The new Environment Minister Rob Stokes has made it clear that he would not be able to quickly resolve the 20 year debate between conservation groups and the State government over Wianamatta Regional Park.
Stokes stated that he agreed with the previous Environment Minister, Robyn Parks, that further community consultation is needed before the Park is developed.
This is a result of residents from Penrith and Blacktown City Councils becoming increasingly vocal in opposing the Park’s development. Their primary concern is that altering the environment will harm endangered Australian wildlife as well as the loved kangaroos and emus in the area. These residents are now lobbying for the site to be re-classified as a nature reserve.
The Greens representative for NSW, Dr Mehreen Faruqi, said “people were quite alright with the Regional Park scenario…but because of what’s happened recently I think the community has realised that it’s much better protected as a nature reserve…they’ve just moved that level of protection higher.”
A nature reserve classification would safeguard the land from any future development proposals.
Currently, the private development company Lend Lease manages the Park. They are in the process of building the suburbs of Ropes Crossing and Jordan Springs on land which used to be part of a 1535 hectare site. The Park now measures 900 hectares.
The St Mary’s Development Proposal created in 2002 stated that Lend Lease was to transfer the Park to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) as soon as possible after 2005. But in nine years, only 63 of the 900 hectares has been transferred.
According to a representative of the Environment Minister, Lend Lease and the State Government are “working to expedite the transfer of some of the land as soon as possible.” The land has not been transferred because Lend Lease still has to create easements to allow storm water to flow from nearby suburbs. There is no set time for when this will be completed, though another 300 hectares of land is expected to be transferred to NPWS this year.
However, Dr Faruqi voiced the concerns of many, saying “what the company…this is my suspicion, is trying to do is maximize development.”
Various residents have pointed to the declining number of kangaroos and emus in the area as evidence that development is already negatively effecting the environment. In the past decade, the number of kangaroos has dropped from about 4000 to 800.
Mr Peter Ridgeway, the Senior Biodiversity Officer at Greater Sydney Local Land Services, said it had become “public knowledge” that Lend Lease was unofficially culling emus as well by having the eggs destroyed.
The population of emus has also reduced, with only about 25 emus on the property now.
Lend Lease decided not to comment on these rumours. Mr Jonathan Sanders, the Area Manager for the Cumberland area with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) said the decline in emus was due to people in the community taking the eggs and increased predation.
There was a public outcry last year when NPWS granted Lend Lease permission to relocate two emus without community consultation. Lend Lease has said that this was because emus kept escaping the boundary fence.
Mr Geoff Brown, the president of the Western Sydney Conservation Alliance (WSCA) which was put together in an effort to preserve the Regional Park’s environment, said that this was an “excuse” to get rid of the emus. He said Lend Lease had the resources to maintain the fence if it was their priority. He believes the reason for getting rid of the emus is to prepare the site for development as a Regional Park.
The Masterplan for the Wianmatta Regional Park, created by the State Government in 2002 described how the land would be transformed into a publicly accessible, recreational space. Buildings which remain from the site’s days as a munitions factory are meant to be revitalized as picnic and barbeque areas while an amphitheatre, a kiosk and a car park may also be built. Walking and cycling tracks will also be created from existing pathways.
Mr Bart Basset, the Member for Londonderry, said that the “large parcel of land for the Western Suburbs of Sydney” was both for “recreation” and “protecting flora and fauna”.
The Masterplan states that a “sustainable population” of both emus and kangaroos will be maintained. But despite the plan being 12 years old, what qualifies as a “sustainable population” is still unknown.
Mr Basset said “that is up to the NPWS in consultation with whomever they feel is appropriate…to work out the right carrying capacity for the parcel of land that remains as a Regional Park.”
But Mr Ridgeway, who is an ecologist specializing in conservation and restoration, said that large populations of these wild animals are not suited to this vision of the Park. He said the 900 hectares “is only probably just enough to sustain a population of emus.”
The 900 hectares would not be the best environment for kangaroos and emus, which thrive in large, open, grass covered areas. These areas have been developed into the suburbs of Ropes Crossing and Jordan Springs. The animals have since moved into the Central Precinct which is also set to become a housing estate.
After the Central Precinct is complete they are expected to move near the creek flats.
Mr Ridgeway said “the science and the planning just do not match…They [Lend Lease and the State Government] have been thinking on the run instead of really sitting down at the beginning of the process and planning out what can actually be sustainable for this site.”
He said the plan for a Regional Park was out of touch with the values of the site. Instead, he said the best option was to protect the environment by reclassifying the land as a nature reserve, so that “the recreational values of the site are reasonably limited without heavily impacting on the wildlife.”
As a nature reserve, concerns for conservation would guide the management of the land. The natural environment would not be altered to make room for recreational activities.
Wianamatta Regional Park is home to a number of threatened species listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. It protects remnants of the critically endangered Cumberland Plain woodland vegetation, distinguished by a canopy of spotted and red gums and grasses, such as Kangaroo grass, covering the ground. Other endangered types of bush land including the Castlereagh, grey box and paperbark woodlands have also been recorded there.
There is also diverse native fauna in the site. The Cumberland Land Snail is listed as endangered, while the green and golden bell frog is threatened.
There are records of 34 Aboriginal sites of importance to the Darug people, as well as nine heritage sites from the land’s former days as a farm and munitions factory.
The kangaroos and emus are not threatened species, but have become close to the hearts of local residents. They are perhaps the last wild kangaroos and emus in the Sydney area.
“This is the last part of Sydney where you can get up in the morning, drive to work, guaranteed to see a kangaroo,” said Gavin, who has lived in Ropes Crossing for eight years. “When this [Ropes Crossing] was being developed the kids at school were loving it because the kangaroos go right up to the fences so they’d be able to see wildlife in Sydney, that’s just unthinkable… No one else in Sydney gets that kind of opportunity anymore.”
Mr Ridgeway said that a nature reserve is “managed for nature…So when you start writing up a management plan for the site…the only principle that’s meant to guide that is nature so you can have theoretically you can have a bike trail…a picnic area or something so long as it’s not inconsistent with that…you wouldn’t be able to clear woodland in a nature reserve to put in a picnic area.”
Dr Faruqi agrees with Mr Ridgeway, saying that a precautionary principle should guide the development of the site.
Referring to the impacts of development on land which is home to threatened species like Wianamatta Regional Park, Dr Faruqi said “we need to think longer term about those things…we should be…trying to look 50, 100 years into the future where the need for biodiversity will be much greater.”
A representative of the Environment Minister said that there is a large number of people who wish to see the Regional Park established.
But workshops held by Lend Lease with community members in late January and early February indicated that many people think the land should be a nature reserve.
There were two workshops, each attended by local residents, Geoff Brown representing WSCA and non-government organizations including the RSPCA.
Mr Ridgeway was there and said that the definitive conclusion from the workshops was that local residents want conservation prioritized.
“It really seemed to mostly be the locals who are pushing it…it was a lot of the Joe-blows who’ve lived for 50 years…who themselves said ‘look, we want it to be a nature reserve’,” he said. “Some of those people actually don’t want public access at all.”
The community also does not trust Lend Lease to manage the animals correctly and wants the land handed over to the NPWS as soon as possible.
Dr Faruqi said “the community and the Greens don’t believe that they [Lend Lease] are the best people to look after animals…really it should be the responsibility of the Government.”
The WSCA has set up a Facebook page to showcase the support for a nature reserve, which currently has 108 likes. A Change.org petition to classify the site as a nature reserve has gained 830 signatories.
Despite this opposition to the Regional Park, Mr Basset said he believes only “a section of the community” feel this way.
“The majority of the public, I believe, want to have an area that they have access to and also know that the wildlife is being looked after,” he said.
Mr Sanders said that people in the community have been misguided about the Regional Park development.
“If I do have…a frustration with the conservation alliance, it’s probably that on occasions they basically come out with some really wild statements that are not very well substantiated.”
One of the most wild statements, he said, is that the area “is the most important reserve for Cumberland Plain Woodland…it’s not.”
He said “Cumberland plain woodland is important but in a conservation sense it’s a relatively minor piece of the conservation values [of the site]… the most important conservation values of this are the alluvial woodlands.”
He said any development in the Regional Park will be limited to the previous environmental “footprint”.
“If there was a building there then that’s a candidate area where you might put a picnic shed or something like that…we’re not going to go in and take a piece of bush land and clear it to put in a picnic shed…the places that haven’t been touched won’t be touched.
“There are sections of the future regional park which will receive management that is in no way any different to nature reserve management.”
He said that the kangaroo and emu populations would have to be tightly controlled.
“The kangaroos themselves have relatively low conservation value…if there weren’t any kangaroos there…that would make virtually no difference to the actual nature conservation value.”
“Some ongoing relocation of emus is probably going to be the situation that is required,” he said.
How kangaroos would be managed is still unknown and is not likely to be known until the definition of a “sustainable population” is decided.
Mr Sanders does agree that there are some issues regarding the conservation of animals that still need to be figured out. One problem is that the development agreement shows several roads which cut through the Park. This will limit the ability of animals to move around the Park to find food and potentially increases the likelihood of inbreeding.
Mr Sanders said there are ways the lack of connectivity between areas can be resolved, including building corridors for animals on the ground and aerial track ways for possums.
Mr Ridgeway dismissed the idea of building corridors and bridges as “nonsense”. He said it would not be possible to build secure pathways for large creatures like emus and kangaroos.
Mr Sanders is also adamant that residents for the nature reserve do not know that this classification would prevent them from accessing the land.
“There are some very vocal people who are wedded to the idea of a nature reserve. The most vocal people…don’t actually understand that a nature reserve does not provide for public visitation…in fact if you talk to them the impression you get is that they think what will happen is you can make it a nature reserve and then they will go and visit it.
“If you made it a nature reserve you’re effectively… [saying] ‘you’re not allowed to go in there.’”
Mr Brown and Mr Ridgeway have both said this is not what ‘nature reserve’ means. They say the nature reserve they envision does not exclude human interaction with the environment, but that a concern for conservation limits what people are able to do there.
Mr Brown said “we’re not saying people can’t walk [in the site]. We’re just saying people just can’t go and light barbeques and kick footies around and, you know, have blaring music and have weddings in there.”
Mr Ridgeway said it should be “managed in a way to let people go through and appreciate it and enjoy it, but not with trail bikes and not with clearing.”
Despite Mr Sander’s and NPWS’s assertions that conservation will guide the park’s development, Mr Ridgeway doubts that it will be made the highest priority.
Mr Sander’s said that the fact that any of the land was “saved from housing is actually outstanding” given the growing demand for residences in Sydney.