The Guardian February 2, 2000


NSW National Parks:
Commercial use replaces conservation as objective

by Peter Mac

The NSW Government is to introduce legislation which will directly threaten 
the natural and historic values of the State's national parks.

The legislation, which carries the imprimatur of State Minister for the 
Environment Bob Debus, would introduce the following changes:

* existing and new state recreation areas would be renamed State 
Conservation Reserves, and would be available for prospecting (mining of 
known mineral reserves is already allowed);

* structures and clearings in National Parks, including in wilderness 
areas, would be available as venues for sporting activities, conferences 
and storage, as well as for social activities, including parties and 
theatre;

* owners (and presumably lessees) of land surrounded by National Parks 
would be entitled to construct access roads through the Parks to their 
property;

* commercial operation of tours through National Parks would be allowed;

* conservationists would lose their current rights to places on the 
National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) Advisory Council and 
committees.

Mining in parks

Allowing both prospecting and mining in State recreation areas would open 
the door even wider than at present for inappropriate industrial activity, 
with all the implications for damage from clearance, introduction of heavy 
machinery, excavation and subsidence, and runoff from tailings and spoil  
not to mention visual and aural pollution.

The Debus submission declares that the conversion of the State Recreation 
Areas would allow for "the creation of national parks in waiting, land that 
can be effectively managed to conserve natural heritage values while 
prospectivity issues are being finalised"  after which, presumably, it's 
open slather for the mine owners, and to hell with the natural values!

The Minister and others have tried to downplay the significance of the 
legislation. However, the reality is that it would open the gate for 
widespread damage to the natural values of our unique national parks by 
removing restrictions on new road construction, as well as by facilitating 
mining and other commercial activities in the Parks.

The proposal to allow certain social activities in the Parks may seem 
innocuous at first sight.

For example, the Government has talked about facilitating sporting 
activities or social functions such as weddings. However, there is, in 
fact, nothing in the current legislation to prevent the odd game of touch 
football, or even a wedding, in a wilderness setting.

Commercial activities

The Government's proposals, on the other hand, are aimed at introducing 
these activities on a commercial scale  and there's the rub.

Under the proposed legislation the sporting activities could include 
commercial football matches; and social functions could include New Year's 
eve gatherings or other mass activities, all of which would inevitably 
pollute and destroy natural values.

While not perfect, the current legislation is specifically aimed at 
preserving the natural values of National Parks.

Aspects of the new legislation which would weaken these provisions have 
been condemned by the Executive Officer of the National Parks Association, 
Noel Plumb.

Mr Plumb said that increasing commercialisation and access would have 
negative consequences for the State's national parks, and that "wilderness 
is about self-reliant experiences. Creating commercial rights is totally 
out of line with that philosophical approach, and this is a mistake."

The director of the Humane Society International, Mr Michael Kennedy, 
condemned the proposed changes as being about money, not nature 
conservation.

Seemingly quite independently, the NPWS has also proposed significant 
changes to the current legislation.

Under their proposals, heavy fines would be introduced for illegal 
activities such as unauthorised logging, clearing of land for unauthorised 
roads, the killing of native species in the park or the vandalism of 
visitor facilities.

While the NPWS proposals are welcome, they do not address the thorny issue 
of mining in the Parks, which now constitutes the greatest area of hazard 
for their natural values.

Restrictions lifted

The NPWS-proposed restrictions on clearance of land for roads in Recreation 
Areas would in any case be overruled by the proposed Debus legislation.

The legislative protection currently provided to areas of high natural 
values against unauthorised road clearance would be removed by the new 
legislation, which would actually legitimise such construction.

Mr Debus has defended the Government's proposed new legislation by 
reference to the Government's good intentions, and cited his recent 
rejection of an application to build a number of cabins in the 
Warrambungles National Park.

Unfortunately, as Mr Debus well knows, the future wellbeing of significant 
natural areas rests not just on the intentions of  the Government (which 
can change from good to bad overnight), but on the worth of the relevant 
legislation.

A clear indication of the Government's approach to national parks has 
already been given, in the case of the Quarantine Station site at Sydney's 
North Head, a site of great historic and natural significance, which is now 
run by the NPWS.

A new Conservation Plan for the Station, which is intended to define 
acceptable treatment of the site by the Government in terms of its cultural 
significance, is currently being written.

However, last Thursday ABC News broadcast an on-site interview with the 
Minister and the representative of the prospective lessee of the North Head 
Quarantine Station, Mawland Hotel Management, in which they proceeded to 
pre-empt the findings of the Conservation Plan by announcing the new 
intensive use of the site as an upmarket hotel and restaurant complex run 
by Mawlands. 

Revealing a remarkable degree of arrogance, ignorance and insensitivity, 
Moreland's man stomped around the site announcing his big schemes for its 
commercial exploitation. "This place has been in a time warp for the last 
one hundred and fifty years!", he declared bombastically.

An obviously ill-at-ease Bob Debus muttered defensively that it was simply 
too expensive to maintain the Station with the current NPWS approach to its 
use.

In fact however, however, the site is already accessible to the public for 
guided tours, overnight stays and conferences. The rates for these 
activities are very cheap, but the site nevertheless generates considerable 
income because of its great popularity for visitors.

Management of the site by the NPWS is carefully controlled, informative and 
sensitive, and is intended to preserve its historic significance.

Resort for rich

The new lease, on the other hand, would in effect result in transformation 
of the site to another resort for the rich. Public access to the most 
important areas of the place would be limited by the ability to pay.

The new proposals for the Station apparently include redevelopment of the 
Wharf area buildings for a fashionable restaurant and other purposes, 
construction of new buildings and adaptation of the main historic buildings 
as hotel accommodation. 

Extensive new services would be installed and the historic interiors of the 
buildings would be changed to accommodate ensuites and other facilities. 
The occasional token "sample" room would be preserved as a concession to 
the significance of the place.

Representatives of the community group Friends of the Quarantine Station, 
and others, have already expressed their outrage at the proposals.

If this is the degree of good intention that the Minister is offering in 
the changes to the National Parks legislation, then god help the National 
Parks of NSW.

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