PARK WATCH March 2019 |

VNPA’s Phil Ingamells wonders why park visitors are increasingly left in the dark.

It’s a strange business this. People really like learning about nature. But despite the fine efforts of the likes of David Attenborough, their hunger for knowledge is largely unsatisfied.

One sad indication of this situation is the decline in park visitor information centres, and visitor education generally (digital or otherwise), across Victoria’s park system – a reflection, it seems, of changes in administrative priorities and values.

Until about 1995, there were around a dozen park visitor centres in the state. Organ Pipes (popular with schools), Point Nepean and Port Campbell national parks’ centres are among those that have since closed.

When visitor centres come to grief, as at Mount Buffalo’s Cresta Valley centre (burnt down), Kinglake (burnt down) or Barmah, where white ants made the Yorta Yorta education centre and school accommodation facilities inoperable, plans to replace them seem to founder.

Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park still has the wonderful Brambuk centre for Aboriginal culture, but the adjacent large information centre highlighting the park’s natural history with displays and audio-visuals was co-opted for park administration years ago. The Wilsons Promontory centre at Tidal River, though recently revamped, is a shadow of its former comprehensive and innovative form.

Perhaps the greatest fall from grace is the Orbost Rainforest Centre, designed to promote park tourism throughout East Gippsland, and to educate the public about the significance of our ancient cool and warm-temperate Gondwanan rainforests. Millions were spent on this architect-designed centre around 1990, including the planting of a ‘rainforest gully’ in an adjacent quarry. Now the rainforest boardwalk is closed, the many tree-ferns have died, and the displays and audio-visuals in the large visitor centre have been dismembered. Lacking any operational budget, the building was gifted to the local community house.

On a positive note, a centre still carries on under contracted private care – the one at the entrance to Princess Margaret Rose Cave in Lower Glenelg National Park.

The centre at Wyperfeld National Park was recently revamped by the Friends of Wyperfeld with assistance from park staff, and is open 24 hours a day. A similar effort by keen volunteers and staff at Tarra-Bulga National Park keeps that centre open, mainly at weekends.

There have been promises. The magnificent 660,000 hectare Alpine National Park has no visitor centre at all, even though both the 1992 and 2016 management plans asked for at least one in feeder towns like Falls Creek and Omeo.

This is unfortunate and short-sighted, given that the real and potential interest in our national parks is considerable, and the contribution parks can make to our mental and physical health, and to the economy, is well known. 

Our scientists, amateur naturalists and Indigenous communities are increasingly gathering remarkable tales about our natural areas, the creatures that inhabit them, and an ancient cultural heritage. But the park visitor and the broader community are not being invited to share in that knowledge.

Visitor centres remain popular worldwide, including in New Zealand and other Australian states. Abandoning them in Victoria is a very short-sighted austerity measure.


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