Bob Sneddon and Tony Hill, NPA members and former members of the South Coast Regional Advisory Council

In November 2016 Adventure Racing World Championships were held in South Coast Region national parks including Morton National Park and Budawang Wilderness.  Ninety-eight teams of four members made their way from one destination to another by foot and on bicycles along formed and unformed tracks that were chosen by their navigators as the fastest route.

Events such as this, especially when held in declared Wilderness Areas, are contrary to the intent and legality of the plans of management for these areas. The Act is specific: national parks and wilderness are for “appropriate” recreation.

The Budawangs Wilderness in southern Morton National Park (MNP) has long been known and acknowledged by NPWS and community to be highly vulnerable to environmental disturbance.  Until recently it has suffered significantly from decades of unregulated visitor interest. Sensitive vegetation was being spoiled, damaged or disappearing across key elements of habitat, caused by the increasing number of visitors, poorly located tracks and camping practices.

Fragile soils on steep slopes had become deep erosion gullies. Vegetation around overhangs was disappearing and campsites cleared for firewood. Around camp sites, and the camping caves in particular, the shallow soils were becoming fouled, unable to cope with increasing human waste.

When the Plan of Management (POM) for Morton National Park (2001) was in preparation, there was strong concern expressed by NPWS and the community, who had also recognised the vulnerable nature of the region’s sensitive landscape and the accumulated impact of unregulated use patterns. This lead to an action statement in the Morton National Park POM for the development of the “Budawangs Bushwalking and Camping Strategy”. Page 1 states;

“High visitor numbers and concentrated use in some areas have resulted in track proliferation, vegetation loss, erosion, water quality deterioration and other unacceptable impacts”.

Since then, the Budawangs has been the focus of concerted effort to address adverse visitor impacts.

The route of this recent event traversed terrain where environmental disturbances are well known to management.  The policies outlined in the Morton National Park, Budawang National Park Plan of Management (POM) October 2001, and the Bushwalking Strategy document are in clear conflict with the physical goals of the endurance event.  Page 13 of the Plan of Management states,

“priority will be given to protect significant natural and cultural values over visitor use, and all use will be ecologically sustainable” and “In heavily used parts of the Budawangs Wilderness walking tracks will be rationalised and limits will be placed on use for environmental reasons”.

Office of Environment and Heritage Orienteering and Rogaining Policies and Procedures, state:

4) Orienteering and rogaining events will not be permitted to take place in nature reserves, Aboriginal areas and historic sites due to the specific conservation requirements of these reserve categories.

5) In accordance with the Wilderness policy and the Events, Functions and Venues Policy, orienteering and rogaining events are not permitted in wilderness areas as they are not consistent with the management principles for wilderness.

Why then was the Budawangs Wilderness put forward and accepted as an appropriate venue for this event? What is the purpose of plans of management, policies and procedures if they are to ignored rather than be used as a tool to be used to stand up for the environment?

In recent times cycling in conservation areas has been the subject of considerable debate due to the concentrated nature of damage it inflicts on trails in locations not dedicated for the purpose.

Part of the route was along the Florance Head Trail, which is outside the declared Wilderness Area but within the National Park.  Recent advice from Defence Department has acknowledged the possibility of contamination with unexploded ordnance in the adjacent landscape and strict adherence to the Trail was required to ensure personal safety. Yet the route descended through the escarpment on an unformed track which required carrying bicycles into where it was also acknowledged the possible existence of unexploded ordnance.  The NSW NPWS are currently finishing a strategy to manage the Unexploded Ordnance, a legacy of 40 years of military training in the former Tianjara Artillery Training Area in the southern MNP and eastern Budawangs.

In 2005 the Australian Geographic featured the “Budawangs” which included strong input from NPWS field staff, and concluded that the Budawangs were simply being “loved to death”, they are wearing out. In 2007 the Bushwalking Strategy document was released. A key element was to limit the size of bushwalking parties to 12 members in day walk and 8 for overnight camping. As a POM action document, it would have the legal support of the POM process.

Planning for the event had been conducted over almost a year but kept secret from the community at large, including the NPWS Regional Community Advisory Committee, to ensure the participants would not be aware of the route to be followed. Had it been known, it would certainly have raised concern as the commitments embodied within the POM and the Bushwalking Camping Strategy document. Today National Parks and Wilderness are managed with a goal of balancing nature conservation and nature based recreation. Wilderness from a conservation perspective has a deeper value and meaning which stresses “appropriate” recreation and has a stronger focus on nature conservation.

The management process ahead to achieve safe, sensible, appropriate and sustainable use across these protected landscapes of the Budawangs can never be achieved without community commitment and an understanding and trust towards the agencies charged with the responsibility of its management. The decision to hold the event in this sensitive protected landscape will seriously impair any management headway achieved to date brought about by the Bushwalking Strategy and creates a precedent for future uses and events of a similar type.  The founding principles that National Parks and Wilderness were created to protect nature, the plans of management state what needs to be done and must be followed unless they are changed in an open and transparent manner.

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