the high country, some climbers have asserted an imagined right to traditional access.

These claims are not new: tourism developers have long voiced a right of access to parks and, indeed, bushwalkers and other park users make similar claims. We all want our slice of these wonderful areas.

Our National Parks Act has created a vehicle for resolving conflict: comprehensive park plans that ensure the objectives of the Act are met.

The draft Greater Gariwerd Landscape management plan Parks Victoria has produced is promising; it’s thoughtful, thorough, and based on good research and wide public consultation.

However, VNPA has asked Parks Victoria to strengthen some aspects of the plan, especially where issues of ‘balance’ or ‘compromise’ turn up. The National Parks Act doesn’t allow compromise; it asks for visitor access that is supportive of and consistent with long-term protection of all native species in the park.

As with any other law in Victoria, the Act must be respected and followed.

In Parks Victoria’s own words, the proposal for the now half-constructed Grampians Peaks Trail just “emerged” during the life of the previous plan. Proposals contrary to a legally required management plan should never just “emerge”; if they are to proceed at all, they should go through an additional transparent planning process including full public consultation.

We know how much support the thousands of native plants and animals that live in the ancient uplifted sandstone slopes of Gariwerd will need if their remarkable 500-million-year-old evolutionary path is to continue.

They will be facing increased frequency and severity of fire, among other challenging weather events under climate change, and there will be new species of invasive pest plants, animals and pathogens to deal with.

We might all have to do a bit of listening and learning. And those of us who aren’t Aboriginal might have to admit that, for all of the remarkable work ecologists, conservation activists and land managers have done over the years, we still don’t have all the answers.

There is a task ahead of us. And a strong partnership with people who can lay claim to a virtually timeless association with these wonderful hills might just be a good way to steer management on the right path.

But we must have a plan that will serve the park well – and a plan that we stick to!


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