PARK WATCH September 2021 |

There have been some great wins for conservation over the last 50 years or so. But we can’t maintain protection of our national parks unless we vigilantly protect the laws that govern their management. The threats are mounting, warns Campaigner Phil Ingamells.

In recent years there have been many challenges, official and unofficial, to the long-established protections offered by park and other legislation, not just in Victoria but around Australia. Many of those challenges are coming from the tourism industry, which can view parks as prime real estate. 

We could have seen that coming decades ago, when people campaigning for protection of our remaining natural areas pointed out how parks would benefit regional economies. And we were spot on: Parks Victoria’s own figures show that (pre-COVID) tourists were spending $2.1 billion dollars each year associated with their visits to Victoria’s parks, and generated 20,000 jobs. The places that benefited most from this tourism include the Grampians, Great Ocean Road, Alpine, Yarra Valley, Dandenong Ranges and Gippsland regions. 

Parks have been generating far, far more for the economy than they cost to manage.

Parks also contribute through the production of clean water, carbon storage, coastal protection, even honey production, and perhaps most importantly, they contribute greatly to human health and wellbeing. 

But the tourism industry, whether at a local, state or national level, hasn’t expressed much gratitude. On the contrary, they want to build on their success with greater access to parks, especially to bring in the big spenders – the “comfort in nature” market.

In Victoria, challenges to park legislation and planning processes have meant, in recent years: 

Establishing a new tourism-focussed Great Ocean Road Authority, which is effectively subcontracting Parks Victoria to manage national park areas along the Otway coast.

The development of a revamped Falls to Hotham Track in our Alpine National Park, with serviced huts and lodges. The drive for this originated in Victoria’s 2008 Nature-based Tourism Strategy, outside of any park planning process.

Federal funding was awarded for the development of the Grampians Peaks Trail, north to south through Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park, another product of the 2008 strategy. There is still pressure to establish lodges at the trail’s campsites.

Federal, state and local government funding of around $20 million for mega mountain bike tracks through fragile cool-temperate rainforest in Yarra Ranges National Park. This has been driven and planned by the local council, which has no responsibility (or appropriate skills) for managing a national park.

Three privately operated bus-sized boats conducting expensive boat tours are now parked daily on the family-friendliest part of Tidal River beach at Wilsons Promontory National Park. The tours may be conducted well, but the building of the boats received significant funding from the federal government, completely bypassing the Prom’s excellent management plan.

Most alarming was a proposal by local tourism enthusiasts to excise land from Mount Buffalo National Park to build spa hotel accommodation, a rolling skating rink, shops, a wedding chapel and more, with initial development funding from the Victoria’s tourism minister. Fortunately they failed to establish a viable business plan.

This last case, the Buffalo mega-development, is telling. It would have been easier to set up luxury eco-tourism developments outside but adjacent to Mount Buffalo, where things like water supply, sewerage, car parking and staff access can be accommodated without the necessarily onerous planning hurdles buildings in parks must comply with. 

Beyond Victoria the situation is more worrying. 

Since 2014 the Tasmanian Government has been inviting Expressions of Interest for “Tourism Investment Opportunities” and associated infrastructure on reserved land across the state, with no clear requirement to comply with management plans.

There is now a powerful push for luxury tourism infrastructure in the middle of the magnificent Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) – the only wilderness area on the planet to achieve World Heritage recognition. The TWWHA is composed of several national parks and other reserved lands over some 1.6 million hectares. 

Now a revised Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service plan for managing the TWWHA has dropped the earlier plan’s objective to “maintain or enhance wilderness quality”, and changed zoning of the remote Lake Malbena Area, allowing large scale tourism developments there.

And then there’s Kosciuszko National Park in NSW, where the massive Snowy 2 hydro development was followed by legislation to protect “heritage” (read feral) horses. Now NSW is flagging legislation for a range of large and unnecessary tourism developments in the park. That’s three different laws going through the NSW parliament within a few years to sit above the state’s national park legislation and the carefully developed Kosciuszko National Park Management Plan.

Wilderness is a word that’s been criticised lately, as it can imply that Aboriginal people didn’t occupy, let alone alter, the landscape – a notion that can’t stand scrutiny.

But Victoria’s legislation for the protection of wilderness doesn’t discount Aboriginal influence at all.  

Rather, the National Parks Act 1975 provision for wilderness parks and zones aims “to maximise the extent to which those parks are undisturbed by the influences of the European settlement of Australia” and to protect “the plant and animal community … in a state that has not been substantially modified by the influences of European settlement or is capable of being restored to such a state”. 

Importantly, the legislation also asks that these areas be large enough to be able to achieve that condition, and large enough to provide “opportunities for solitude and appropriate self-reliant recreation”.

Surely we can leave sections of the planet free from the intrusions of modern ‘civilisation’. Surely there should remain places where people can really experience a more-or-less natural world.

We must maintain vigilance to ensure Victoria’s wilderness legislation, and our similarly valuable remote and natural area legislation, can’t be overridden. Indeed we have good cause to expand those areas.

Nature lost is hard to regain.


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