In many ways Australia is still developing as a nation. Much of the thrust has been towards harnessing the land and its resources for supporting a western lifestyle. With such a large area and so few people (around 25 million), development has been slow and the benefit to bushwalkers are that a few large areas of land have survived in a relatively natural state.
Initially, people thought the bush extended forever and there was little attempt to preserve what existed. It was foreign and had to be tamed by the European settlers. Australia's first national park on the edge of Sydney was set aside in 1879. Royal National Park was the second national park in the world (some say it was the first) but conservation was not the main aim as the park was used to stock deer, holiday houses were built and various developments were allowed. It was set aside more as a recreation park modelled along the lines of a large European urban park rather than as native bushland.
Around World War I, some bushwalkers in New South Wales realised that native bushlands were slowly disappearing and becoming farmland, logged forests, dams and mines. Myles Dunphy, an active bushwalker, became a leading figure and he encouraged the setting aside of several areas of land for scenery preservation. He formed the Mountain Trails Club in 1914 and identified areas of wilderness potential. These regions now form the backbone of the large national parks in New South Wales.
The first big conservation test for bushwalkers was in 1931. A Sydney Bushwalking Party visited the Blue Gum Forest in the Grose Valley and became aware that a farmer was proposing to cut down all the trees for a walnut farm. This stand of trees was unique and they were appalled that the entire valley would be ruined for such a tiny farm. Three months later they formed the Blue Gum Forest Committee, this was Australia's first conservation action group.
The action group agreed to buy the farmers lease for 130 pounds; this was a large sum and it was the Great Depression. Still, they went ahead with a public appeal and with the aid of some generous loans they purchased the lease in 1932. They donated the land back to the government as a reserve for public recreation. The fight for the Blue Gum forest is described in detail in an article in WILD 67.
The Blue Gum Forest wakened bushwalkers into action and in 1932, they formed the Federation of Walking Clubs to present a coordinated voice to the government in New South Wales. This is the oldest state federation in Australia and has been successful in many bushwalking and conservation issues, in 1990 it changed its name to Confederation of Walking Clubs.
Victoria was not far behind. In 1930, James Barrett returned from the USA with a new appreciation of our wilderness and national parks (after our visit in 2009 to one of the USAs biggest wilderness areas in Montana I see what he found - a maze of 2 metre wide tracks everywhere and very little true wilderness even when 50km from the roads). In his writings and public speaking he pushed the concept of preserving land as it was. While there was no single initial conservation event, bushwalkers formed the Federation in 1934 as a response to the gradual destruction of much of the bush. By grouping together, the clubs felt that their combined voice might be more effective than acting as individuals. Issues in Victoria have been more gradual with steady erosion of the bushlands particularly by forestry operations (logging).
A major setback in Victoria was the huge bushfire of 1939. In a single day 2.5 million hectares of land (6 million acres) was burnt, this is about twice the area of the World Heritage Area in Tasmania or about 3 times the total area of Yellowstone National Park for overseas readers. It is hard to imagine the immensity of the huge fire that travelled 500km (300 miles) in one day from Melbourne to near Mt Kosciusko. It killed hundreds of people, burnt sawmills and towns and destroyed a lot of alpine forest. The government reacted strongly and built an extensive network of roads across the alpine country to prevent a repeat disaster - today there are 11,000 km of forestry roads providing access for fire fighting.
While the federation had little success with preventing the ever expanding forestry roads, they have contributed to the formation of many national parks, particularly the Alpine National Park and were also instrumental in the creation of the Australian Alps Walking Track (formerly called The Alpine Walking Track). This passes through the alpine country from Walhalla near Melbourne, to Canberra.
To the south, the island state of Tasmania seemed to have an infinite amount of forest and untouched areas and while the northern states became involved in conservation there seemed little to worry about. One issue did arise in 1946 when part of the Mt Field National Park was transferred to forestry and logged. Public protest resulted in an equal area of forest of poorer quality being added back to the park as compensation. Otherwise little happened until the 1960's.
In 1967, bushwalkers first learnt about the intention to flood Lake Pedder. This was a national park and unique in the world being a large glacial outwash lake of 9 square km. It was also very beautiful with coloured sands and surrounded by mountain ranges. The government tried to silence any news of this event and even the newspapers refused to print any articles or letters about it for a long time. Despite the silence, people did work out what was happening and 10,000 people signed a petition about it in Hobart (the total population of Hobart was just over 100,000 so this was a very significant number). The Lake Pedder Action Committee was formed as opposition to the dam scheme. Basically the government ignored the people and pushed the required bills through parliament in the early hours of the morning when no observers were present. Most of the bushwalkers in Hobart then gave up the fight as lost. The dam scheme took several years to build - in 1971 there was another series of protests but by 1972 the lake was flooded. The real shame was that the flooding was not even necessary as it is just an emergency backup storage for another dam and there were viable alternative schemes.
Some of the core protest group from the Lake Pedder Action Committee (LPAC) had discovered that they were not experienced enough to win a political battle and they prepared themselves for the next issue. It happened in 1982 when it was proposed to dam the Franklin River. This was the largest unaltered river in Tasmania and flowed through a huge wilderness area. From the Lake Pedder experience, the bushwalkers and conservationists knew how to manipulate the press and they also realised they needed help from the rest of Australia - this was no longer just a state issue.
It had all the same traits of Lake Pedder, with the government department denying they were thinking about any dam while they were busy building roads, drilling test holes and doing other preparatory work. The conservationists were not fooled and formed the Tasmanian Wilderness Society (TWS) for the core action group - some members were bushwalkers with experience on the Lake Pedder campaign and knew what to do. The LPAC changed into the Tasmanian Wilderness Society (TWS) and went into action.
The campaign was fierce - the general public learnt what was at stake through public shows, books, calendars and press releases. The press were at first unsympathetic but public opinion forced them to report on the dam project. The ultimate confrontation came to be called the Franklin River Blockade. Thousands of protesters travelled into the dam sites and sat in front of machinery. The government promptly arrested them but more filled their place. Over 1400 were jailed and the confrontation was widely publicised internationally. Again the state government ignored the people and a referendum for an alternative scheme and pushed ahead.
The federal government also did nothing to stop the dams and the Franklin River became a federal election issue. The federal government lost the election and the first action of the new government was to pass the World Heritage Properties Conservation Bill. This stopped the dams - it was challenged in the courts by the Tasmanian Government but was deemed legal. The conservationists had won their first huge battle and were now well organised. Since the Franklin River, there have been other issues elsewhere - some won, some lost - but conservationists now know that they can win - sometimes. The TWS renamed itself as The Wilderness Society and now deals with issues all over Australia.
It should be clear that bushwalkers have been major supporters of national parks and in some cases played a major role in the establishment of conservation in Australia. There are many parks created as a result of campaigns begun by bushwalkers. While an important aspect of park creation has been to preserve the original environment, the same parks are also considered by bushwalkers and the public to be important recreation areas.
A new problem is now arising in our parks and that is the issue of access. As an example, the managers of Victorian parks have advertised widely (on television in mid-1998) that parks are for botanists, geologists, entomologists and a variety of other scientific personnel but nowhere do they comment that parks are also for normal people. I suspect that this has much to do with the fact that park managers rarely get much credit for doing a good job of managing people and the major emphasis is on scientific research and conservation (usually preservation). Reducing public access makes management, research and conservation all that much easier.
Under the guise of protecting the park, park managers have introduced quotas on numbers of bushwalkers in many parks. The overall idea to protect the environment is good but sometimes it is taken to extremes. As an example, quotas have recently been applied to the Croajingalong Coast, this is a 5 day walk in Victoria and a maximum of 25 has been imposed. The walk follows sand, rocky beaches and old closed roads - there are no major environmental problems caused by overnight bushwalkers. Its hard to see how walkers following an old road which was sealed with asphalt could cause extensive damage. This is a drastic reduction in numbers compared to previous use and no other viable alternative is being offered. The strange part of the quota is that this is smaller than the nearby wilderness areas of Nadgee and Cape Howe - quotas were introduced to that region many years ago and the parks policy at the time was to direct bushwalkers instead to the coast west of Mallacoota. Now they apply an even stricter quota to the area they previously directed bushwalkers to. To me, it seems they have forgotten previous policy and their own printed literature. Instead bushwalkers are just expected to go elsewhere or stay in commercial camping grounds and become day walkers. If just a few parks have low quotas then there is no major restriction but when all parks impose quotas there will be problems if demand is greater than supply.
As another example, in southern Queensland there are quotas of 6 or 12 on most campsites on the Main Range and Mt Barney. This is a strong reduction in numbers and has encouraged many walkers to go without a permit. In Tasmania, they have discussed imposing quotas on the World Heritage Area - with such a large area it seems little problem until you realise some staff are proposing limits of 100 per year (that's only 2 per week!) on walks that have 1500 people a year walking them. They pretend they are offering alternatives (just 3 walks) but research shows that many walkers have already done these walks (Overland, South Coast and Frenchmans Cap). If you like repeating the same 3 walks all the time then its fine but I suspect most will not be pleased with this. The trend is obvious, overall bushwalkers are not really wanted, and I believe it will get worse where every park will eventually impose quotas or a blanket ban on bushwalking off-track as some have already done. This will be gradual and will be just one place at a time - they will justify each individual quota and each restriction might even seem reasonable on its own but the overall effect is where the real issue is.
Personally, I do not find quotas totally unacceptable - after all, I do not want to see the environment destroyed but at the same time parks must see their role in recreation as well as conservation and balance the two issues. A sensible quota can discourage large peak numbers (we all hate the Easter and New Year crush) yet still provide reasonable access at other times of the year. Imposing severe quotas is not very balanced. Managers see this as 'fixing' problems but the problems created by bushwalkers are very small in the overall context of a park and it can also just move the problem elsewhere which is not a solution at all. Severe restrictions also encourage bushwalkers to go without permits and if this becomes widespread then the idea of the permits giving some control over usage is defeated so severe permits do not work.
As an example, in the Tasmanian World Heritage Area (WHA), bushwalkers actually only walk across less than 1% of the total area of the park, most of it they just visually look across it. Well, some people are actively trying to work out how to remove the walkers from that 1% instead of thinking about the pluses - 95% of the WHA is in a wilderness state. I would regard the small area walkers visit now as a success if we can keep them to the same routes. Sure, there are some local problems on these tracks, but it is better to contain the problem rather than encouraging bushwalkers to spread into new areas and create new problems. If they bring in severe restrictions and a permit becomes very difficult to obtain I am sure many bushwalkers will go illegally. They are more likely to go where the rangers do not patrol so they will be encouraged to explore areas that currently recieve few visits thus creating new tracks in currently undamaged areas.
Lets just briefly consider a proposed quota of 100 for The
Western Arthurs (this is the figure that has been suggested by
management). Some will argue that at present 1500 go there every
year, so you can get a permit once every 15 years - that sounds
passable if it improves the environment - each person will get
one trip there. But will you ever get a permit at all! In that
15 year period 22,500 walkers would have visited on current figures;
statistics show that about half are first time walkers, so that's
11,250 bushwalkers for their first visit there. Well seeing that
only 1,500 permits would be issued in 15 years then you would
only have a 13% chance (1,500/11,250) of ever getting a permit just
once to go there. Basically most walkers will be locked out, as
you would have to get very lucky. It should be obvious from these
figures what I mean by access being too severe. While I will be
the first to agree that the Western Arthurs has some environmental
problems created by bushwalkers - the reality is that those that
walk there do not explore the rest of the WHA in large numbers
thus creating the same problems at another site.
Another recent potential problem has also arisen from a shift in the direction of the business world. Where once the threat came from those who opposed parks like mining and logging, some industries now support parks but want the right to develop their business inside a park. In some cases this can mean that they effectively end up controlling some of the park thus alienating other users. There are plenty of examples of commercial developments on the edge of parks that seem to get preferential treatment and maybe this is sometimes acceptable - all members of the public should have rights and access to parks - not just bushwalkers. The bigger problem is development inside parks that use the natural resources and exclude other users. Recent issues like commercial huts and new tracks at Wilsons Promontory, Jatbula Trail (Katherine Gorge), proposed resorts at Port Davey, the resort near Hinchinbrook Island, the Three Capes Track and commercial adventure operators in all parks are all potential problems.
At first they seem harmless to bushwalkers, but lets examine their effect considering the quotas that are beginning to appear. If a track has a limit of 40 at a time and an operator takes half the bookings then access for the rest of us becomes a major issue. If the operator becomes successful and attracts more customers then they demand more bookings and eventually the rest of us can never get a permit. Try to get a personal bushwalking permit for a multi-day trip to the Kakadu National Park and you will find out what I mean. There are very few permits available and many of them are given to commercial operators who can sell you a permit at a price - it's called join the guided walk! The same happens for the Jatbula Trail, commercial operators get preference as they can book before permits are offered to the public. They regularly take all 12 bookings leaving none for the public. For dates they cant sell, they release them too late for members of the public to organise trips. When it comes to politics, guide operators are seen to be creating income and jobs from public land that costs money to manage and it is not hard to see why governments are sympathetic and assist them. From the land managers point of view (the rangers) they also prefer the operator as they only have one group to deal with and they feel they have some control as they can always threaten no permits (or changed rules) for next year.
Another example is at Wilsons Promontory. There they are currently building new tracks and proposing commercial huts. In discussions with the Federation of Victorian Walking Clubs, the rangers have indicated that preference for walking permits will be given to the commercial groups. The federation was told that the commercial operators will be given first selection of permits and can book 12 months ahead. If they take all the bookings then there will be simply be no bushwalkers permits at all for others as the rest of us can only book a maximum of six months ahead. They did not seem to think this was a problem for bushwalkers! It will not take long for some smart operator to realise that if they buy ALL the permits they will be able to re-sell these for a profit.
In my opinion, for bushwalkers, the next round of conservation issues will be over access, rather than protection of the remaining bushlands. Bushwalkers will feel it is not worth fighting for protection of an area if the result is that they get locked out at the end anyway. The way restrictions are happening, that is fast becoming a reality in many areas. Queensland already has small quotas on most parks. Victoria is either creating them or simply banning bushwalkers (they just closed part of the Otway Ranges - as it was former logging area, it's hard to see how bushwalkers are a big environmental threat). Tasmania is also considering commercial development and control and has also applied quotas for the Overland Track and started with severe restrictions for the Three Capes Track..
I am optimistic that common sense might prevail and a compromise will result in sensible quotas for some places. The draft reports for Tasmania presents a reasonable compromise and hopefully will form a model for other states. If it doesn't, then we may all end up using green tents or bivouac bags, green clothing and pretend we are day walkers when seen on the tracks. I am sure bushwalkers will not give up their favourite recreation activity as that might be the only alternative.
Since I first wrote the above text in June 1998, several issues have happened with commercial companies. One of the most sensational issues was the Canyon Colliery issue in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales (see the New South Wales Confederation of Bushwalkers web site). A commercial company 'Earth Sanctuaries' tried to take over some public land for a large development. Part of their stated aims was to place an electric fence around the entire Grose Valley and take over the national park. The details revealed that public access would be denied unless you paid $30 per day or the extravagant price of $90 for overnight stays. While the company has seemly worthy aims, the methods used to obtain their aims are similar to the mining and logging groups. When looked at more carefully it is clear the company aims to privatise conservation (and National Parks) and sell endangered species (they want to protect them so they can breed surplus for sale to make a profit). These are not things the general public expected from a conservation orientated company and shows that they are really just another commercial business.
Fortunately, the above scheme has not been approved but I predict this is just the tip of the iceberg. Companies like the one above will get smarter as time goes on and propose schemes that will seem to have more merit but in the end are designed to just make more money for the company from public land use. While this has happened in the past on a small scale, the real problem is the resulting removal or restriction of public access.
Another more major recent problem happened in Tasmania. The
Three Capes Walk mostly uses tracks cut over the last 30 years by
the Hobart Walking Club and the Tasmanian Climbing Club. When the track
opened, a fee of $495 applied for 3 nights in huts while camping was
banned in the area. After a concerted public campaign, camping has been
allowed at one site which is a fine compromise and should have been
done from the start but does show that the long term aims for
development are to cater for tourist walkers with large budgets and
exclude traditional bushwlkers. Providing a free campng option has not
descreased the hut bookings so hopefully politicians and land managers
will take notice of that. Tasmania has
also had problems at Cockle Creek with commercial interests wanting to
build commercial accomodation inside the South West National Park. The
next commercial project inside a park in Tasmania is a string of
commercial huts along the South Coast Track. I wonder how long it
will take for the hut operator to encourage a reduction in camping and
try to force some into their huts. I dont expect a blanket ban like at
Three Capes but instead predict a limit on on walker numbers to be
applied. These operators dont understand that bushwalkers who love
living in tents are not the tourist style walkers that use commercial
Walkers will need to be vigilant and carefully examine all schemes. Ultimately the politicians will want parks to pay for themselves and some commercialism is inevitable. We already have parking and camping fees in many parks and we must accept these relatively small changes. What we must be careful about is to reject all schemes designed to transfer CONTROL to outside groups or apply exhorbitant prices aimed at the rich which will deny the general public access.