Zipline? What zipline?

Obi Obi Gorge, Kondalilla National Park

For whatever reason, we have become engaged in the free-spirited, public protest movement of our youth. In the past few months we’ve been to more protest meetings and marches than in the past 20 years. They include a small but quietly outraged rally in Brisbane’s King George Square where men of the cloth appealed to the Federal Government to have compassion on the people seeking asylum in this country. There was much analysis of the Tory rhetoric about asylum seekers (the correct description is ‘irregulars,’ not “illegals”). We marched around a few city blocks, spotting people young and old we had either seen yesterday or not for a decade or two − not since the march to tell John Howard we did not want to send our troops to Iraq.
More recently, we fronted up on a dismal day in Maleny to mark the day 10 years ago that the infamous Deen brothers came to town and started clearing the site for the much-opposed Woolworths supermarket (we still won’t shop there). The local papers reported us as a small but vocal crowd.
What we don’t quite understand is why there has been no call to arms over a potent threat to the cardinal principle governing management of national parks. Almost three million Queenslanders are said to visit national parks every year – yet less than 5% of the State enjoys national park status. People visit national parks mainly to bush walk, bird watch, camp, swim and teach their kids about nature. They leave their trail bikes, quad bikes and dogs at home; they walk in and walk out and (hopefully), take their rubbish away with them. These simple pleasures, which do the most to ensure the wildlife in national parks is not overly-disturbed, are clearly not enough for the Queensland Government, which in October last year amended the State Conservation Act to allow commercial ventures into National Parks. This was ostensibly to allow cattle to graze in times of extreme drought.
But behind doors closed to the process of public debate, the government has been encouraging an “eco-tourism” venture in Kondalilla National Park, at Montville on the Sunshine Coast hinterland.
Expressions of interest were called last year from private operators to set up a Zip Line canopy “eco-tourism” experience. What is proposed is a line of steel cables traversing the tree canopy two kilometres down the Obi Obi Gorge. A Zip Line works not unlike a flying fox, where people kitted out in safety gear slide along cables at speeds of up to 80kmh to “cloud stations” – platforms fixed to eucalyptus trees at varying heights above the ground. In this case, a sketch on the department website (the best you will find), shows a dotted line zigzagging back and forth across the gorge. The experience is expected to cost punters $150 each. An information meeting in Montville in April was told that the Zip Line was expected to attract 20,000 people a year. It would cost about $3.8 million to construct and the successful proponent would likely be given a 15-year lease. There are successful Zip Lines around the world, including a handful in Australia, but none are located in our National Parks.
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman ‘opened up’ five national parks to allow cattle grazing at the end of 2013. Anyone who has been out west in Queensland over the last 12 months would find that hard to argue against as a temporary/emergency measure. But the “eco-tourism” proposal is something else again.
Expressions of interest campaigns are shrouded in “commercial-in-confidence” provisions, which effectively lock the public and the media out of the process. The information meeting panel had few insights beyond what anyone could glean from googling “Zip Line Obi Obi Gorge” and perusing the relevant government website. The process moved to Stage Two in January and this week Tourism Minister Jann Stuckey and National Park Minister Steve Dickson announced that the government had selected a preferred tenderer (Australian Canopy Zip Line Tours).
Minister Stuckey said she had asked the company to submit a more detailed proposal, ensuring “environmental checks and balances” are incorporated into the planning, design and operation of the zip line.
“Subject to the concept being fully assessed through this next stage, the Queensland Government, traditional owners, the Jinibara People, and Australian Zip Line Canopy Tours will work together to achieve the best possible outcome for all parties,’’ Ms Stuckey said in a statement.
The lack of detail and input locks out those most likely to object: residents of Montville and surrounds, environmental groups and those who believe national park status should permanently preserve the area’s natural condition as much as possible.
Concerns already raised about potential issues include irreversible changes to the canopy, noise impacts on wildlife and neighbours and a lack of public transport to the site. We could also ask why no other location was considered, although according to the government’s statement, the Kondalilla plan has been on the Sunshine Coast tourism agenda since 2009.
The first section of the 327ha Kondalilla National Park, now a focal point of the Great Walks network, was gazetted national park in 1945. The Department of Environment website notes that Kondalilla is home to eight species of wildlife which are rare, endangered or of cultural significance. Kondalilla’s lower altitude rainforest is of endangered conservation status, as less than 10% of this type of forest remains in south east Queensland.
Earlier this week, we asked Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt what interest Canberra would have in the Obi Obi Gorge proposal. A spokesman said (a) it has not been submitted to the Department and (b) projects likely to have a significant impact on a matter protected under national environment law, such as a threatened species, must be submitted (by the proponent) to the federal environment department to see whether federal assessment is needed.
All conservationists should be aware of the bigger picture. More people seem to be craving high risk experiences such as rock climbing, jet-boating, white-water rafting, skydiving, canyoning and abseiling. What’s next – paintball? Other States have already opened up some national parks to fossickers, prospectors and amateur hunters. Queensland’s foray into national parks goes much further, with private operators to build and manage a high-end adventure tourism experience not unlike bungee jumping.
For those of us who go to national parks to quietly observe wildlife, keep our hearts and lungs working, or just listen to nature doing its own thing, bringing a Zip Line into a national park is like doofers moving in next door to a yoga retreat.