PARK WATCH December 2019 |

There is little community understanding of our ‘rights’ to access different types of public land, especially national parks. It’s an increasing problem and deserves clarity, writes our Parks Protection Campaigner Phil Ingamells.

As an old saying, slightly localised, goes: “The law locks up the person who steals the parrot from the park, but lets the greater villain loose who steals the park from the parrot”. 

Most of our so-called ‘public land’ goes by the more pompous name of ‘Crown Land’ and appears to belong to Her Majesty, enthroned on the far side of our precariously spinning planet.

But according to our federal and state constitutions, authority over the Crown’s estate hereabouts belongs to the people of Victoria, and administration of that authority has been the job of the people’s representative, our state government. Over many years successive governments have, with the community’s blessing, attached conditions on what can and can’t be done on that land. 

In a recent, welcome move, large areas of public land in Victoria are being returned to the land’s Traditional Owners in a process facilitated by the Victorian Government under a new law, the Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010. It gives specific management and/or co-management rights to Aboriginal communities, without generally changing existing land categories and the laws that govern them, or significantly altering public access.

Historically, some small bits of land, like disused road reserves, have been under ‘peppercorn’ leasehold since the 19th century. Other bits, like caravan parks and sports fields, have been regulated by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) and/or local councils, but are actually looked after by delegated committees of management.

A great slice of Victoria’s public land is state forest managed by DELWP, and a good slice of that is currently under the control of commercialised state-owned body VicForests, which manages land primarily for production of saw-logs and woodchips. 

Most areas of public land restrict activities in some way: take Melbourne’s MCG or Botanic Gardens, for example. But it it’s not well understood that national and state parks actually have a far higher level of protection than either the MCG or the Botanic Gardens. National parks are strongly protected by a range of Victorian laws, as well as federal law and an international convention.

National Parks

Prime among these laws is Victoria’s very own National Parks Act 1975. While the Act clearly allows public access to parks, it makes it clear that Parks Victoria must act for the “protection and preservation of indigenous flora and fauna [not just threatened species] and of features of scenic or archaeological, ecological, geological, historic or other scientific interest in those parks”. Parks Victoria must also consider “all classes of management actions that may be implemented for the purposes of maintaining and improving the ecological function of the park” and is obliged to prepare a management plan for each park that can fulfil those obligations.

Laws protecting parks are there for good reason. Victoria’s natural heritage includes around 100,000 native species. About 675 are vertebrate animals (mammals, birds, fish, reptiles etc.), and over 4300 are vascular plants; most of the rest are insects, other invertebrates, and fungi. Over 2,000 of Victoria’s plants and close to 300 animals are listed as rare or threatened in the state; it’s a list that is now under revision and growing larger. Parks are one of the few conservation mechanisms that protect whole ecosystems.

Most of our ecosystems are in decline, and reversing that decline will require well-resourced management and cooperation from the whole community. Many Aboriginal cultural sites are also threatened.

Unfortunately there is a notion among some that managing visitor activities in parks is “a ridiculous state of affairs” because a park is public land. It’s just bush, after all, and it’s everyone’s bush. It’s an understandable view, because a generation or so ago that was the state of affairs.

But these days that view just doesn’t work.

Many of our parks are becoming increasingly fragmented and knocked about. Irresponsible mountain bikers are making new trails all over the place without asking the park’s managers or co-managers, let alone putting in a planning proposal. Rock climbers are also making strong inroads in places like Grampians National Park. Then there’s the “What’s wrong with walking my dog here?” crew, the firewood collector, prospector etc.

From time to time, unlimited access advocates link up; this is the case with the Bush User Groups United (BUGU), currently opposing not only new parks in central west Victoria, but also opposing Traditional Owner co-management and even the Environment Minister herself. There is often debate about new national parks; some concerns are driven by changes in commercial arrangements, some are ideological, others simply fuelled by misinformation. But that debate generally fades when parks are proclaimed.

It’s understandable that many people don’t comprehend the conservation predicament (though a good government education program would help here). Less understandable is the behaviour of the tourism industry.

The rolling claim for tourism developments

The words ‘national park’, as a brand, pretty much matches the world-wide recognition level of another brand, ‘Coca Cola’. (Indeed, they’ve both been around since the 19th century!) In the case of national parks, that creates a magnetic attraction for anyone proposing a tourism development.

A 2017 so-called “community driven vision” for Mount Buffalo National Park enthusiastically proposed a couple of bars, a spa hotel, wedding venue, skating rink, as well as a dining venue suspended above the picturesque Buffalo Gorge. That bizarre developers’ proposal should have been knocked off its presumptuous perch straight away. But the state government’s tourism arm allocated $200,000 to the Alpine Shire Council to assess the scheme, even though neither the shire nor the Tourism Minister had any authority over or responsibility for the park. Fortunately, the whole crazy dream fell in a heap.

And recently, a ‘Destination Gippsland’ tourism strategy proposed a series of accommodation dreams for Gippsland’s parks, with little acknowledgement of park legislation or planning obligations and processes.

Park development proposals like that generally just waste everyone’s time. On the other hand, planning a tourism development outside but adjacent to a national park or in a nearby town is a far more sensible thing to aim for, and allows for possible expansion of a successful enterprise. And it helps contribute to the long-term protection of our remaining natural and cultural assets.

It’s time to change this situation.

Everyone will benefit if park legislation, and the reasons for such high levels of protection, are clearly acknowledged, well understood, and respected both within government departments and across the broad community.

 


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