Will the Coalition degazette the Murray Valley National Park and cement its anti-environment reputation?

Oisín Sweeney, Senior Ecologist, National Parks Association of NSW

This article first appeared on John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations website on 25 September 2017.

This article follows on from Ross McDonnell’s article on the Murray Valley National Parks in issue 61 (3) Spring 2017

Up to now, Australian Governments of both sides have largely honoured national park declarations made by each other. However, it’s now official National Party policy to degazette the Murray Valley National Park, which would be a low point in Australian conservation history. Given the success of The Nationals in dictating NSW environment policy in the last few years, and the degree to which the Coalition has regressed on environment protection, this is something we need to be worried about.

These are tough days for nature, and even public land and protected areas are not safe. Republicans in the USA are attempting to transfer millions of acres of public land the States, raising fears of a sell off. Last year the Polish Government permitted a major increase in logging in the UNESCO-listed Białowieża forest, and its Environment Minister called for the natural heritage status to be stripped. Just last month we saw protections for an ‘untouchable’ part of the Bolivian Amazon reversed.

This is called Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing and Degazettement or PADDD and it affects Australia too. This study shows that PADDD, although widespread and surprisingly common in Australia, tends to be downgrading or downsizing. This is worrying as it chips away at protected areas, but degazettements (reversing declarations) are arguably more concerning. They’re most often a result of land claims. This is hard to object to considering Aboriginal dispossession, and may have a positive outcome if traditional Aboriginal management practices are implemented. But the largest degazettement events are most often driven by logging, which has a clear negative environmental impact. Importantly though, degazettements have tended to be small, and the larger examples have rarely affected national parks. They more commonly occur on other reserve categories.

In NSW, there are concerning examples of downgrading parts of protected areas for commercial infrastructure. Other PADDD events are undesirable to many but less serious, such as the decision by Barry O’Farrell to allow ‘supplementary pest control’ in protected areas in NSW. This is currently occurring with NPWS oversight in 12 protected areas.

But the really worrying PADDD developments are in the Murray Valley National Park. The 2012 inquiry into the management of public lands in NSW recommended both an extension of red gum ‘ecological thinning’ trials in the park (itself a PADDD event), and tenure swaps elsewhere, to bolster timber supplies. The Government rejected the latter stating “the Government does not support logging in national parks and has no plans to allow it through the implementation of tenure swaps or other means,” and said that the timber for the ecological thinning trial would be made available to residents as firewood. Any decision as to whether to expand the trial was to be made following consideration of the outcomes of the current trial. In late 2012, then Environment Minister, Robyn Parker, estimated that 3,000 tonnes of residue would be generated via thinning.

Fast forward to 2017 and the NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro announces that 15,000 tonnes of red gum timber would be given to the Gulpa sawmill, and ‘ecological thinning’ morphs neatly into commercial logging. The owner of the Gulpa sawmill is the Secretary of the Red Gum Branch of The Nationals. And this Branch has successfully made it Nationals policy to convert the Murray Valley National Park back to the Murray Valley State Forest. Degazettement is the clear goal of The Nationals for this national park.

In light of the alleged links between The Nationals and farmers implicated in water theft, and the same farmers apparently illegally clearing swathes of bush, it’s hard to avoid the impression that this is another example of The Nationals looking after their mates at the expense of the public interest. When you consider that the creation of the Murray Valley National Park was accompanied by a $97 million ‘structural adjustment’ package for the timber industry, this also looks like double dipping.

The red gum national parks were the culmination of a 30-year campaign for National Parks Association NSW (NPA). We campaigned for their protection because they are a real jewel of the protected area estate. There’s simply not much of this type of floodplain forest around. They are unlike other forest ecosystems, and are more akin to wetlands in that water is the key factor determining their health. This raises another concern: can we be confident that water theft isn’t more widespread and depriving these forests of the water they rely on?

Let’s be clear. Logging in the red gums has not been ‘sustainable’, nor has it improved the biodiversity values. In fact, research shows that logging and firewood removal have dramatically altered the forest structure from one of old, widely spaced trees to one dominated by ‘mixed age stands of smaller pole trees’, with a huge reduction of fallen timber.

The irony is that red gums regenerate readily throughout much of the Riverina in wet years. In areas of mixed farming, this presents opportunities to manage grazing to permit regeneration of paddock trees and woodlots, which would benefit livestock and biodiversity. This regeneration could also provide a long-term, sustainable supply of timber and firewood for farmers to diversify their incomes. Instead, the Coalition chose to enact land clearing laws that ignore these opportunities and encourage further clearing.

In 2009, as the NSW Government was considering the reservation of the red gum forests, former Premier Bob Carr labelled logging the red gums as vandalism. Shortly after, Premier Nathan Rees instigated the Natural Resources Commission investigation that led to the creation of the red gum national parks.

Before Mike Baird retired, posters appeared around Sydney labelling him an ‘environmental and social vandal’ in response to various policies. Degazettement of such a special national park for a resumption of logging would cement the Coalition’s reputation as the most environmentally hostile government in memory. Is it really prepared to tear up all of the Commission’s findings, and Australia’s reputation, to vandalise the Murray Valley National Park? If recent years are any guide, the answer is, unfortunately, yes.

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