The 75th anniversary of the establishment of Kosciuszko State Park falls on Good Friday, 19 April 2019. The Park was famously established by Premier William McKell to protect the nationally important mountain water catchments, to restore soil erosion caused by burning off and over-grazing by stock and to provide opportunities for visitor use and enjoyment. Kosciuszko is one of the Australia’s greatest national parks; it is a National Heritage Property protecting priceless Australian heritage and receives more than 1 million visits a year. The Park enjoyed 74 years of bipartisan support for conservation until regressive 2018 legislation was passed to retain thousands of feral horses within the Park.
The Park’s water catchment helps to deliver 30% of the Murray Darling Basin’s annual water yield flowing from the Australian Alps. Australians are proud that Kosciuszko protects, for future generations, ancient glacial landscapes, limestone caves, rich arrays of alpine wildflowers and native Australian alpine animals not found anywhere else on Earth. It is a natural cathedral of grand alpine and subalpine mountainous landscapes. It is a national treasure.
Who had the foresight to establish this great park in 1944? How and why did it come about? A large part of this critical decision was the importance of the high mountains as an undisturbed water catchment servicing the nation and its potential future development as a hydro-electric scheme. Visionary NSW Premier Sir William McKell played the major role in establishing the Park. In 1943, at the urging of Soil Conservation Service Commissioner Sam Clayton, he had taken part in a 10 day inspection of the high mountain catchments. Clayton was concerned about the extensive erosion in the mountains caused by burning off and over-grazing by domestic stock and he wanted these practices stopped. The mountains were not coping. The Premier needed to see for himself the widespread soil erosion and damage.
McKell witnessed extensive soil erosion and was shocked by what he saw. Reflecting, many years later he said:
“… I went down there and examined it and saw what I considered to be one of Australia’s greatest tragedies. I had pictured the whole area, the whole catchment area as probably Australia’s greatest catchment, but it was completely devastated. It was being eaten out, the snow vegetation and sphagnum moss which is such a tremendous asset to the area, which soaks up the snow and allows it to seep away and keeps the streams and rivers going all the year. That was completely eaten out. I was appalled. I said ‘Well now, this has to stop.….… I found that the whole area was the subject of leases, not small leases but very big leases. Now these leases had virtually no restrictions whatever on them. The people who had these leases had complete liberty to do almost as they liked. They could put on as much stock as they liked that way. They could put stock on there for twelve months of the year irrespective of conditions or anything like that. Because of this, the place was being completely eroded. The intense use by the big graziers was completely destroying the entire area.”
McKell acted quickly. He involved, through his Lands Department, key individuals. Conservationist Myles Dunphy, who had previously proposed a Snowy-Indi National Park in the early 1930’s, was invited by the Lands Department to submit a proposal for a national park in the Snowy Mountains. Following consultation with the National Parks and Primitive Areas Council, Dunphy submitted a proposal for a two state Snowy-Indi National Park to the Under Secretary for Lands in June 1943.
There were also others seeking to protect the mountains at this time. Inspired by the National Parks and Primitive Areas Council public exhibition of the Snowy-Indi proposal in the Blue Mountains, James Muir, a school teacher from Cooma, prepared a thesis describing a national park proposal for the Upper Murray. This work was drawn to the attention of Gordon Young, Director of Physical Education for the National Fitness Council. Young, a Canadian, took this idea further and developed a proposal for an 810,000 hectare park that paralleled the great Jasper National Park of his homeland. The proposal was to include all of the Snow Leases to provide protection to the catchments. It would also provide an opportunity to restore the catchments and to prevent any further erosion, for water from the catchments was far more valuable to the national economy than stock grazing.
The McKell Government considered these ideas and settled on the establishment of a 522,303 ha Kosciuszko State Park with catchment protection and water delivery being of the utmost importance. The Hon J. M. Tully MP, Minister for Lands, reinforced this in his second reading speech for the Kosciusko State Park Bill in March 1944:
“Uppermost in the Government’s mind is the need for the soil and grass to be retained perpetually on the slopes, so that when the snow melts and the water runs off into the rivers it shall not be carrying away with it the surface soil, which in the past has, unfortunately, meant the silting up of Burrinjuck [Dam] and other large streams.… As this great watershed will be of value as the source of snow waters going into our most important rivers and forming large reservoirs, the first essential is to see that whatever water runs from this snow country shall be pure and free from silt and shall not take the surface soil with it.”
Tully’s speech emphasised that the Park would not be “despoiled by man”, that “the catchments be protected” and that “a great national park be preserved for all time”. It was a grand vision for Kosciuszko. He also emphasised the special qualities of the mountains that attracted so many people. He gave reference to paintings … of bushland scenes observed on the walls of a city office, and advised:
“Delightful as these paintings are; they can never provide the warmth of the sun, the scent of the flowers or the invigorating influence of the bracing mountain climate. These pleasures can only be experienced by an actual visit to the particular area, and it is essential that our tourist country should be carefully preserved for all time….The bill now before the House specifies a very extensive area in a favoured part of the State, and provides that it not be despoiled by the commercial activities of man, but shall for all time remain a park for the recreation and enjoyment of the people.”
The Kosciuszko State Park legislation was enacted on 19 April 1944 establishing the Park and a Trust to manage it. In 1946, David Stead, a prominent NSW conservationist of the day, reflected on the magnitude and importance of this decision: “the establishment of Kosciuszko State Park was far and away the most important move in wildlife and native flora conservation that has ever been made in Australia”.
In the 74 years following McKell’s visionary actions, professional park management had enjoyed bipartisan political support for the conservation of Kosciuszko and facilitated alpine and subalpine catchment restoration. Their work also prevented illegal grazing; developed a fire management response capacity; invested in alpine skiing and summer tourism; invested in cultural heritage restoration; responded to pest animals and weeds; and provided a protection response to a procession of inappropriate development proposals. McKell’s grand vision for a “great national park” had been achieved and it was of state and national economic importance through catchment water yield and tourism.
For the year leading to the 75th anniversary, there was a shock. Without warning, the NSW Berejiklian Government introduced the 2018 Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act that retained thousands of damaging feral horses within Kosciuszko’s catchments and which undermined 75 years of protection of the Park. This was pure vandalism of a National Heritage Listed Property.
The 75th anniversary of the Park should have been a celebration of catchment recovery and the benefits of professional conservation management by generations of park managers. Instead, high mountain wetlands, the headwaters of the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Snowy Rivers and native Australian species habitats were all being impacted by feral horses. It could be different. The vandalism could be halted. The 75th anniversary year of the Park could witness the immediate repeal of the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act; the significant reduction of feral horse numbers and restoration work to fix the catchment damage.
Dr Graeme Worboys is Protected Area Management Specialist and Honorary Associate Professor, Fenner School, Australian National University