nature’s wonderland on the frontline
Keith Muir, Wilderness advocate
Situated in the western Blue Mountains, the 30,000ha Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area is the heart of pagoda country and a wonderland of cultural and natural heritage. Unfortunately, its internationally rare pagoda landscapes overlie coal mines and now are slated for commercial tourism infrastructure development.
In 2019 the Gardens of Stone Alliance of conservation groups published Destination Pagoda to promote how the Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area could become a major visitor attraction for Lithgow.
Protecting nature and heritage
The Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area should be managed to protect:
- internationally rare and spectacular pagoda rock formations,
- many internationally endangered upland swamps,
- significant Aboriginal heritage,
- 84 threatened plant and animals species,
- 16 rare and threatened ecological communities,
- over 1,000 native plant species,
- 319 vertebrate animal species, and
- forested wind-blown sand dunes from the last ice age.
We were on the front foot, explaining how a big new Gardens of Stone reserve would benefit Lithgow as a gateway town. Pagodas would be Lithgow’s unique tourism cachet, drawing visitors to the new park. As a lower key version of Royal National Park, its accessible areas of gentle terrain would offer more family-friendly, nature-immersive experiences than the rugged gorges of the adjoining World Heritage Area counterpart with its steep walking tracks. It would be a winner for western Sydney. It would celebrate the national park idea, with its state conservation area status upgraded once coal mining ceased. A win for the community, workers and the environment, we said.
A few development slip ups…
Environment Minister, now Treasurer, Matt Kean, and several of his Ministerial colleagues were delighted with Destination Pagoda, but local Nationals member and Deputy Premier, Paul Toole wanted more. It seemed a reserve with compromises was coming.
Then in November 2021, after decades of effort, Premier Dominic Perrottet announced the new Gardens of Stone reserve with “$50 million to transform the area into an eco-tourism and eco-adventure destination”, that would include an iconic walk with accommodation and an adventure experience at Lost City.
The proclamation of the State Conservation Area was then delayed until May 2022 to secure Federal Government agreement to expend on future reserve management $28 million in environmental offsets that were made in compensation for coal mine-related swamp destruction. It was hoped the deal would stop further swamp abuse in the Gardens of Stone, but we now know Centennial Coal is planning to scuttle this intention through the introduction of longwall mining machines to the Clarence colliery where low intensity mining has successfully operated for over 30 years.
After this delay, a generic plan of management was apparently rushed through to facilitate commercial development. The reserve management plan was completed by November 2022, with details to be sorted out later in subordinate documents, such as a visitor access strategy and the visitor use Master Plan. The intentions of vehicle access strategy are sound, but it remains unpublished and won’t create a loop road necessary to make Lithgow a gateway town. An already upgraded two-wheel drive road from the old Zig Zag Railway Station in the east through a big new sand quarry offers the most direct vehicle access to the reserve, despite assurances to the contrary from Environment Minister James Griffin. This road enables visitors coming from Sydney and Katoomba to bypass Lithgow, removing the economic benefits for the regional economy.
The next surprise came over the summer holidays with public consultation for two commercial leases that revealed Experience Co as the parent company behind both the proposed adventure theme park and four accommodation resorts. This was a sham consultation with just 5 lines of details on each lease. Over 1,170 objections were made against these leases, half in the last 24 hours of exhibition indicating the strength of feeling against this “Christmas special” consultation.
If the NSW Government sign agreements for these leases with Experience Co, that could grant resource security over the reserve and may effectively pre-empt independent planning processes. And if these developments are approved, then the announced NSW Government multi-million-dollar infrastructure subsidies will flow. It all seems a rush for the money.
The impacts on the natural and cultural heritage of the reserve of the four proposed accommodation nodes or resorts will be large, as intact, remote, and scenic parts of the Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area are flagged for lease development. These sites appear contrary to NPWS sustainability guidelines that specify disturbed sites for new built development. If built, these resorts will seek to siphon off the highest paying tourists who might otherwise spend their money in the local community of Lithgow.
The proposals for the Lost City Adventure Precinct include ziplines, toilets, elevated walkways, bridges and via ferrata climbs that will cause a visual blight over Lithgow’s most scenic pagoda landscape. It denies the local community a chance to establish a scenic lookout as good as Echo Point, Katoomba, and appears to create a monopoly control over the site. The Lost City location also may put children at risk as Marrangaroo Military Base, which uses live ammunition and ordinance, is only 400 metres away.
This year, Deputy Premier Toole announced $3.5 million for 60+ kilometres of adventure and cross-country mountain bike trails. The announcement of this deal perhaps explains why the Master Plan for visitor management in the reserve has not been finalised.
Due to the inherently poor governance of the new flexible planning framework for this reserve, such media release announcements and backroom deals can continue to replace open, transparent park management processes. This new plan and its subordinate visitor use and access strategies have set bad precedents for future park management in NSW.
There’s no need for commercial accommodation or wow factor theme parks as nature is good enough and can provide endless low impact visitor opportunities. The subsidised high impact tourism proposals in this reserve will, if built, virtually guarantee delivery of “Destination White Elephant”, as it is doubtful sufficient funds will remain for environmental restoration and careful presentation. The Gardens of Stone is a natural wonderland with thrilling wild adventures, even for grandparents and kids. Both the Gardens of Stone and national park idea that puts nature first are worth fighting for. Go to www.gardensofstone.org.au for campaign actions and updates.
The National Parks Association of NSW has rejected the proposed leases and associated park developments. And has called for a public inquiry into the proposed Gardens of Stone leases.
What you can do:
Write to your local paper and NSW Parliamentarians (see contact details below).
Suggested points to raise in your letter:
- Exhibition over Christmas of commercial leases in the Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area with 5 lines of information that did not give the public a fair chance to comment on these leases,
- The NSW Government plans to build four exclusive accommodation facilities of up to 10 resort buildings each in remote and intact areas of the Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area.
- The Lost City theme park with its ziplines and via ferrata climbs that blight and monopolise access to Lithgow’s most scenic pagoda landscape.
- Cancellation of the current lease processes in the Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area.
- A public inquiry into why leases in this conservation reserve can be exhibited with virtually no information.
- Improved, low-key facilities for visitors and better promotion to encourage more public use, off-park accommodation and other services which will support local economies whilst avoiding more impacts to the Gardens of Stone.
- Nature-focused management that protects the Gardens of Stone’s scenic pagoda landscapes, and its native plants and animals, and complete protection of its nationally endangered upland swamps.
Blue Mountains Gazette
The Hon James Griffin
The Hon Penny Sharpe MLC
Contact your local member of the NSW Parliament and discuss your concerns.