HYLDA ROLFE. Protection v exploitation – Uncertain outlook for National Parks in New South Wales

Sep 17, 2018

A common framework for crime fiction builds on the notion of a heavy character leaning on target persons in order to ‘encourage’ them to fund the provision of protection from even heavier characters.  Hoping for security, the targets oblige and meet more and more demands, until at last they baulk.  So then the heavies appear with some attendant thuggery, and the ‘protection’ turns out to be a bit of a myth. It was really only exploitation.  

Of course, nothing like that happens in our own orderly world of official and political environmental care.  But there are some interesting shades of grey in the present approach of the New South Wales Government and its administrators to issues of management of the public assets under their control.   The reality behind the apparently strong rejection by Environment and Heritage Minister Upton of claims of resource stingy-ness in the protection of the State’s National Parks provides a case in point.

In reply to rather persistent questioning before the NSW Legislative Council’s   Portfolio committee no. 6 – Planning and environment on 7 September, Minister Upton said, among other things….The National Parks and Wildlife Service [NPWS} are well resourced by this Government over time…. they continue to do more and different work…

Quite so! But – and it’s a big but – the fundamental question is whether the more and different work that NPWS is undertaking remains true to its legislative remit. In other words, is NPWS doing what it is supposed to do and if not, why not and what is not being done?  (A subsidiary but relevant question relates to the timescale behind the Minister’s statement, but that’s one for another day.)

There are currently two notably different and contrasting official – and perhaps Ministerial –  approaches evident in the Government’s care for and management of the public assets that constitute a major element of the natural environment of New South Wales.

The South Head sector of Sydney Harbour National Park is rich in Indigenous and post-colonial heritage, in natural wonders, and in enticing settings. Its many visitors – especially those from crowded urban settlements here and abroad – enjoy its far scenery and its nearby wildlife in non-urbanised peace.  That’s the kind of thing a real National Park can and usually does do well.

Current interest at South Head focuses on assessment of an almost five years old and now slightly adapted response to an Office of Environment & Heritage/National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) invitation for expressions of interest from enterprises to …..develop,  market, operate and manage functions, short stay visitor accommodation, hospitality and visitor services/experiences….

There’s not a lot there about the traditional tasks of NPWS of making access to and appreciation of the natural and cultural treasures of National Parks available to the public at large!  Through all the paperwork lodged by the selected respondent to that invitation over time runs the idea that the commercial provision of an integrated function/event facility with associated accommodation – not operated by NPWS, of course – will be just the ticket for funding the restoration, adaptation and maintenance of the heritage structures at South Head that have been left largely untended for too long, perhaps making way for more and different work.

If we accept that there has been no shortage of funds – well, the Minister did say NPWS has been “well-resourced by this Government over time” – other things must have been more pressing in its work. It is not clear what they were. Now Minister Upton is to decide whether a private business may operate an integrated commercial function/event enterprise under lease on some of the choicest public land in Sydney. But the activities and enterprise presently under consideration have nothing at all to do with the purposes for which the land was reserved as part of a National Park.

A party-and-fun facility of the kind proposed doesn’t ring any bells on the environmental conservation and caring meter, but it would be a neat way for someone to exploit the land in a manner clearly unintended by all the land use rules that relate to National Parks if it goes ahead. And what developer in Sydney wouldn’t give an eye tooth or two for similar opportunities? It’s no wonder those who care about nature conservation and heritage and National Parks hate it. Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone who loves it, apart from the developer.  The proposal wasn’t killed off early, and we don’t know what underlies its longevity. Could it be the potential revenue?

In marked contrast to that seemingly blatant exploitive approach, another agency – the Marine Estate Management Authority (MEMA) and another Minister – Primary Industries Minister Blair – offer a very different view. They focus on the Hawkesbury Shelf marine bioregion.

After analysis of the threats to the environmental values of those marine lands, they have come up with proposals to manage – and in some instances forbid – activities that cause harm to the marine environment. Included among the places affected are Camp Cove and Green Point. They are prime locations in terms of Sydney’s history, and they border an important part of the Sydney Harbour National Park lands at South Head. Unlike the functions/events complex that is proposed for the lands, though, this marine scheme is not about generating funds for MEMA or anyone else, and it’s not about doing new and different work. It’s about actively protecting and caring for the marine environment under MEMA management. That’s aiming for real protection, not the thuggish racket-type revenue-producing scenario of crime fiction.

Some predictable squeals from interested parties – especially those who love to kill animals for fun – have been directed to Minister Blair over the marine estate proposals, and the matter is certainly not settled. But one thing is clear – whatever the outcome, at least the Marine Park proposal so far is a thoughtful, well-researched try – a really serious attempt – to defend an irreplaceable natural heritage. It is undeniably protective in intent.

With the contrasting  catch-as-catch-can exploitive approach to the Harbour- side National Parklands at South Head also in the air and yet to be determined by Minister Upton, the next few months may well be a critical turning point for the values of Sydney’s unique and deservedly-renowned Harbour.

Ministers Upton and Blair and Premier Berejiklian were each in attendance at the official announcement of the first stage of the 10-year Marine Estate Management Strategy on 15 August. That could just possibly offer a glimmer of comfort to the SaveSouthHead.com campaigners….or not.

It might depend on who listens to whom.

Hylda Rolfe is a near neighbour of South Head in Sydney Harbour National Park, and Secretary of Sydney Harbour Association.  She has had a varied career in the public and private sectors.

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