HYLDA ROLFE. Summer of our disconnect. (Part 1 of 2)

Some National Parks in New South Wales are taking a beating. On occasion, it’s difficult to distinguish the businesses that are officially sanctioned in them from the activities usually undertaken in normal commercial venues. Should they be there at all? It is time to sort things out. 

Revenue generation and financial self-sufficiency are not part of any purpose for which lands are reserved under National Parks legislation in New South Wales. Rather, the reservations are made in terms of sustaining natural and cultural heritage. The specific National Park designation of the lands is made because they are assessed (and never, ever idly so) as being qualitatively superior in terms of their natural and heritage characteristics.  They are not local play spaces; they are real National Treasures.

When adventurist developers and entrepreneurs see National Parks as fortuitously created land banks ripe for exploitation, their proposals for commercial activity are typically dressed up and laid out with lavish resort to repetition of the term sustainability, and supported by cute culling of useful phrases from Plans of Management. Ministers and administrators alike seem quite content to entertain that kind of approach without paying too much regard to inconvenient details of the actual land dedication.

With a small bow to ‘compatibility’ – whatever that may be taken to mean in context – the standard official response to criticism also cites sustainability as the motivation and justification of the commercial approach.

We may well ask: is business needed in a National Park? If so, why?

Particular facilities may be needed so that National Parks can be visited by the public, for example in or near remote areas, and a commercial provider may be appropriate. But such instances are not common. Commercial activities such as restaurants may attract people who otherwise might not visit. That could be a good thing in itself. It’s probably no matter to anyone much if people don’t actually learn anything about the special values that make a National Park if they simply visit it for refreshment; they may return some other time. Or not. Either way, an augmented people-count can surely be useful for someone.

A more lasting and better strategy recognises that a National Park’s heritage buildings and natural and cultural attributes would best be used for purposes that are not only consistent with but also actively advance the objectives of its land reservation. They might be used, for example, to inform and educate people about the natural and cultural values that characterise the Park and distinguish it from local playgrounds, municipal parks, and suburban shopping centres and malls. That would not only be fully consistent with the legislated role of National Parks, but would also foster care and respect for nature and heritage for the future.

Much of our natural and cultural heritage is already irretrievably lost to urban pressures and anthropocentric activity generally, but too often we continue to degrade and destroy those values even when we claim officially to protect them.

The ongoing pursuit of the almighty dollar under the guise of sustainability, conducted via private commercial enterprises and having no real connexion with the purposes for which National Park reservations are made, is obviously inimical to the terms of the National Parks legislation and to the values enshrined in it.

How much longer can we support those who permit the continuation of this erosion of our natural and cultural heritage?

Hylda Rolfe is a neighbour of the South Head sector of Sydney Harbour National Park.

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