Janine Kitson, Vice President, Colong Foundation for Wilderness

Spectacular rock formations, ever changing with the light, ragged outlines towering against the endless Australian sky.

The Gardens of Stone is a wonderland. Only two hours from Sydney, its accessible but unprotected public forests are found on the western edge of the Blue Mountains above Lithgow, adjoining the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

Photographers, bushwalkers and naturalists strive to capture, understand and explore its rare wildflowers, threatened wildlife, nationally endangered highland swamps and complex landscapes of ancient stone pinnacles, called pagodas. For generations these spectacular and constantly changing sandstone landscapes have been proposed for reservation, but now that struggle is reaching its dramatic climax.

The Gardens of Stone Alliance – formed in 2014 by the Lithgow Environment Group, Blue Mountains Conservation Society, and Colong Foundation for Wilderness – believes the region’s environmental and scenic values offer significant opportunities to a community hit hard by declining jobs in coal mining and power generation.

In 2015 they organised bushwalks for over two hundred photographers to the region. Unknown to them, they were following a tradition, dating back to the 19th Century, when photographers carried heavy cameras into the Blue Mountains to immortalise its beauty. More recently the legendary Henry Gold’s photographs perhaps ‘clinched’ World Heritage listing the Greater Blue Mountains in 2000.

The subsequent 2016 photographic exhibition also launched a heritage report, The Gardens of Stone Reserve Proposal: Towards National Heritage by Ian Brown. It highlighted the nationally and internationally significant heritage values of the remarkable Gardens of Stone region. Now, more on-ground action and a lavish lobby book are being planned.

The National Trust of Australia (NSW) recognised the importance of this campaign to protect the threatened parts of the Gardens of Stone when it awarded Best Advocacy Campaign for the 2017 National Trust Heritage Awards to the Alliance.

Yet the Gardens of Stone remains under threat. Its cliffs and pagodas have fallen; its swamps are drying out; its creeks have stopped flowing or brim with toxic mine water—all caused by excessive longwall coal mining.  A 39,000 hectare Gardens of Stone reserve proposal seeks to stop this damage.

The Alliance will fight for pure drinking water. It will seek to overturn the NSW Government’s new laws that allow the Springvale mine to continue polluting Sydney’s water catchment. Requiring the residents of Lithgow to drink treated water is not a solution.

Lithgow’s coal industry will be gone in twenty years. A transition policy is urgently needed. A Gardens of Stone reserve will not throw coal workers onto the scrap heap, but facilitate the transition to a healthier and diversified tourist economy. With protection of its outstanding heritage values, Lithgow has a bright and happy future.

A big, new, Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area is not a hard thing to do when much of the area is currently public forests. It will permit responsible underground coal mining that protects outstanding heritage values and water resources.

Join the Alliance. #ProtectGardensofStone – Its Sydney Action Group meets monthly – contact Keith Muir