PHOTOS (from top): If the climb is closed, will the sunset be enough? • The climb • Tourists at the Olgas (Kata Tjuta) • Will high fuel loads after big rains highten wildfire danger?
By ERWIN CHLANDA
A majority of the board controlling the nation’s greatest natural attraction of world-wide fame, Uluru – formerly Ayers Rock – must be nominated by “Nguraritja” – the Aboriginal traditional owners of the national park.
That board makes the “high level policy and strategic decisions about park management” carried out by Parks Australia which is an instrumentality of the Federal Government.
Parks Australia and that board are working “towards closure of the climb”.
“Consultation with Nguraritja will be in accordance with consultation protocols determined by the board and agreed with the Central Land Council.”
“Access to sites of significance may be restricted at the request of Nguraritja.”
These are some truths – inconvenient for many – about the management of the Rock and the Olgas, now referred to as Kata Tjuta. It’s all contained the park’s current 10-year management plan which has five more years to run.
We spent four months investigating issues around the park that are fundamentally impacting on Central Australia’s economy. At the end it boiled down to these questions:-
• Has the Federal Government, or the Minister, given instructions to Parks Australia about the formulation of its current 10 year plan, including the subject of climbing The Rock?
• If such instructions were given, please advise by whom, when and what they contained.
• If no such instructions were given, who is responsible for the content of the plan?
We did not get answers to these three questions from the Department of the Environment but it did tell us that the Minister had approved the plan on February 8, 2010.
The plan says the board is “is responsible for the content of the park’s plan of management”.
That Minister was erstwhile rock (the musical variety) star and ardent environmentalist, Peter Garrett, serving in the first Rudd Labor Government, and ultimately falling into disgrace over the pink batts fiasco.
As the plan has a shelf life till January 8, 2020 we were hoping to raise contentious issues with the current Minister, Greg Hunt.
As it turned out he had palmed off the responsibility for Parks Australia to Parliamentary Secretary Bob Baldwin.
Is the divisiveness of the climbing issue worth a review of the plan by the new government, we were going to ask him.
At first Mr Baldwin agreed to an interview but then we received an email from the department’s public affairs officer, Miranda Schooneveldt, who had been responding to our questions directed to Parks Australia all along: Mr Baldwin was not available to talk with us.
She continued telling us things we hadn’t asked for, while ignoring the questions that we had. Some of it is noteworthy.
Only six submissions were received on the drafting of the plan during a 44 day comment period in 2006.
During a 68 day comment period on the draft plan a total of 172 submissions were received.
“Many of these submissions commented on the possibility of closing the climb during the life of the plan, almost equally balanced for and against potential closure,” says Ms Schooneveldt.
A very small sample, but as no other endeavours were made, the closest we can get to ascertaining the public’s opinion.
“The plan was tabled in the Australian Parliament on February 2, 2010 for 15 sitting days, both in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and during this period there were no recommendations made to disallow the plan,” says Ms Schooneveldt.
So we’re stuck with it.
Tourism will be managed in accordance with the following principles, says the plan:–
• Nguraritja will guide the nature and pace of tourism developments in the park.
• Respect for Tjukurpa [Anangu traditional law, as defined in the plan] will underpin all park management tourism decisions.
This makes tourism and associated matters secondary considerations: there are three consultative committees, without decision making powers, to “assist” the board in making decisions on tourism, film and photography; and cultural heritage and scientific matters.
These committees “are created and operate under terms of reference determined by the Board”.
Access to sites of significance may be restricted at the request of the Nguraritja.
“In the past, many people have been injured and more than 30 people have died attempting to climb the very steep Uluru path”. No time frame given for this figure, no comparison with other tourist endeavours, but “there were no fatalities on the climb in the years 2002–2008”. Since then there has been only one fatality – in 2010.
The plan makes no bones about the intended permanent closure of the climb.
“For visitor safety, cultural, and environmental reasons the Director and the Board will work towards closure of the climb.”
Parks Australia will work with the tourism industry and Nguraritja to ensure that:–
• Visitors continue to be provided with a unique and rewarding experience of the park;
• the tourism industry has sufficient lead time to amend and advertise new itineraries;
• impacts on the tourism industry are minimised.
The climb will be permanently closed when:–
• the Board, in consultation with the tourism industry, is satisfied that adequate new visitor experiences have been successfully established;
• or the proportion of visitors climbing falls below 20%;
• or the cultural and natural experiences on offer are the critical factors when visitors make their decision to visit the park.
Parks Australia, of course, is in a prime position to accelerate achieving the second point, finding more and more reasons to temporarily close the climb.
Parks Australia has a niftily self-serving way of gauging public opinion: “Research was undertaken over a three-year period to assess visitors’ motivation for climbing Uluru, or choosing not to climb. The results showed that just over one-third of all visitors chose to climb, a high percentage of these being children.
“The review found that overall not being able to climb would not affect the decision to visit the park for the vast majority of visitors (98%).”
Note that the people surveyed were visitors. The survey tells us nothing about people who decided not to visit, likely to have been put off by the regimentation in place.
Parks Australia claim control not only what you are doing on the ground, but also in the air: “Commercial flights over the park below 3,000 metres (other than flights on approved flight paths to or from an airport) require approval from park management.”
Commercial filming and photography require a permit.
Exempt from that is what the management plan describes, in inverted commas, as “news of the day”.
Who determines what is “news of the day” (as in for publication in news media) and what is not?
Parks Australia appears to be claiming that call.
Journalists not inclined to be bluffed (including the writer) have pointed out to Parks – successfully – that a government instrumentality decreeing what’s news and what’s not is incompatible with democratic principles at play in Australia.
But many media susceptible to be bluffed just throw up their hands, and don’t go there.
In any case, Parks will make news work as cumbersome as they can get away with: “News reporters must be briefed by staff and comply with the film and photography guidelines.
“The Park Manager may set limits on the number of crews, photographers and sound recordists that are permitted in the park at any one time, depending on available resources.”
They would have had a melt-down during the Azaria tragedy.
The upshot is that The Rock misses out on hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free publicity around the world. But when the tourism trade is clearly an also-ran in the order of priority, who cares?
PAINTING AT LEFT – from the 2010 – 2020 management plan, which has the following caption: “The ‘Working Together’ painting by Jennifer Taylor: The central circle represents Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The twelve seated figures are the members of the Board of Management: four pairs of male and female Anangu (the brown) and four Piranpa (the white). They have surrounded the park with a yuu, a traditional windbreak. This is the protection that their decisions and policies provide both for the culture and the environment of the park, as well as for park visitors.
“Waiting and listening to the Board’s decisions are the Anangu and Piranpa rangers. The Anangu rangers are barefoot, representing their close connection with the land and knowledge derived from thousands of years of looking after the land. The Piranpa rangers wear shoes, representing their land management training and knowledge derived from European scientific traditions.
“Surrounding all are two more yuu (windbreaks) representing the protection and support of Tjukurpa (Anangu traditional law) and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which are working together to guide and protect the management of Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park.
“Undulating sand dunes and rich bushland circle the park.”