By Andrew B. Rens
CAIRNS — "This is a great victory for the Aboriginal and green movements. Together we've set a new precedent for conserving natural and cultural heritage", said Michael Winer of the Wilderness Society, describing the state government's decision to create a new national park in Cape York.
On April 18, Premier Wayne Goss announced a plan to purchase about 136,00 hectares of land to add to the existing Cape Melville National Park.
The land will be acquired from Cairns developer, George Quaid, who advertised it for $25 million in the US last year. The Land Court will decide on a compensation price, but Goss believes it is worth about $4 million.
About one-third of the Starcke area will be returned to Aboriginal owners as freehold title.
An inland section will also be gazetted as Aboriginal land on the condition that it is leased back as a national park for 150 years. This suggests that Goss doesn't think the traditional owners can look after the area as well as the government can. However, the communities themselves have already initiated conservation agreements.
Under Goss's plan, a 10,000 hectare "resource reserve" will revert to Aboriginal owners after 15 years or after any mining operations finish.
The reserve straddles water catchment areas for the largest remaining seagrass pastures on the east coast. These beds are the only refuge of the largest dugong population left in the world. The area has comparatively poor mineral content.
The Cape York Land Council and local Aboriginal groups have accepted the compromise, but any move to go ahead with mining will be opposed. Goss' insistence on the reserve indicates that future land claims and national park allocations may also have strings attached.
"It sets a dangerous precedent that areas that are potentially mineable could be excised from new national parks or Aboriginal land nominations", said Winer.
The Wilderness Society is also concerned about how protection of the area will be administered. "We want to make sure the government properly resources the project, to train and help empower Aboriginal people in the management", Winer said.
On April 19, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission offered to assist with the land purchase by funding 25% of the purchase price.