This is a guest article by Molly Manwill.
I was road tripping through Melbourne last month when I heard the “Great Forest National Park” (GFNP) mentioned on a local discussion station. Intrigued, but busily meandering through Melbourne traffic, I looked up the GFNP later that evening with the idea of visiting. I was surprised to see that it is simply a proposed park. Many national parks around the world were set up long ago, recognising the conservation and economic importance of natural areas. So as a conservationist and tourist in Victoria, it’s extremely interesting to see history in the making, the ongoing discussion from both sides, and also to develop my own view, purely from a tourist’s perspective, on this park.
The GFNP proposal stands to add 353,000 hectares of new protected forest to the 170,000 hectares already existing in the area. There are big arguments for the instatement of the new park, including conservation of the mountain ash ecosystem and especially conservation of flagship species such as the Leadbeater’s possum. Conservation also goes hand in hand with the tourism potential of the park, with visitors coming in and spending money to see species like the extremely cute possums.
Much of Melbourne’s drinking water catchment forms in the proposed park’s coverage and the proposals would protect this vital water supply, which is already under pressure. Health and spiritual benefits associated with nature are another important bonus to the increased park protection. Carbon storage is another reason to protect these areas, with programs even available to pay for this ecosystem service. Carbon storage has benefits beyond Victoria and even Australia – the violence of Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in August this year, has been attributed to climate change and there are pressing needs for global climate stabilisation and carbon sequestration.
However, with the designation of the proposed park, jobs associated with the logging of these areas would be lost. Coming from a farming background myself, I understand how daunting and scary this would be for families who rely on logging in these areas. A large company that commercially logs and sells hardwoods in the area is not only contesting the park, but also requires an increase in the amount of logging permitted to maintain expansion and to prevent the loss of around 280 local jobs.
There are arguments for and against the park that understandably impassion local residents who share a stake in the decision. Being a tourist and therefore having no stake in it, I can’t really comment on the topic further – but I can comment on an important perspective, considering that one of the biggest arguments for the park is the potential income from tourism.
Data from the Blue Mountains National Park Authority released for the year 2016-2017 suggested that the biggest majority of international visits to the Blue Mountains were from British tourists, aged 15-29. The most popular activities were visiting coffee shops and restaurants, visiting parks, bushwalking and rainforest walks. I fit into this demographic, and dutifully I journeyed to the Blue Mountains when I visited Sydney in 2015.
If I hadn't travelled through Melbourne with an Australian friend, I may not have visited the city with four seasons, but I would certainly have wanted to visit the national park with the tallest flowering plants in the world – the mountain ash – and with cute Australian wildlife like the Leadbeater’s possum. The popular demographic currently visiting the Blue Mountains is the Instagram generation in the era of “collect memories, not things”. That is, tourists visiting to trek and post their trendy mid-hike coffee on Instagram. Creating a vibrant, trending eco-park would be a huge draw to tourists wanting to get that “back to nature” selfie.
This may also be a wonderful time to add an element of rewilding to a newly formed park. It would be a fantastic opportunity to reintroduce species that will naturally “engineer” these landscapes for better ecosystem health. Researchers and scientific staff could then be employed to monitor these projects, adding data and findings to this highly regarded aspect of ecology. Lessons from Yellowstone show that natural reintroductions often have far-reaching positive impacts. Conservation has historically been about conserving species from extinction and this is as important as ever; however, rewilding brings fantastic opportunities to conserve many species at once, sustainably and long term.
The GFNP is an exciting opportunity for Australian wildlife populations and human populations. I think the proposal for this park presents wonderful opportunities: for new, modern tourist villages to evolve in the park, with lost logging jobs turning into roles as park rangers and hotel owners, creating a range of sustainable, innovative jobs and not only bringing tourists to the park, but to Melbourne.
Sydney has a network of easily reachable parks close to the city, and Melbourne has the scope to emulate this, but in a modern and innovative way. The proposals already in place, such as ziplines, skywalks and new campsites – to name only a few – suggest that this park will be the exciting, cool park for younger generations, but with the infrastructure set up for “grey nomads” as well. The GFNP could be an escape for tourists and city-weary Victorians alike wanting to see Australia’s wildlife the way it should be.
Molly Manwill is a conservationist with a passion for rewilding and sustainable development, and how these can work together. She loves making conservation issues accessible and involving community as much as possible.
Banner image courtesy of Molly Manwill.