Our national parks were set aside to protect nature from the negative impacts modern lifestyles have on what remains of the natural world, in perpetuity.
Yet the little that remains is still under threat – and it’s happening worldwide.
National park managers are expected to bend to proposals for tourism development. At the same time, park managers in the US are trying to wind back earlier tourism infrastructure that is proving to be a management nightmare.
This tug of war is happening on top of other pressures on parks: invasive pests and weeds, increased bushfires and climate change impacts, and rapidly growing visitor numbers.
Victoria’s National Parks Act 1975 makes it clear that our national and state parks are primarily there for the protection of Victoria’s native plants and animals, and the habitats that support them. Landscape features and cultural features, including Traditional Owner cultural heritage, are given protection as well as opportunities for scientific study. Parks are also there for the enjoyment of visitors, as long as visitor activities are compatible with the primary objectives of park management.
Victoria’s national and state parks, and many other reserves, are (or should be!) managed subject to a detailed park management plan. That plan sets out how the objectives of park legislation are met: how native species will be protected, how threats such as feral animals and weeds are managed, and how visitor access is organised so that visitors have a great experience but impacts are avoided or minimised. Increasingly, park plans are developed jointly between the Victorian government and recognised Traditional Owners. Park plans generally last for around 15 years, after which they are revised. The general public can have input into a new or revised plan at the draft plan stage.
Any proposals for tourism infrastructure (such as accommodation, new walking tracks, bike tracks etc) must be proposed in the process of developing the plan, or as well-considered amendments to a plan, so their impacts can be appropriately assessed, and so the public can respond to proposals before they are accepted.
Increasingly though, tourism organisations and developers seek funding from state or national tourism authorities outside the planning process, and that funding (sometimes in the millions of dollars) puts pressure on park managers to allow developments not endorsed by the park plan.
Currently the Victorian Government’s policy is:
“Rather than encouraging developments inside national parks, tourism development will be encouraged to be sited on private or other public land outside parks, in locations that are more likely to provide economic benefits directly to regional towns. This is consistent with the worldwide trend for resorts and large scale tourism developments to be located outside national parks.”
That policy, recently re-affirmed by the Government in Parliament, is not well understood or followed in practice or in principle by the state’s tourism bodies.
- Despite clear opposition from the community, Parks Victoria is progressing with the development of a ‘Falls to Hotham’ walking experience in the Alpine National Park. The proposal, with an initial $15 million from the Victorian Government, includes lodges and huts serviced by private tour operators, including a site on Feathertop’s Diamantina Spur to be serviced by helicopters. The Falls to Hotham track idea first turned up in a 2008 ‘nature-based’ tourism strategy, outside of any park planning process. There has been no cost benefit analysis or business case for the trail, nor any environmental impact assessment. (Read 'Saving Feathertop', Park Watch March 2021)
- A mountain bike trail starting at the summit of Mount Donna Buang in Yarra Ranges National Park. This extensive trail threatens rare species and impacts one of Victoria’s most precious Gondwanan rainforest remnants. Federal State and local government funding of around $20 million was awarded to this Yarra Ranges Council proposal, even though the council has no management responsibility for the national park, and the trail is contrary to the park management plan.
- A privately operated boat tour, involving the parking of three bus-sized amphibious boats on the most family-friendly beach area at Tidal River in Wilsons Promontory National Park, received a massive subsidy from the Federal Government to a private operator, despite there being no public consultation and no park planning process. The boat tour is now operating.
- Similar Federal funding was given to the development of the ‘Grampians Peaks Trail’, when federal tourism funding was awarded before any park planning process took place. The trail is nearing completion, and there is still pressure to put huts or lodges along the trail.
- Perhaps the most absurd idea to win ‘proposal development’ funding was a scheme by local tourism enthusiasts to build spa hotel accommodation, a rolling skating rink, shops, a wedding chapel and more in Victoria’s oldest national park, Mount Buffalo. Fortunately, this proposal failed to proceed.
Parks are not actually required by law to contribute to tourism, but they do – hugely! Current government figures show that tourists spent $2.1 billion dollars each year associated with their visits to Victoria’s parks, and generate 20,000 jobs. The areas that benefited most from this tourism include the Grampians, Great Ocean Road, Alpine region, Yarra Valley, Dandenong Ranges and Gippsland. Tourism and visitor numbers to parks continue to rise.
Parks also contribute to the economy through the production of clean water, carbon storage, honey production, coastal protection and perhaps most importantly, parks contribute greatly to human health and wellbeing. Indeed the avoided healthcare costs and productivity benefits from people visiting Victoria’s parks could be at least $200 million per annum. Read more here.
There are many reasons why tourism facilities are a problem in parks:
- Hotel or lodge accommodation needs access to water (potentially involving a dam), sewerage facilities and power generation, as well as parking facilities etc. All of these have potential impacts on natural systems including the drying and/or pollution of creeks and waterways, introduction of weeds and unwanted visual impacts.
- Accommodation facilities tend to expand, a phenomenon known by park managers worldwide as ‘development creep’.
- Built infrastructure in parks inevitably places pressure on already stretched park managers, taking valuable resources away from the prime objective of national parks, the protection of nature.
There are ample opportunities to access accommodation adjacent to parks, offering a range of levels of comfort. This might include everything from local restaurants and wineries, bed and breakfast establishments, caravan parks and fine hotels.
Yes, for example in Victoria:
- The Halls Gap village, which is surrounded by Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park.
- The towns and B&B accommodation along the Great Ocean Road, which are immediately adjacent to Great Otway National Park or Port Campbell National Park.
- The alpine resorts of Mount Hotham and Falls Creek, surrounded by the Alpine National Park.
Outside Victoria, some good examples of tourism facilities sited adjacent to national parks are:
- Cradle Mountain Lodge, outside but right at the main entrance to Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park.
- Ayers Rock Resort at the entrance to Uluru-Katatjuta National Park.
- Capella Lodge and other accommodation at Lord Howe Island’s World Heritage Site.
There are many other examples around the world. Generally they have far less impact than developments inside a park, and are easier to maintain and operate as they are not constrained by national park regulations and operating restrictions, and have easier access to facilities such as power and water etc.