John Barilaro is privatising Kosciuszko National Park

Jul 28, 2021

John Barilaro’s Snowy Mountains Special Activation Zone Precinct effectively wrests the control of developments in Kosciuszko National Park from the Minister for the Environment into the hands of the Minister for Regional NSW, John Barilaro. The plan is to heavily develop Jindabyne and surrounding areas for tourism, with little thought for the environment.

In 2017, John Menadue wrote about the increasing takeover of national parks by commercial interests. Today the squatters of the tourism industry are becoming landed gentry and proposing to put up more of their pavilions inside national parks. The Snowy Mountains Special Activation Zone Precinct (SMSAP) 40-year Master Plan is an overly ambitious plan put out by the NSW Department of Regional NSW and the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment that effectively wrests control of developments In Kosciuszko National Park from the Minister for the Environment, currently Matt Kean, into the hands of the Minister for Regional NSW, John Barilaro.

In 2018 the NSW Government suddenly became flush with $4.154 billion following the sale of the NSW 58% share in Snowy Hydro to the Commonwealth. The proceeds of the sale primarily went to the Department of Regional NSW, which set up the Regional Growth NSW Development Corporation, to plan, coordinate and deliver successful “activation” precincts under NSW Deputy Premier and leader of the National Party, John Barilaro.

The Snowy Mountains Special Activation Precinct proposal (public comments close 23 August 2021) centres on making Jindabyne a hub for “tourism” and hospitality and “sport and recreation”.

The SMSAP plans to turn Jindabyne into a boomtown for tourism. The promotional video shows a crowded shopping precinct and lots of snow-based activities. The narration drags up every word from the environment/sustainability lexicon.

Commercial interests in Jindabyne certainly experience a two-phase economy – high in winter, low in summer. It is stated that the drive behind the SMSAP is to make the economy for the region viable and robust all year round. No doubt a noble aim. But at the centre of the plan is the development and expansion of commercial interests within Kosciuszko National Park, which has been added to the Special Activation Precinct.

However to activate the SMSAP Master Plan also requires unprecedented amendments to the Kosciuszko National Park Plan of Management (KPOM). The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service website explains

Plans of management are legal documents we develop and maintain to guide how a park will be sustainably managed.

Plans of Management (PoMs) contain information about the natural environment, Aboriginal heritage, history, and recreational opportunities in a park. They are a requirement under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.

Plans of management help guide the conservation of biodiversity, rehabilitation of landscapes and the protection of natural and cultural heritage, including protection of world heritage values and management of world heritage properties in a park. They also include management principles for use of a park by Aboriginal people for cultural purposes, sustainable visitor or tourist use, natural resource management and land management practices.

So it would be reasonable to expect that any proposed amendments to the PoM for Kosciuszko National Park would reflect the above statutory obligations.

Well, think again. In the case of the SMSAP it is the tail wagging the dog. Through changes to the Kosciuszko National Park PoM via a series of SEPPs (State Environment Planning Policies), especially the Alpine SEPP commercial interests will be dictating developments within the park with scant attention to nature conservation, landscape, and heritage values for which the park was dedicated.

State Environmental Planning Policy (Kosciuszko National Park – Alpine Resorts) 2007 (Alpine SEPP) – zoning and development controls will amend this SEPP to enable streamlined planning pathways to apply to the Alpine Precinct.

We have yet to see the details of the proposed amendments to the Alpine SEPP.

The impact of expanded accommodation in high-end facilities (aka expanded ski villages of Thredbo, Perisher and Charlottes Pass and other places), within the national park will have significant environmental impacts. NPWS struggles to cope with traffic and visitor numbers in winter as it is. The concentration of large numbers of people into narrow mountain valleys is not only fraught with risks to the surrounding natural environments: water supply, waste disposal and sewerage disposal come to mind but also risks to the tourists who will be accommodated there. If the fires in 2019-20210 taught planners anything it is that the risks of landscape-wide wildfires are real and only likely to increase in frequency.

NPWS has always been starved of funds. The management demands on Kosciuszko National Park are enormous. The Park has serious problems with feral animals. Feral horses number over 14,000 and there are problems with deer, pigs, and rabbits. Thanks to John Barilaro’s Wild Horse Heritage Act 2018 efforts to control the number of feral horses has been stymied.

The Australian alpine habitats are 0.15% of the continent. The unique habitats and beautiful wild mountain landscapes should be enjoyed by as many people as possible who want to get out into the open air and enjoy them. A national park experiences supposed to be about understanding and enjoying nature; quiet places with dark, star-filled skies are becoming rare except in national parks. Researchers call this a “transformational experience”. This is often simply expressed as “being in nature”, increasingly so to younger generations.

Kosciuszko National Park certainly needs a better range of low-key facilities to cater for people who may not be prepared or able to camp or caravan – cabins, glamping etc are acceptable options in the right places. But sitting in a 4-star hotel and stepping out into “a night and day economy. With bars, cafes and restaurants” …as described in the SMSAP for Perisher is hardly the relevant experience expected inside a national park.

Of course there can be little objection, from a planning perspective to high end resorts catering for those who can afford them, but the appropriate location is outside the national park where infrastructure and servicing can be delivered efficiently and effectively with all the controls that are afforded by local government and other agencies. Resorts belong close to or in nearby service towns such as Jindabyne where they can deliver maximum economic benefit.

Both sides of politics want national parks to help pay their way through revenues generated by tourism. Visitation to national parks is soaring.

Nevertheless, there is ample evidence from USA national parks and elsewhere that parks can be ‘loved to death’. There must be a balance. The fulcrum for that balance is why a national park has been dedicated in the first place and that is embedded in the legislation. In NSW, the primary legislated goal is nature conservation, and visitor and tourism policy, and commercial considerations are subordinate to this. The creeping privatisation of public assets which incorporating KNP into the Snowy Mountains Special Activation Precinct will bring is alarming. The NSW Government should regard the benefits that derive from setting aside national parks and other protected areas as financial investments for a whole range of future benefits and not simply as current resources to be exploited

Ultimately it is the Minister for Energy and Environment Matt Kean who must sign off on changes to the Kosciuszko National Park Plan of Management, and the question is will he have the insights and understanding of the legislated purpose of national parks, and the political support to stand up to modify and resist this take-over of the park by the Department of Regional NSW and its Minister and local MP, Deputy Premier John Barilaro.

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