Dr Geoff Mosley

Around Australia conservationists are increasingly aware that past gains in heritage protection are under siege. Unfortunately, in one important case, the move has gone past that stage and heritage protection has been removed. On 21st June 2018 six environmentally significant coastal reserves on Norfolk Island were removed from the Commonwealth Heritage List without any prior public notification and without any opportunity for the public to comment. The public reserves removed from the List were Anson Bay, Ball Bay, Bumbora, Hundred Acres, Point Ross and Two Chimneys Reserve and Escarpment that had all been added to the Commonwealth Heritage List on 22nd June 2004 under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Ac 1999 (Cth). They were removed from the Commonwealth Heritage List on the basis that the land was no longer owned or leased by the Commonwealth. No management plans had been developed under the Commonwealth legislation for any of the delisted reserves. It is understood that the transfers (and hence their delisting) are covered by the 30 June 2016 Transfer of Lands Ordinance. The Norfolk Island Regional Council was established on 1st July 2016. Regardless of the legal technicalities of the decision the lack of transparency is worrying. Two coastal reserves on the Commonwealth Heritage List, the Selwyn and Cascade Reserves, remain on the List as do Nepean and Philip Islands.

The heritage significance of these reserves is considerable both in terms of their history and their contribution to the protection of Norfolk Island’s flora and fauna. The first major coastal reserve in Australian history was that established by the Norfolk Island Superintendent Lieutenant Philip Gidley King. The reservation, encompassing almost the entire Norfolk Island coastline, is shown on the map ‘Settler’s Lots on Norfolk Island 1796’.  Explaining his decision for establishing the reserve, King wrote in his diary how some of the settlers had cleared ground near the coast and how it was therefore necessary to forbid any more clearing and to “have considerable space left between them and the sea in order to shelter them from the blighting effects of the Sea Winds”. He believed that the natural vegetation would then return and it did.

This recognition of the importance of protecting the coastline was reinforced on the arrival of the Pitcairn settlers in 1856. Welcoming the new arrivals, Captain Stephen Fremantle, in a proclamation read out to them, said “the whole of the coastline, including the jetties and reserves made throughout the Island are to be reserved as public property”. Over the next 160 years a total of 20 public reserves were established on Norfolk Island, the majority of them on the coastline. Over this long period the reserves have met the recreational needs of Norfolk Islanders and visitors for activities such as picnics, camping and enjoying the scenic wonders of the cliffs and offshore islands.

Efforts to ensure that these coastal reserves had the level of national protection that they deserve have been considerable. In October 1980 the individual public reserves were placed on the Register of the National Estate. In 1995/96 an extended coastal area, linking the public reserves (as in the 1796 reserve), was nominated for the Register of the National Estate but not assessed for inclusion on the Register (instead placed on the ’Indicative List’). After the Register was abandoned as a protection measure the individual reserves were nominated first in September 2003 for the Commonwealth Heritage List, then in October 2004 for a Commonwealth in Danger List. It was the threat of the proposal to transfer the reserves out of Commonwealth ownership that was the reason for the Commonwealth in Danger nominations but this had no immediate effect because the transfers were delayed.

The removal of the majority of the public reserves on the Norfolk Island coast from the Commonwealth Heritage List seriously reduces the level of heritage protection available for both the cultural landscape and their nature conservation values. Regardless of the issue of ownership, and whether it can be argued that the Act did not require public consultation, for the transfer and delisting, clearly such a significant process should be more transparent. The Selwyn and Cascade Reserves on the coast and Nepean and Philip Islands have retained their Commonwealth Heritage List status because the Commonwealth continues to own the land. Should that option not have been available for the six delisted reserves? This event has exposed a major flaw in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and needs to be remedied. One possibility, given the lack of public consultation, is for the decisions to be withdrawn and a more transparent process followed. Another is for the delisted reserves to be nominated and assessed for inclusion on the National Heritage List.

In addition, careful consideration needs to be given to the inclusion of the main part of the Norfolk Island National Park and the Botanic Garden in the Commonwealth Heritage List (the Philip Island part of the National Park is already so listed). These places, along with the coastal reserves, are of importance for their cultural and natural values to all Australians and to ignore this is a major heritage injustice. Norfolk Islanders are rightly proud of the way their efforts over many generations have also brought prestige and status to the Island, helping to make it a place very well worth visiting.

This issue should be of particular interest to conservationists and history groups in New South Wales because up until federation in 1901 Norfolk Island was a part of the Colony of New South Wales. It is also worth mentioning in closing that the New South Wales Strategic Framework is now being applied to the long term planning of Norfolk Island.

Geoff Mosley has been involved with the protection of Norfolk Island’s heritage for over 50 years and prepared the National Estate, Commonwealth Heritage and Commonwealth Heritage in Danger nominations with considerable help from Norfolk Islanders. He was CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation from 1973 to 1986 and a member of the ACF Council for 28 years.

1796 map of Norfolk Island showing coastal reserve

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