What sort of a National Park do we want?

Nature's revenge

by Gary Schoer, Secretary, Southern Sydney Branch of National Parks Association of NSW

My wife, Bronlyn, suggested to me the other day that we, perhaps still hanker after a Royal National Park we might have enjoyed 40 years ago, and with increasing demands on it from a growing city we might have to adjust our vision somewhat.

We now live in an era when forces with different values have enunciated that more of our tracks should be dedicated to more active pursuits such as mountain  bike riding; that the great Cliffline of the Coastal track should be protected from inappropriate risk-taking activity by erecting more fences; and where some of our precious bushland might be sacrificed for yet more parking  as cars crowd the National Park’s main roads to counter full carparks adjoining natural magnets  like Wattamolla. We are a tourist icon despite not having the recognition factor of the Three Sisters. Social media, changes to the National Parks Act to include tourism as a core function of the National Parks Estate and demands for increased tourism to be a government-endorsed contributor to the economy have helped to erode those intuitive values that our members were fighting for 40 or 50 years ago. Royal National Park is seen through different lenses. What is the counter to these more conservative forces within both our government and its on-ground managers? Education directed at our decision makers is one  such approach.

Take the current debates about mountain bikes in Royal National Park. National Parks association members over ten years ago participated in a sort of democratic working party that came up with the idea of trialling a few single-track routes behind Loftus. A full, public evaluation of these tracks never took place. Instead the biking fraternity was basically asked what it wanted and where prior to the issue going before the general publis as an “Issues paper” leading up to a revised plan of management. This generous nod to a single interest group followed years of a growing use of  tracks not on the current plan of management and forging of routes where no bike should ever go, including one track where a metal sign advising that biking was not allowed due to endangered plants by the trackside…long since vandalised and replaced with a Mountain biking sticker where only the pole remains. Tracks have been claimed with signs screwed into trees and emblazoned on rocks …christened by the new caring user-group with names such as “Nature’s Revenge”.

We sent the evidence to management personnel, and now after  a lot of education about what is really happening on these public lands, there are signs, at least, of some de-branding of illegal track claims. Will we see closure? Call it lobbying, public embarrassing or whatever suits, but I like to think that, once educated about the scale of what we see as abuse of conciliatory “trials”, decision makers have no choice but to act. NGOs have been forced in the past to legally challenge unjustifiable “adaptive management practices” that are an excuse for pressures often seen as insurmountable. We don’t see it that way. Sticking to the core values of our National Parks estate is something that can’t be compromised, as we are forced to educate others about what is really happening on our abused natural lands.

Gary at Eagle Rock

At the next meeting of NPA and Sutherland Shire Environment Centre representatives  with Royal National management, we will be enunciating how education of all walkers near the spectacular clifflines of Royal National park does not have to extend to putting barriers at scenic magnets along the way. The so-called “Wedding Cake Rock” near Marley has attracted one person so close to the edge that he risked far too much and ended up falling to his death. Could he have been saved by a barrier? Might he have considered repeated signs on the track as to the dangers of cliff edges, any less than an atual “barrier”. The ultimate extension of engineered solutions to such tragedies might be near 20 km of fencelines along arguably one of the most spactacular coastal walks in the world. We will be ununciating the collective wisdom of NPA executive gleaned from over 100 collective years of walking this route to advocate an alternative to a heavy handed approach. Regrettably, management is sometimes bound by recommendations of coroners, but is a heavy-ended approach going to be any better than alternatives sometimes not fully explored. We wish to be an alternative, educated voice in decision-making about how to manage our public lands.

I can’t remember how many years NPA has been advocating a shuttle bus service to places like Wattamolla. I DID manage to get a car park at Wattamolla one sunny day a few weeks back to accompany some overseas visitors to eagle Rock, 3 km away. I was shocked to see the number of cars parked on the main route through Royal National Park when visitors found the car park full…a three km walk was required to reach Wattamolla. The unofficial car park on Bertram Stevens Drive was both an eye sore and potential traffic hazard. And NPWS was not able to collect car parking fee. So, will the discussion paper on Wattamolla suggest that more bushland will be cleared to accommodate more paying customers. Or will genuine, less energy-intensive alternatives be suggested alongside other solutions to elicit a genuine public conversation? Royal National park Management will be in no doubt about our expectations after an educative and respectful conversation with them.

It is all to easy to roll with the punches when we see compromises being made in how our public lands are managed. But groups like National Parks Association and the Sutherland Shire Environment Centre will continue to suggest that the Emperor has no clothes when we see compliant behaviours favouring a new natural order of things. All of us who wonder about what we are seeing happening in our National Parks could do a lot worse than challenge the status quo in informed, educative ways that reflect values much deeper than those which have slowly but surely allowed more soil to be lost, more cars to dominate, and engineered blots on the landscapes erected to “look after” our well-being.

I shall be informing Bronlyn that MY values have not changed compared to 50 years ago. The natural world needs champions more than ever.

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