Plans to encourage ecotourism in the state’s national parks have provoked alarm among the community, and concerns it could lead to inappropriate development that may jeopardise our most precious natural areas.
The state government’s proposal to allow ecotourism projects in national parks on Hinchinbrook Island, the Great Sandy National Park, and the Whitsundays has led to a backlash from members of the community who argue it leaves our unique protected areas exposed to commercial development.
The Queensland State government has invited expressions of interest for private development along iconic walks including the Thorsburne Trail, the Whitsunday Island Trail, and the Cooloola Great Walk, which could include ecotourism accommodation along those routes.
The issue exposes gaping holes in our current legislation, which allows for private development in national parks at the discretion of the government of the day.
Less than 5% of our state is contained in national parks – below any other state or territory. It’s vitally important they stay protected for future generations.
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How is private development permitted in National Parks?
The recent invitation by the Queensland government for expressions of interest for private ecotourism activities and development in the state’s national parks has raised a lot of community interest in how such private development can be permitted in these protected spaces.
Many of these areas are in, or on the doorsteps of, World Heritage Areas. These areas are recognised the world over for their outstanding values and attract thousands of visitors each year to Queensland. National park laws allow us to protect those areas of Queensland’s unique nature and culture that are so valuable they must be preserved for present and future generations.
The primary national parks law is the Nature Conservation Act 1992 (Qld) (NCA).
The object of the NCA is “the conservation of nature while allowing for the involvement of indigenous people in the management of protected areas in which they have an interest under Aboriginal tradition or Island custom”.
The ‘cardinal principle’ for the management of national parks is to “provide, to the greatest possible extent, for the permanent preservation of the area’s natural condition and the protection of the area’s cultural resources and values”.
Prior to 2013, the government could not issue leases or permits for ecotourism facilities in national parks under the NCA, the primary objective of these area was the conservation of nature.
However in 2013 the NCA was changed to allow the Government to permit an “ecotourism facility” in national parks.2 This permitting process can override the management principles and management plan for the national park.3
The government may require an applicant to undergo an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process to fully assess the impacts, but it is not mandatory to do so.
The approval of “ecotourism facilities” comes down to the subjective test of whether the chief executive of the Department of Environment and Science (DES), being the Director General, is satisfied the development:
- will be in the public interest;
- is ecologically sustainable; and
- will provide, to the greatest possible extent, for the preservation of the land’s natural condition and the protection of the land’s cultural resources and values.
Unlike normal planning approvals, there is no possibility of the community challenging the merits of the chief executive’s decision before an independent court.
Depending on the type, scale and location of development it may require further approvals under planning laws or federal laws, but again there is no guarantee any of these further processes will apply.
The government has published some guidelines around ecotourism facilities4 and the permitting process,5 but as there are few mandatory requirements in the NCA, there remains significant uncertainty about what will be permitted.
There are plenty of opportunities for commercial development adjacent to or near national parks that can still assist in providing greater access to these areas. We do not need to develop inside national park boundaries, that may jeopardise the parks themselves, except for the lowest impact development such as walking tracks.
EDO Qld recommends the government amends the NC Act urgently to clarify that only the lowest impact government-owned development can be allowed inside national parks as ‘ecotourism’. This legislative change to return the original, pre-2013, provisions will ensure there is no question that the unique natural and cultural values of Queensland’s most precious areas are conserved for present and future generations.
- National Parks Association of Qld Annual Report 2011/12 p3.
- Nature Conservation and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2013 and Nature Conservation and Other Legislation Amendment Act (No.2) 2013. EDO Qld opposed these changes at the time.
- NCA, s35(2), s15 and s34.
- Queensland Ecotourism Plan 2016-2020.
- Queensland Ecotourism Investment Opportunities – Implementation Framework.