James Shackell takes a deep dive into the murky world of development in national parks – do private businesses have a place in our protected public spaces? The answer isn’t as clear as you might think.
You’d think government investment in national parks would be the closest thing there is to risk-free politics. Surely everyone can get behind trees, especially in the current climate (so to speak).
Which is why the NSW Government might have been surprised at the social uproar when it announced upgrades for the famous Light to Light walk on the state’s southern coast.
The planned funding, about $7.9 million of taxpayer money, will go towards trail improvements and a couple of commercial projects: namely, hut-style ‘eco-accommodation’ (a label that already needs a little scrutiny) at two spots along the coast. Critics have blasted the project on several fronts, from possible ecological damage, to Aboriginal heritage in the region, and the general commercialisation of what is, technically, public land.
This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. There’s been a similar outcry surrounding Tasmania’s proposed multi-day hiking trail through the Tyndall Ranges. Environmental groups are also rallying against the Queensland Government, who has spruiked tourism developments and lucrative 60-year corporate leases on Hinchinbrook Island, inside the heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
So what’s going on here? Why are environmental groups campaigning against environmental investment? Why do national parks and capitalism often seem to clash? And where’s the line between sustainable development and ‘Welcome to National Parks – Brought to you by Pepsi’?
Cashing In On The Wilderness
The uproar surrounding national park development seems to depend on particular parks and the nature of the proposed changes.
In New South Wales, along the Light to Light Trail, local groups are angry that taxpayer money is being spent, in some ways, to privatise the Ben Boyd National Park. Around 3,700 people have already signed an online petition to block the developments. Locals worry the proposed ‘glamping huts’, catering 36 hikers each night, will squeeze out regular campers who’ve been using the sites for years, and construction runs the risk of damaging the coastal ecosystem.
In Tasmania, lobby groups say that the Tyndall Ranges are too pristine and fragile for any tourism-based development, especially since the Ranges aren’t technically part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (thanks to mining interests in the 1980s). Wilderness protection in Tasmania is already a mess of partisan interests, hard-core logging and suspicious political handshakes; critics say luxury ‘eco-lodges’ are just the latest private sector attempt to make forests turn a profit.
The Rise Of ‘Eco-tourism’
Of course, national park operators (not to mention eco-tourism providers) spin a very different story.
‘The upgraded Light to Light Walk will be a fully immersive four-day experience that combines walking and eco-accommodation in one of the most remote and dramatic settings in Australia,’ says the NSW Government website.
The NSW Government claims the new developments are about ‘how best to make the Light to Light walk accessible to everyone’. This sounds fantastic on a press release, but loses some oomph when you consider that many Light to Light campsites are currently free, and eco-glamping retreats, like Nightfall in Queensland, can cost upwards of $795 per night. ‘Accessible’ isn’t the word that leaps to mind.
More convincing, and perhaps more complicated, are government claims that national park development is about protecting Australia’s wilderness from the eco-tourism boom. There’s something to be said for this. The adventure travel industry is expected to tip $1.33 million by 2023. The story is the same all over Australia: hiker numbers are on the rise, along with associated problems like pollution, illegal fires and environmental damage. Victoria’s Grampians National Park alone is expecting upwards of 23,000 visitors next year.
Faced with surging numbers, and funding cuts at state and federal level, it’s no wonder parks departments and state governments are turning to private models to raise money and improve park infrastructure. If allowing private investors to monetize national parks helps preserve those parks, isn’t that a good thing?
Where It Gets Complicated
This argument holds some water, but it gets more vexed and tricky the deeper you dig.
For starters, what constitutes a ‘sustainable’ development? Do government feasibility studies and environmental impact studies go far enough, and who’s doing the studying? (It’s a worry that each side of this debate is taking the environmental high ground…you’d suspect both can’t be right at the same time.)
And what about the moral queasiness of effectively selling national parks, our most sacred public environmental trust, for profit? Are we okay with this?
Then you have murky cases like the company part-owned by Tourism Queensland boss (and millionaire), Brett Godfrey, being allowed to tender for juicy Queensland National Parks development projects. (To be fair to Mr Godfrey, he referred himself to the Queensland integrity commissioner on that one.)
It’s an eco-washed, capitalist minefield out there.
A Better Alternative?
One proposed national park project has so far avoided the political firestorm, and that’s Victoria’s new Grampians Peaks Trail.
Stage one of this project, a 36km closed loop from Halls Gap, is already up and running, and the eventual track will snake 144km down the entire length of the Grampians. Authorities are hoping it’ll become a tourism honeypot for regional Victoria, in the same way Tasmania’s Overland Track draws around 8,000 hikers each year.
The Parks Victoria Master Plan estimates the Peaks Trail will pump $6.4 million into Victorian tourism, which is obviously a great thing for local businesses. But what about the park itself?
Parks Victoria has already said accommodation along the route will be a mix of traditional campgrounds (managed by Parks Victoria) and ‘on-walk hiker lodges…provided by the private sector.’ The details are still a bit hazy, but the Peaks Trail plan does specify that any private-run accommodation must ‘fit sensitively into the landscape with minimal ecological footprint’ and ‘avoid impacting areas of cultural significance.’
To Parks Victoria’s credit, they seem to have given a lot of thought to ecological impact, and there’s been an exhaustive consultation process with local councils and the land’s Traditional Owners, the Gariwerd people (including some new Gariwerd ranger positions within the national park).
Maybe Parks Victoria’s slow-and-steady method is a template for future projects like this. Some sort of sustainable fusion between public and private sector, with strict oversight from the government and cellophane-level transparency (you can read all the specifics in the Peaks Trail Master Plan). Time will tell if other states follow their lead.
Money for nothin’