Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Stockton Bight Sand Dunes by Mr Kevin Markwell [Newcastle Herald Thursday, 1st March 2001]

Mr Kevin Markwell

[Newcastle Herald Thursday, 1st March 2001]

The somewhat belated announcement by Premier Carr last week announcing a conservation area in the Stockton Bight was bound to be met with a mixed response, given the range of stakeholders with competing interests in this valuable area. Aboriginal groups, recreationists including four wheel drive enthusiasts, fisherfolk, birdwatchers and bushwalkers, conservationists, tour operators and mining companies each value Stockton Bight for different reasons and each seeks a particular form of relationship with it. Some of these relationships are in direct conflict with others and are difficult to resolve. There has, however, been a long standing intention by various conservation groups to have the area reserved as national park as far back at the early 1970s. Whilst Bob Carr signaled his intention to create a national park there in his first term of office, he may well have been rather too optimistic about resolving the various interests in this area so quickly.

However, by creating a conservation area comprising three types of protected natural area, that is, national park, state recreation area and regional park, together with land leased back from the Woromi people, the Government has recognised the complex task of accommodating competing interests while at the same time attempting to minimise environmental impact, as well as disturbances to the various user groups. No doubt, these ideals were also tempered by a generous dollop of political reality – four wheel drive enthusiasts and fisherfolk are becoming as politically astute these days as conservation groups, and to have proposed a form of land tenure which effectively ‘locked’ these groups out of the Stockton Bight area altogether would not have been very wise electorally. Significantly, the government has also recognised the interests of local Aboriginal people through the 800 hectares of land which will be leased back from the Woromi people, the guarantee of five field officer jobs for local Aboriginal people, and in the establishment of a Management Board which will involve both Aboriginal people and NPWS personnel. Whilst such arrangements have been in existence for some decades in the Northern Territory, NSW has only begun to formally involve Aboriginal people in park management comparatively recently.

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of visiting this incredible landscape stretching for about 30 kilometres from just north of Stockton, where the Sygna wreck lies quietly disintegrating, up to Birubi Point in the north, it might be difficult to understand what all the fuss has been about. I’m sure many of you will have glimpsed the peaks of the dunes as you drive up through Williamtown on your way to Port Stephens, but to really appreciate the area you have to venture into the active dune system itself. For most first-time visitors to the area, it would be the sheer size and extent of the sand dunes which would probably have the greatest impact. These massive forms, sculpted by the forces of wind and rain, immediately impose a sense of scale which one doesn’t easily experience in other local environments. You truly have a sense of being in a wild place made up of mobile sand dune, freshwater wetland and the cooler calmer woodlands and forests on the more sheltered and stable inner dunes. A diversity of native animal species inhabit these ecosystems, the presence of many given away by the impressions left by their feet as they move across the dunes in search of food or each other.

A group of students I took to the Bight last year as part of a fieldtrip investigating recreational use of natural areas in the Hunter region were literally staggered to think that such an awesome landscape existed so close to Newcastle, and yet virtually none had ever known that it existed. The spectacularly crisp contrast of the crest of an enormous white sand dune in stark relief against a cobalt blue sky is something that has to be seen to be believed. Imaginations are often magically liberated in such wild places, and my students spent their time on the dunes prowling over them trying to identify the marks left in the sand by the various animals which live there (the camel footprints really had them stumped), playing as if they were

young kids again, and sitting down in quiet contemplation, looking out across dune and scrub towards the Pacific Ocean. As a place for recreation and tourism activities, the Stockton Bight area has much to offer.

Managing the area will be far from an easy task, and ensuring the correct form of activity within each of these ‘zonings’ is likely to pose considerable problems for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, especially over such a relatively small piece of land. For example, dogs are permitted within regional parks, but are not permitted in national parks, so efforts to exclude dog owners from walking their pets within the national park, when they can do so in adjoining land designated as regional park will be difficult to enforce. Of course the native birds and lizards won’t understand the subtle differences in land tenure!

At the moment, however, the area is largely unknown by the majority of its residents. But, with the designation of the conservation area, this could change dramatically over the next few years. The area is bound to increase in significance to tour operators based in Newcastle and Port Stephens, and already camel rides, expeditions in huge four wheel drive trucks and trike rides are available. The demand for activities which involve a bit of risk in such an awesome landscape will no doubt grow rapidly, and there are dangers in this. Uncontrolled and unregulated, tourists and recreationists can cause severe and lasting damage to natural environments, particularly those which for whatever reason are a little more fragile than others. The Stockton Bight ecosystem is one such fragile environment, which is so vulnerable to the natural erosive powers of wind and rain, the effects of which can be exacerbated through unsuitable activities such as inappropriate vehicular access and use, overcrowding, and even trampling from too many bushwalkers. Of course the sense of being in a wild place is also shattered immediately by the sounds of four-wheel drive vehicles and by RAAF jets flying so low overhead, and it is no easy matter, as the government well knows, to manage the intrusiveness of sound!

Given that the local tourism industry (and the broader economy generally) is likely to benefit from the declaration of the conservation area, I would like to think that the local industry declares its support for ecologically sustainable forms of tourism in this area. I often feel that the tourism industry doesn’t play an active enough role in lobbying for the establishment and management of protected natural areas, even though it gains much from these areas. There are of course some innovative examples of tourism and environmental conservation working in partnership, and here I am referring to The Dream Project sponsored by key players in the Dolphin Tourism Industry of Port Stephens, and some of the more environmentally aware accommodation providers in the Dungog area, but I think there is more room for the tourism industry to support conservation efforts. Greater involvement by representatives of the tourism industry in the earlier stages of such proposals would I think establish a commitment to sustainable tourism and recreation initiatives. I remain optimistic that an achievable partnership between the various interest groups and stakeholders involved with Stockton Bight can be negotiated and that management of the variety of recreational and tourist activities can occur in a sustainable way, so as to ensure the long-term protection of this area’s significant natural and cultural values.

Kevin Markwell

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