PARK WATCH March 2018 |

The tourism industry is assuming control of our national parks. Phil Ingamells looks at two cases where things are going awry.

The Mount Buffalo land grab

For over a year now, a proposal for a series of massive tourism developments in Mount Buffalo National Park has been pushed as a serious option.

But neither Parks Victoria, the environment department (DELWP), or the Environment Minister appear to have any say in this process, even though they alone have clear responsibility for the park under Victorian law.

The proposal, put forward by a consortium called the Mount Buffalo Destination Advisory Group, wants six hectares of the national park handed over to private investors, bypassing national park leasing restrictions.

That would allow a new 47 room ‘Spa Retreat Hotel’ and associated day spa to be constructed behind the old chalet, adjacent old sheds revamped as a bar and café, a second bar and function centre, a wedding chapel, a reception room, an ice/roller skating rink and some ‘boutique shops’ added for good measure.

Then there is an outdoor café with diners precariously perched over the Buffalo Gorge on a glass-bottomed walkway, a reconstruction of the always problematic Cresta Lodge in the plateau’s south and a number of other outrageous schemes.

The proposal would essentially establish an alpine resort complex on Mount Buffalo, smaller than but similar to the Falls Creek and Hotham villages tucked into the vast Alpine National Park.

But Mount Buffalo is a very small national park and, as one of Victoria’s oldest and most loved (it was proclaimed in 1898), undoubtedly worthy of vigilant protection.

How did this come about?

Faced with seemingly endless millions of dollars to restore the dysfunctional Mount Buffalo Chalet, Parks Victoria put a realistically costed proposal to Heritage Victoria. It involved restoring the oldest part of the Chalet – the picturesque front – and demolishing the unsightly and no-longer necessary jumble of extensions at the back of the chalet. Heritage Victoria approved the proposal in 2014.

Unfortunately, the plan met with some local objections and triggered a social media campaign aimed at saving ‘Australia’s largest timber building’, even though that was an erroneous claim.

Had Parks Victoria and the Minister weathered that misinformed opposition and gone ahead with their pragmatic restoration, we would now have a restored and fully functioning chalet.

We could have been busy promoting Mount Buffalo, Victoria’s ‘Island in the Sky’, as one of the finest places for short walks in the land. And we could be concentrating on caring for the park’s remarkable sub-alpine ecosystems, which face a tricky future under a warming climate.

So what’s the state of play?

The Mount Buffalo Destination Advisory Group’s 40-page manifesto for handing the park over to private developers is still under consideration, and Victoria’s Tourism Minister has now handed $200,000 to the Alpine Shire Council to “evaluate the proposal”. But neither the Tourism Minister, nor the Alpine Shire, actually have any legal responsibility for, or planning authority over, Mount Buffalo National Park.

It’s time for Parks Victoria and the Environment Minister (who jointly hold that responsibility) to exert their authority and halt this developer’s dream in its tracks. After all, the Victorian Government’s policy on developments in national parks makes it very clear that tourism developments should be “sited on private or other public land outside parks, in locations that are more likely to provide economic benefits directly to regional towns”.

Mount Buffalo National Park is one of Victoria’s most beautiful and intriguing natural areas, and remains very popular just as it is: around 180,000 people visit the plateau each year. It doesn’t need a series of ‘added attractions’. And it’s very hard to wind back unwise infrastructure.

The Falls to Hotham fantasy

Some time ago, Tourism Victoria got the notion that Victoria needed four ‘icon walks’ to challenge the great adventure walks of our neighbours: Tasmania and New Zealand.

Ignoring several long-distance walks Victoria already had (such as the Great South West Walk and the Alpine Walking Track), they came up with four new ones, all featuring serviced accommodation along the way.

Parks Victoria swallowed the scheme whole, and set about planning:

  1. The Great Ocean Walk
  2. The Grampians Peaks Trail
  3. The Falls to Hotham Alpine Crossing
  4. A Croajingolong coastal walk.

The Great Ocean Walk, from Apollo Bay to the Twelve Apostles, is up and running, but it soon proved far better for everyone if existing B&B operators on nearby private land picked up people who wanted a bit of luxury. Unnecessary development impacts to Great Otway National Park were avoided.

The second walk, the Grampians Peaks Trail, is partly constructed, but plans for private serviced cabins along the way have been abandoned – no private investors showed interest.

The third ‘icon’ walk is the Falls to Hotham Crossing, in development for several years now. This time the powers that be seem determined to fulfill their dream of serviced in-park luxury accommodation at each stop, to look after the ‘comfort seeker’. At the insistence of Tourism Victoria, one set of luxury huts will be positioned on a steep and hard to access spur off Mount Feathertop, where servicing of fresh bedding and gourmet food will necessitate intrusive daily helicopter trips. And fire regulations now mandate clearing native vegetation for some distance around all new accommodation.

But this enthusiasm for serviced multi-day walks to boost tourism in Victoria is founded on a fantasy.

While there is a level of interest in Victoria’s long walks, the proportion of people that actually do them is very small. The great majority of people visiting our parks do short walks, even if they stay in the park for a number of days.

Victoria should dump the ‘icon walk’ idea as an expensive and damaging waste of resources. We should be playing to our advantage, and promote the state as somewhere where you can travel through regional Victoria, staying at wonderful wineries, B&Bs and charming hotels, and experience any of the many hundreds of great short walks our natural areas offer.

That would be better for tourism, better for the health of Victorians, and better for our remarkable but very vulnerable national parks.