MICHAEL MCFADYEN. Over the past 40 years I have visited probably more national parks in NSW than 99 per cent of the population, both for work and recreation.
I have fought bushfires from helicopters during the day and camped under the stars with my wife at night, high up in the Warrumbungles, listening to koalas in the trees and awestruck at how close and bright the Milky Way appeared.
My father began working for the National Parks and Wildlife Service when it was established in 1967 and I followed in his footsteps, joining the service in 1975 and staying until I was made redundant in 2015.
I have watched and mourned as the NPWS has been squeezed so hard over the past 15 years that every bit of life has been extracted from it. In 1986, the NSW NPWS was lauded as “one of the top five national park agencies in the world”. Today, it would not even be the in the top five in Australia.
When I first began the job, salaries were poor but people signed up so they could work protecting the parks. We worked long hours without pay because we were passionate about the ideals of managing NSW parks. We were family.
But in the 2015 redundancy round, the organisation lost so many experienced staff at once that it has never recovered. All these people had no time to pass on their knowledge and experience to those who were left. The combined loss was incalculable.
Since then there have been even more reorganisations and redundancies. The number of rangers employed has dropped from about 300 to just over 200 under the Liberal state government. Three hundred rangers was already insufficient.
In the latest restructure, the organisation is claiming that there will be more frontline staff. But as far as unions have been able to gather, it seems certain that frontline staff numbers are being cut, along with back office staff that support those on the front line. Those left will have their pay cut. Around Taree, field officers will suffer pay cuts of up to $12,200 a year, while still having to do the same work.
On the northern side of Botany Bay, NPWS appears to have passed over its responsibilities for managing Botany Bay National Park to Randwick City Council. In the few weeks since this change, the cleanliness of the area has dropped dramatically.
This is being repeated all over NSW. Places like Sturt National Park in the far north-western corner of the state and Kinchega National Park near Broken Hill have historic infrastructure that is falling apart due to lack of money for maintenance. Camping areas all across the state appear to have been abandoned over the past 15 years as funding and staffing have dropped.
Royal National Park, the jewel of the NSW park system and the second oldest national park in the world, has a fraction of the staff that it had when it first came under NPWS management in 1967. This has been repeated in parks like Kosciuszko, Warrumbungle and New England.
It is telling that only nine new parks have been created since the Liberal state government came to power in 2011. Compare that to the previous Labor government, which created 500 new parks.
I waited all of last year hoping that the government would do something to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the service, but I waited in vain: no new iconic national park, no announcement of a great upgrade to an existing park’s infrastructure, no increase in staffing or funding. Nothing.
The government and opposition must make a tangible commitment to increase funding and staffing to at least previous levels and make the NPWS a standalone department once again.
Properly funded and publicised, the more remote parks of NSW could become major tourist attractions like Kakadu and Uluru, boosting tourism to the state. At the moment nothing is done to attract “grey nomads” to spend more than a day or two in NSW as part of their trip around Australia.
The fact that the Liberal government is happy to waste money on knocking down and rebuilding perfectly good concert venues, exhibition centres, stadiums and museums makes it even harder to understand why this important part of NSW’s heritage has been abandoned.
Michael McFadyen worked for the NPWS for 30 years. This article was first published in the SMH