Kosciuszko – the destruction of a national heritage icon?

Dr Graeme Worboys, (Honorary) Associate Professor of the Fenner School for Environment and Society, Australian National University

NSW Deputy Premier and State National Party Leader John Barilaro’s 2018 Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Legislation is the single greatest political and ideological undermining of the conservation and protection status of Kosciuszko National Park in its 75 year history. It has elevated a pest animal to be more important than Australian native animals and has established a legislative precedent that threatens the concept of all Australian protected areas and National Heritage listed properties.

NSW Deputy Premier and State National Party Leader John Barilaro’s new Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Legislation is a shocker. It is the single greatest political and ideological undermining of the conservation and protection status of Kosciuszko National Park in its 75 year history. This legislative attack is completely unnecessary to achieve Barilaro’s wild horse management objectives. It will destroy Kosciuszko National Park as we know it today as it undermines the park’s protected status and will destroy its National Heritage values.

The Wild Horse legislation sets a precedent. It has bigger ramifications than just for Kosciuszko as it is anti-Australian natural heritage. It is an attack on protecting our magnificent Australian native plants, animals, clear streams, natural catchments and wild places in national parks and an attack on evidence based science that guides wise management of these areas. All Australians who care about our country’s magnificent natural heritage in national parks and its protection for future generations will be horrified by what Barilaro’s legislation has done.

For the first time a feral animal, the wild horse, a species identified in NSW as a future “threatening process” will be granted management priority over the conservation of Australia’s globally unique subalpine and alpine animals and the protection of alpine wetlands and water catchments in Kosciuszko National Park. Sixty-four years of evidenced based science has identified the severe damage stock animals, including wild horses, have on Kosciuszko’s catchments and this has been flagrantly ignored in developing this legislation.

Kosciuszko’s high mountain catchments and wetlands are a critical part of the reliable delivery of clean water downstream to the Murray Darling Basin especially in droughts. However they are extremely vulnerable to damage by stock. The mountain wetlands are like a magnet to wild horses for they have the best feed and ample water. One heavy wild horse, over time, can destroy one of these sensitive alpine wetlands. In 2018, Kosciuszko had thousands of wild horses spread across more than 300,000 hectares of the park and they were trashing the headwater catchments of Australia’s mightiest rivers in the mountains, the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Snowy Rivers.

This damage means dirty, horse dung polluted water, eroding streams, faster runoff and quicker drying up of streams in droughts. Every Australian living downstream that benefits from Kosciuszko’s mountain water needs to be concerned, whether they are Adelaide residents, towns people, farmers, irrigators or organisations dependent on the water like Snowy Hydro. Fresh water is precious in this driest of lands and water users should be furious that “their” catchments are being severely degraded. Ironically, many downstream areas in NSW are National Party electorates and this National Party legislation has the potential to impact their future economic wellbeing through poorer water delivery, especially in droughts.

Australian native alpine and subalpine animals are indirectly impacted by wild horses. The horses destroy their habitat. It is why the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee is in the process of recognising the wild horse as a threatening process. Kosciuszko’s alpine and subalpine wetlands are a “hot spot” for endangered species not found anywhere else on Earth. Trampled, pugged and dried out wetlands can mean death to endangered species such as the magnificent yellow and black striped Corroboree Frog, the Freshwater Spiny Crayfish and the Alpine Spiny Crayfish. Damage to adjacent grasslands can impact the Guthega Skink and Mastacomys, Australia’s very handsome broad-toothed rat. Australia’s foremost scientific institution, the Australian Academy of Science, University researchers, a Wild Horse Technical Reference Committee and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have all supported the science that has identified these impacts and concerns for native species. All have been horrified that this science has been ignored.

The wild horse legislation undermines Kosciuszko National Park’s legal plan of management. In the future, Kosciuszko will have two separate management plans for implementation. A “wild horse plan” will be prepared for presumably large areas that have been “identified” as being part of the wild horse plan. These areas may be called “horse paddocks” albeit they are still part of the geographic area of the park. The other plan, the traditional national park plan of management, will be for the remnant (non-horse paddock) areas. A Community Advisory Panel (the Panel) and its Chairperson will advise on the direction of management for the wild horse plan and they have the opportunity to provide advice direct to the Minister. This is a powerful position for the Chairperson. The composition of this Panel, by legislative and ideological design, excludes scientific expertise, NPWS expertise in protected area and catchment management and expertise in alpine and sub-alpine animal or plant conservation management.

The Wild Horse Panel will no doubt be prominent with their advice to the NPWS about how wild horses are to be managed for the “horse paddocks”. The NPWS is required to be present at the Panel’s meetings, but by instruction of the legislation, their role will be as an observer. The NPWS will be required to implement any directions of the Wild Horse plan areas as well as managing the “rest of the Park”. For any matters of professional difference between the Panel’s planning direction and wise management, the NPWS senior officer will have to submit his or her professional advice through the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage hierarchy to the Minister.

This undermining of the 2006 plan of management is a transfer of the “management planning direction” for potentially, half of Kosciuszko National Park or perhaps over 300,000 hectares, from its ecological guardian managers, the rangers to this new Panel. The areas of the Wild Horse plan are not subject to the provisions of the traditional park plan of management. Protective conservation objectives; environmental planning procedures; and carefully designed zoning such as wilderness can all be removed for the “horse paddocks”. This adversarial legislation can dismantle the park as a protected area for the wild horse areas despite its proclamation as a national park.

The “Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill” also attacks Kosciusko’s status as a National Heritage Listed Property. National Heritage “recognises and protects Australia’s most valued natural, indigenous and historic heritage sites”. Kakadu, Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef and Kosciuszko are all National Heritage listed. They are the very best of Australia’s national heritage. Kosciuszko’s specific “National Heritage” listed values include its alpine, subalpine and montane ecosystems; unique and endangered cold climate plants and animals and precious water catchments. All of these listed values are, in 2018, being impacted by thousands of wild horses.

Similar adversarial legislated impacts to any Australian World Heritage Property would in most likelihood trigger the intervention of the Australian Government. An international concept for World Heritage properties, “World Heritage in Danger” would require the Australian Government to respond. This UNESCO World Heritage category recognises, for natural properties, threats such as a “serious decline in the population of endangered species” and the “severe deterioration of the natural beauty or scientific value of the property”. This is the very situation faced at Kosciuszko.

Despite the absence of a “National Heritage in Danger” equivalent concept for our country, there is an ethical and national responsibility for the Australian Government to respond to this political and ideological attack on Australia’s National Heritage. Any continued degradation to Kosciuszko, one of Australia’s greatest national parks, would be an environmental tragedy, an ecological tragedy for endangered Australian species and an unacceptable impact to the mountain water catchments. It is a precedent that is unacceptable for any of Australia’s National Heritage properties. It is legislation that undermines the delivery of high quality water from the mountains that is of national economic significance.

The implementation of the NSW Wild Horse Heritage Legislation will, through the destruction of habitat by too many wild horses, significantly impact the National Heritage values of Kosciuszko National Park. An appropriate intervention by the Commonwealth Government to protect these values would prevent further degradation of one of Australia’s greatest national parks. It would also provide reassurance that the concept of National Heritage protection is meaningful and that it can be applied in situations where our most important national heritage is threatened. Kosciuszko, as we know it today, does not have to be destroyed.

This article was first published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations on 4 July, 2018

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