It takes a lot to get Friends of Parks volunteers fired up.
Protesting and holding placards is not really their style. They are far more used to being away from the limelight; maintaining tracks, replanting trees, surveying threatened species or helping park visitors.
So, the sight of hundreds of angry Friends from dozens of groups across the state on the steps of Parliament House earlier this year was a clear sign that something was not right.
The cause of the uproar was the proposal to locate luxury accommodation in previously untouched parts of Kangaroo Island.
The recent announcement of the final planning approval for the proposed development has been met with dismay and anger, not just from Friends of Parks, but by the many South Australians who love KI as a patch of unspoilt wonder.
For those of you unfamiliar with this story, here is a brief recap.
A few years ago, the KI Wilderness Trail was created in the spectacular and rugged south-west corner of the Flinders Chase National Park.
As the trail takes a number of days to hike, accommodation options sprang up alongside.
The park’s management plan included the option of developing upmarket ‘eco-style glamping’ tents next to the Trail, and the previous Labor Government went out to tender for a company to develop this option.
The Australian Walking Company was the successful bidder who was gifted an extraordinary $916,000 to develop their plans.
But instead of sticking to the rules, AWC proposed a radically different accommodation offering, three kilometres away from the track, right in the middle of previously untouched wilderness overlooking a spectacular bay that has been a favourite wild place for countless visitors for decades.
This development includes a 10-metre long ‘dining hall’ and will require new access roads and tracks to service it.
Yet instead of rejecting the company’s ambit over-reach, the Environment Department facilitated the development behind closed doors, thereby excluding the general public and the hard working local Friends group who had been looking after this special place on behalf of all of us for years.
When the group found out they were devastated, especially as they were in the midst of planning a centenary celebration for Flinders Chase on behalf of the Department.
Remember, this is not private land, but a public national park that has been set aside for the last hundred years for ‘nature and heritage conservation purposes’.
In fact, the Friends were so upset, they took the unprecedented step of going out on strike – the first time this has ever happened, and the rest of the Friends groups on the Island followed suit.
The final decision as to whether this proposal will proceed now rests with Environment Minister David Speirs.
As a former Friends park volunteer himself he faces a terrible dilemma.
To ignore the legitimate concerns of the Friends will alienate the thousands of volunteers he relies on to look after the Parks network. With major cutbacks in the Environment Department he can’t afford to lose this essential workforce.
And approving the destruction of a wilderness area in the middle of one of our oldest and best loved National Parks is not a welcome legacy for any Environment Minister.
The fight is far from over. The local community, led by Eco-Action KI, has crowdfunded a war chest to fight this development in the courts. There is no way they are giving up.
There is a much easier option, however. It’s not too late for the government to work with the company to consider alternative options closer to the Trail - just as the Management Plan of the Park intended.
It will still be a truly spectacular tourism offering, but this time it will have the community and Friends onside.
As more tourist facilities are planned for our public parks, a reset now will send a clear message that the Government has got the balance right, and they have learnt the lesson that all South Australians deserve a say in how our National Parks are managed.
After all, it’s land we all hold in trust for future generations.
Conservation SA Chief Executive
2 August 2019