The gentrification of national parks?

August 30, 2008

Are our national parks in need of a facelift to attract the tourist dollar? Should our wild places be better at catering for those wanting some luxury and pampering?

If you talk to some in the tourist industry, they would strongly agree. And the NSW government right now is blithely playing along with this.

Brand "National Park" is the ultimate advertisement for the modern day resort owner. What better edge on the competitors to claim your five-star lodge is in the heart of Wollemi National Park and its mysterious wilderness?

We don't need to pawn off our crown jewels. Brand National Park belongs to all of us, not those who can afford it, or have the right political connections to lever their snug cabins with soft downy pillows and beds deep inside the park boundaries.

The NSW government says it wants to see more people visiting our national parks and other public parks and reserves. They are aiming for a 20% increase over the next 10 years in fact.

That is an admirable goal, and it is highly achievable.

Yet the tourism industry is not interested in plain numbers. Not mum and dad and the family having a fun walk or a picnic in a national park. No, they are interested in development prospects.

Strangely, the NSW government has started to adopt many of the industry positions.

On the table are a number of ideas to white-ant the very laws that have to date largely kept the national parks unspoilt by crass development.

There is a plan to write "tourism" into national park legislation. At present, "visitation" is there in the legislation as a legitimate purpose. But that isn't enough. It doesn't allow enough of the trappings of tourism — the hotels and chalets, the bars, the trinket shops, spas and saunas, the golf courses and swimming pools and cinemas — to get past first base.

Of course the Kosciuszko ski resorts are the exception, where this has already come to pass. Let's hope that this park remains the only exception.

Tourism does not belong in national parks. National parks are only part of the tourism experience. When you visit a park, absorb yourself in nature, learn something about the complex ecology you are passing through, or get the thrill from climbing a peak, you experience national parks at their best.

National parks offer a special tourist experience, but not the full range of tourist experiences. The extra bits of a tourist's time in an area — the accommodation, the fun parks, evening entertainment, restaurants and takeaway joints — belong in the neighbouring towns.

This is where they will generate the most jobs, have the lowest environmental impacts and best spread the benefits.

Strangely, using national parks to generate jobs in regional towns has dropped off the government agenda. The Transport and Tourism Forum, the industry lobby group leading the assault on parks, is interested in accommodation in parks, not outside them. It's the niche tourism of luxury resorts and cabins in national parks that seems to be their priority.

Then there is the plan to fast-track new developments in national parks. We need to give developers certainty! We need to attract investors and give them the red carpet treatment!

Until now national parks legislation has acted as a foil to the notorious "Part 3A" fast-track assessment process in NSW. A development cannot be permitted unless it is allowed for in a plan of management, and to add it would require at least three months public consultation, as well as a test of suitability.

These safeguards in the national parks legislation that are now under threat are there for good reason. They place limits on the developments in parks and allow the public time to consider the new plans. This is proper and just.

The experience local conservationists had with a new luxury resort near Lithgow on the edge of Wollemi National Park was a sobering demonstration of effective park laws in action. The proposal was the sort of development that works well outside national parks. It was sited in a farmland valley, hemmed in on three sides by the stunning cliffs and bushland of the national park.

The developer, Emirates, chose to work with local conservationists. It began well. However as the development moved rapidly through the Part 3A development process, the resort was moved just inside the national park. Details were scarce as a "concept plan" was put on the table and trust with the community began to plummet.

Clearly the resort was incompatible with the park. Plans for a feral proof fence to create a wildlife sanctuary to reintroduce endangered marsupials in the valley and the national park had not been subject to proper scrutiny. It was only when the limits imposed by the national parks legislation kicked in that Emirates saw the need to work with the community.

Emirates opened up to the community the normally secretive lease negotiation process taking place with government. A number of commitments were made to improve the effectiveness of the wildlife sanctuary, improve public consultation and guarantee access to some of the parks' attractions that may have been blocked. Until this point, the government had dismissed these issues in the rush to offer approval.

The Emirates example, if approved without the involvement of the community, offered a chance to see the types of developments we could come to expect deep within the boundaries of our national parks. Take away the laws that protect national parks, and those with more money and mates will get their way. The public will be excluded. We will have handed over our national parks to the dollar.

By all means, let's encourage more people to visit our national parks. Not only is it good for our health, our sanity and our understanding of our place in the natural world, it will help the parks. How can the next generation of people understand what is worth protecting if they have not seen it.

If our children go into a national park and see less of nature and more of the trappings of our urban life, we will have lost something that is priceless. Let's not allow our national parks to become gentrified. For then they will no longer be national parks.

[Andrew Cox is executive officer of the National Parks Association of NSW. This article is reprinted with permission from where it was published on July 30.]

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