It’s lauded as the last great stand of river red gums and a jewel of conservation, but many in the south of the state feel one of the newest NSW national parks is in disrepair.
The interim general manager of Murray River Council, Des Bilskie, who has worked up and down the Murray in his long career, laughs back in his seat if you ask if the 38,000ha Murray Valley National Park has been a success. “People don’t go there anymore,” he says. “They can’t take their dogs in, the fire trails have fallen into disrepair and the forest is re-seeding all over the place. There is so much timber on the ground it poses an extreme fire hazard with summer around the corner.”
Mr Bilskie’s sentiments are echoed among many locals frustrated they can’t collect as much firewood as they once did, or as easily because of overgrown trails (they can still obtain firewood licences), after the state forest became a national park in 2010. It’s a great logging resource sawmillers jettisoned from the park lick their lips over. Old time foresters say red gum forests are bigger than ever in modern history due to their high seeding rates. Sawmiller Ben Danckert, also a Nationals member, says he could turn his Gulpa mill at Deniliquin into a $100 million a year business again if logging was allowed. The timber is prized for its high-end furniture making. Danckert sees no room for a compromise on de-gazetting. “It’s National Party policy (to de-gazette the park) and they should follow it through.”
Instead of de-gazetting the park, think more of working with National Parks and government to look for wins that are there, there are sweet spots.
About 250 jobs disappeared from the logging industry in Mathoura, Barham and Deniliquin overnight when red gum logging was stopped. Danckert says the gazetting of the park was a stitch up political job between the then Labor government and the Greens for a preference deal in the city. Now the stakes have turned the other political way. The once safe Nationals seat of Murray, is on a political knife-edge after the recent by-election. Nationals winner Austin Evans promised in his campaign to de-gazette the park via a private member’s bill in NSW Parliament. He also wants a smaller national park, Oolambeyan, north of Deniliquin, home to the highly endangered plains-wanderer, to be de-gazetted.
The new Edward River mayor Norm Brennan put this warning to the Nationals if they don’t act on changing access to the parks: “we have to go to a state election in less than two years and if they (the Nationals) don’t deliver some positive outcomes, the Nationals will go under.” Brennan, like many, wants the park returned to state forest management. At the moment three Parks staff at Moama manage the park.
Brennan says the promised 50,000 a year visitor numbers to the park have not eventuated. The Mathoura visitors centre had 1680 people visit last month. Half of those people would visit the park. That puts annual visitation to Murray Valley National Park at about 15,000. Eco-tourists were not big spenders, Brennan says.
But it’s not all bad news. Visitor numbers to the Deniliquin region are rising. Brennan denies that the park is one of the attractions luring people, instead citing the Ute muster and a world class caravan park in Deni. But Oisin Sweeney, National Parks Association ecologist, says there’s no doubt a Murray Valley National Park experience is part of the overall tourist drawcard - and will only grow in stature. Sweeney denies Murray Valley is the outcome of a political stitch-up job. “It was the culmination of a 30-year effort by NPA and the Wilderness Society,” he says. “This is a very rare habitat, a jewel in the crown of red gum forests. These are big ecosystems of wetlands and forests and really, really important.” He says any de-gazetting of the National Park would make a mockery of Australia’s conservation reputation. Recently NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said there would be no commercial logging in national parks (The government though has approved a five-year thinning trial). There were ‘no plans’ to degazette the park, she said.
The issue is not cut and dry, says ecologist Matt Herring who works closely with Murray landholders to improve farm habitats for wildlife. Licensed logging could go ahead. After all, he says, at nearby Oolambeyan national park, sheep are grazed to help maintain pasture lands as a habitat for the plains-wanderer (only 2500 are left alive in the wild). “It is quite unrealistic to seek the de-gazetting of a national park,” Herring says. “On paper it doesn’t matter if it’s a national park or private land but that it is managed as well as it can be. I believe there can be a compromise between economic uses and protecting wildlife. Instead of calling for de-gazetting, I encourage people to work with the NPWS to seek a win-win situation.”