Commercial accommodation hubs in the heart of Alpine country?

The Alpine National Park is a treasured landscape. It’s home to the rare and fuzzy Tooarrana, Mountain Pygmy Possums, endangered skinks, fields of mountain daisies and more.

But if a proposed large-scale construction in the Bogong High Plains and Mount Feathertop goes ahead, the natural and cultural heritage of Victoria’s high country will be forever compromised.

The Labor Government is funding the construction of four tourist hubs in the heart of Victoria’s Alpine National Park.

The hubs will be built by Parks Victoria but privately-operated. The proposed development will impact 45 hectares of the Alpine National Park – that’s 22 times the size of the MCG oval.

This isn’t “park management”– it’s government-funded exploitation of the precious natural places and wildlife the park was proclaimed to protect.

We must halt this disastrous development in its tracks

Public consultation for the “Falls to Hotham Alpine Crossing” is now closed but you can still send an email voicing your concerns.

Tell Parks Victoria not to privatise the Alps

Make sure you adapt or edit the email to reflect your concerns and voice, and add additional remarks to the email template.

Public consultation closed on Sunday 25 September 2022.

What do they want to construct?

The four proposed so-called overnight hub locations along the track includes the historic Cope Hut, Tawonga Huts region (both on the High Plains), Diamantina Creek (near the West Kiewa River) and High Knob (near the summit of Mount Feathertop)

A new track will be constructed, and existing tracks widened. This will involve up to 80 new structures, including:

  • Four new overnight accommodation hubs – each with up to nine catered huts for 2-3 people / 36 (2-4 person) huts
  • 31 rentable tent platforms
  • Four large communal shelters
  • A stand-alone 50 person hut for group gathering and cooking
  • Huts for tourism operators and communal toilets.
  • Nine other structures including toilets, solar panels and picnic tables and access paths

Two hubs are already funded by the state government. Parks Victoria will build and maintain the infrastructure and then outsource operations to private companies.

So far, $11 million has been allocated for the construction of two nodes; the total cost of the project is estimated at $35 million.

This sort of funding is desperately needed for the ecological management of the park, and that should be the highest priority – not a project that unnecessarily harms the park.

Six big reasons this is a terrible idea

Our national parks are designed to be immune from the negative impacts of modern lifestyles. Yet these rare, undeveloped patches of the natural world are constantly under threat.

The project raises a number of ecological issues, policy inconsistencies and undermines the integrity of our national parks estate.

Protection of alpine habitat and wildlife

The proposed Falls to Hotham crossing will see construction of commercial huts and expanded and widened tracks.

Based on preliminary assessments, this will result in the damage and potential removal of 45 hectares (including 30+ hectares for the four accommodation nodes alone) of native vegetation and habitat within the Alpine National Park.

Within the proposed widened route of the track there are three threatened species of plants. Within the camping and hut nodes, there are fifty-seven threatened plants, animals and insects. There are also stands of increasingly rare and long-unburnt Snow Gums.

Mount Feathertop, at 1922 metres, is one of Victoria’s highest mountains and our grandest free-standing peak. It is a truly magnificent feature of Victoria’s alpine country and deserves rigorous protection. It should be respected, not exploited.

The Bogong High Plains sit at the heart of the Alpine National Park, an area that holds unique and endemic plant life, wildlife and ecosystems found nowhere else on earth.

With the effect of climate change already impacting the alpine regions of Victoria, the added stress to these areas through a massive addition of tourist infrastructure in the heart of the park will have an untold impact on the ecosystems, visual amenity and ambiance of the national park.

National parks law and policy

Parks Victoria has clear obligations under State and Commonwealth legislation to protect the natural heritage of the Alpine National Park. This includes Victoria’s National Parks Act 197 and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. There are also obligations to provide visitor access to the park, but they are subject to the Act’s biodiversity obligations and heritage listing.

The Alpine National Park is one of Victoria’s grandest areas, and ecologically unique. For these reasons the park was created in the 1980s and, more recently, added to the Commonwealth’s National Heritage listing for the Australian Alps National Parks and Reserves.

That listing speaks strongly of the importance of Australia’s Alpine parks, as: “… one of the most important areas in the southern half of Australia for endemism and species richness”.

In addition, it says the “powerful, aesthetic inspirational qualities of the landscape … have been recognised over a long period of time”. The heritage listing specifically includes Mt Feathertop and the Bogong High Plains in this regard, both of which will be significantly impacted by the development proposal.

Parks Victoria has failed to show how this proposed project has avoided or minimised loss of native vegetation and how the proposal aligns with legislation intended to protect the area.

The Victorian Government has a policy, confirmed as recently as 2021 that: “tourism development will be encouraged to be sited on private or other public land outside national parks”. But $15 million has already be committed by the state government to fund two of the overnight hubs.

This raises a serious question – is this a process of getting around the government’s own policy by funding Parks Victoria to plan and build the infrastructure before handing it to private operators?

The economics don’t stack up

The recently released (but heavily redacted) “Business Case for the FHAC” makes a far from convincing case for the project, listing many cautionary warnings. There is doubt that the returns on the project will cover maintenance costs.

The business case was not assessed against other options for nature-based tourism in the region, such as the promotion and facilitation of short walks from existing high-end accommodation in the Falls Creek and Hotham alpine resorts.

That would be considerably less expensive to implement, likely to attract far more visitors, potentially bring considerable economic benefit to the alpine resorts and the wider region, and have far less impact on the national park.

Equity of access to natural areas

According to the Falls to Hotham Alpine Crossing business case, the cost of serviced cabin accommodation would be likely to fall between $440 and $1,065 per night. While there is already ample accommodation for “comfort in nature” park visitors to the area in the two alpine resorts, this project now co-opts the most popular sites for minimal impact, self-sufficient visitors to the Bogong High Plains and Mount Feathertop.

This project is introducing high-end tourism accommodation, operated by commercial operators, to areas which are already very well served by that level of accommodation.

This will see low budget, low impact campers pushed to other areas of the park. Every part of the track is already reachable via day walks from a large range of accommodation in either the Falls Creek or Hotham alpine resorts. There's no need to provide privately-catered, built accommodation along the route.

New commercial infrastructure in national parks is unacceptable, especially at a time when other nations and states are removing infrastructure, and increasing their protected areas due to the growing biodiversity crisis. All this at the expense of the remarkable natural ambience and habitat the park currently provides. The project fails any truly objective test of equity of access.

Community engagement

Public criticism of the proposal has been ignored. Of the 229 written public submissions in response to Parks Victoria's earlier draft Master Plan, nearly 90 percent were “strongly opposed”, largely because of the proposed hut and lodge construction. However, Parks Victoria falsely claimed in reporting this feedback that “Overall there was a positive response to the plan and its potential positive impact to the region”.

Parks Victoria has not publicly corrected this statement, despite recognising their error and promising that future communication of public feedback would be reported accurately. The current “Engage Victoria” consultation is largely over trivial issues, with no invitation to comment on the value of the project, let alone oppose it.

There is also little evidence that Traditional Owners have been adequately consulted, and little evidence that ongoing feedback has been sought from our most experienced alpine ecologists, such as the membership of Victoria’s renowned Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology. While VNPA is represented on Parks Victoria’s project group, the rest of membership of is tourism-focussed, with only one bushwalking representative.

We continue to highlight concerns throughout the process, including asking for the name of the group to be changed. Crucially, Parks Victoria’s minutes of these meetings do not record feedback from these community representatives.

Safety concerns

Parks Victoria has consistently been warned by experienced walkers that the Diamantina Spur route to Mt Feathertop is too steep and difficult for inexperienced walkers.

Indeed the entire walk can be extremely dangerous when the weather closes in, which can happen suddenly at any time of year. Fire in summer and the associated vegetation clearing need for commercial accommodation in bush fire prone areas are potential major risks and impacts.

Well-advised warnings to Parks Victoria, that the inexperienced walkers the proposal is designed to attract would be in danger, have been ignored or dismissed.

There is already too much pressure on parks: invasive pests and weeds, increased bushfires and climate change impacts, and rapidly growing visitor numbers. That’s why they are protected in perpetuity. Or *supposed* to be.

This insidious attempt to commercialise the Alpine National Park and compromise its carefully considered management plan must be stopped. But we need to work together if we’re going to protect our precious Alps.

The Alpine National Park includes traditional Country of the Taungurung and Gunaikurnai Peoples.

Page updated: 14/10/2022