Friday, March 12, 2010

WILDERNESS - Politics and Policy within the WA LIberal Party

Like most political parties, the Liberal Party in WA is a complex organisation, with lay and parliamentary members of varying abilitities and expertise acting to further their own or the party’s ambitions. After joining the party in 1984, I was elected the state MP for Vasse (a rural seat centred on Busselton in the south west of the state) in 1996, serving as a backbencher in the Richard Court government until the 2001 election when the Labor government was elected. Having a background in the environmental sciences, I was then appointed by then opposition leader Colin Barnett as the Liberal spokesman on science and the environment.

In the lead-up to the 2005 election, most shadow ministers were busy preparing policy or position statements that the Liberal Party could take to the election. In 2002 and 2003, I produced what I considered to be well-researched and argued documents on establishing an Invasive Species Council to tackle the problems of weeds and feral animals; a management strategy for the Ningaloo Marine Park and Cape Range National Park; a policy on reducing light emissions to the sky in urban environments (light spill); a proposal to introduce a levy to fund Natural Resource Management; a science policy; and a policy on wilderness in Western Australia.

Much to my surprise and frustration, several of these documents never saw the light of day. However, all became clear when I lost Liberal Party endorsement for the seat of Vasse in late 2003, to be replaced by Troy Buswell, a controversial figure who is now treasurer in the Liberal Nationals government that was elected in late 2008. Too late did I discover that certain of Buswell’s parliamentary supporters were actively working to deny me a public profile as a shadow minister, so that they could highlight my lack of public recognition as an argument against me during pre-selection, thereby encouraging delegates to vote for Buswell.

In early 2004, I resigned from the Liberal Party and stood against Buswell in the 2005 election, losing by 209 votes.

I produced the following draft position statement on wilderness in WA in September 2003. The reason why it remained hidden from public view may have been a result of the Liberal hierarchy believing it was not suitable to adopt as policy, although the most likely reason is as explained above – to deny me public exposure. Nonetheless, considering how little policy development has occurred on the important subject of wilderness in WA since the 2005 election, the issues outlined in the position statement remain valid today.


Defining the difference


A strong economy is dependent upon a healthy and diverse environment, but human impacts on the Australian environment now require a strong economy to properly manage our environmental assets. The need to find the correct balance between economic and environmental imperatives is urgent.

The Liberal Party has a long-standing commitment to the conservation of Western Australia’s natural heritage. The previous Coalition Government established five new national parks, five conservation reserves and 59 nature reserves to expand Western Australia’s conservation estate by 920,000 hectares. In addition, 2.6 million hectares of pastoral lands were acquired for conservation in the Gascoyne-Murchison and Pilbara regions.

Important natural areas should be protected from development, such as in National Parks or nature reserves, or through the voluntary actions of private landowners.

Wilderness is internationally defined as an area which is large, remote and natural. Wilderness areas provide significant social and environmental benefits, such as preservation of valuable ecosystems and biodiversity, while providing people with the opportunity to escape from modern society and “experience” nature.

Wilderness also has important implications for human access, tourism, mineral resource development and biodiversity management. These implications need to be fully understood and widely debated before wilderness areas are dedicated and locked away.

The benefits of wilderness

Wilderness areas are a unique part of the conservation estate. National Parks and other conservation reserves require active management and intervention, coupled with controls on activities which could compromise ecosystems. In contrast, wilderness is essentially left alone so that natural processes can occur almost totally free of human disturbance.

It has been argued that simply creating National Parks is not adequate to produce true “wilderness” conditions capable of providing authentic wilderness experiences free of permanent human structures and disturbance.

Wilderness issues

Identification and protection

In Western Australia, the Conservation and Land Management Act 1984 provides no criteria for wilderness identification. Classification of an area as wilderness can be made under the Act only if it is consistent with statutory management objectives for an area.

There is debate over the need to introduce dedicated wilderness legislation which would allow for the appropriate nomination, assessment, declaration, management and protection of wilderness areas. Such legislation exists in New South Wales and South Australia. However, controversy remains over identifying and protecting wilderness areas, with contention between conservation organisations and recreational groups, particularly with regard to levels of access and the amount of permitted disturbance.


Wilderness is a very restrictive form of land use. The absence of roads is a basic condition of wilderness areas, with no motorised vehicles allowed, no recreational use of animal transport and restrictions on aircraft.

These restrictions create “equity of access” and elitist problems. The disabled, elderly and very young would find it extremely difficult to appreciate these areas as access must be by foot or non-motorised boat. Even during emergencies, access by vehicles is often opposed. In the eastern states, scientific research has been stopped as a result of new wilderness areas being created.

Restrictions on mining

Resource utilisation is usually banned from wilderness areas. With WA-derived mineral and petroleum exports worth some $30 billion annually to the Australian economy, the impact on mineral resource developments cannot be lightly dismissed in any discussions concerning wilderness areas.

The mining industry believes that, although some environmental impact is an inevitable consequence of most mining and mineral exploration activities, the actual effects on the land are very small. Post-mining rehabilitation ensures that such activities do not compromise long term conservation values.


Western Australia is a unique holiday destination. According to the WA Tourism Commission, nature-based tourism generates around $3 billion annually for the State. About 60 per cent of visitors to WA travel to regional areas, supporting thousands of jobs in small and remote towns.

By restricting access to wilderness areas, tourism potential is also restricted. A vision for wilderness areas that allows for sustainable eco-tourism such as walk trails and other built features, but which otherwise enhances conservation of natural values, may be appropriate in some areas.

Management issues

While the “naturalness” of a wilderness area may suggest that a management plan is not needed, the existence of many threats to a wilderness area’s natural values will require on-going management. The potential for inappropriate fire regimes, feral animals and exotic weeds to affect wilderness areas has the capacity to irrevocably damage biodiversity and conservation values.

Access to wilderness areas is vital to undertake management actions such as fire suppression and pest control. Appropriate management actions would, however, be severely restricted by any limitations on the use of vehicles, as enforced in other wilderness areas.


It is generally accepted that the vegetation of Australia in 1788 was a result of complex Aboriginal burning practices, which had become a part of the natural system. Present day management of wilderness areas must therefore fully consider the future role of Indigenous people and fire in wilderness areas.

The loss to property, human life and natural areas through wildfires in Canberra and around Sydney has dramatically shown the impacts of wildfire in the Australian environment. In WA, last summer’s fire in the proposed Walpole Wilderness Park burnt out some 400 square kilometres.

Setting aside large tracts of land as wilderness without effective plans to deal with such situations invites the loss of natural values in both the short and long terms. Damage to habitats, whole ecosystems and surrounding property would be substantial.

The Labor approach

The Gallop Government’s recent draft wilderness policy statement, if implemented, would be bureaucratic, restrictive and expensive. It would also not protect most of the important natural values of wilderness areas since long-term management actions would be severely constrained.

For example, permission from the executive director of the Department of CALM would be required before a helicopter could gain emergency access to a wilderness area. Access for essential management actions such as fire control or weed eradication would require a costly and lengthy report to first be presented to the Conservation Commission.

Since no fire breaks would be allowed under this draft policy, the potential for the entire wilderness area to be burnt in a single wildfire would be high. In this situation, biodiversity and aesthetic values would be severely impacted, with localised extinction of species being highly probable.

Under Labor, establishment of wilderness areas would require closing and rehabilitating all vehicle tracks, walk trails, helipads and airstrips. Almost all recreational infrastructure would be removed, including campsites, signage and toilet facilities. Planes flying over wilderness areas would need to be at least 5,000 feet above the ground, while the question of a minimum distance from shore for boats moving past wilderness areas remains unanswered.

The way forward

A Liberal government would apply realistic priorities to the aims and management objectives of any wilderness area created in Western Australia. It would give highest priority to the protection and enhancement of biodiversity values. Wilderness areas would be carefully chosen to compliment the existing conservation estate, not replace it.

Indigenous people who have maintained their links to wilderness areas would be given appropriate responsibilities in wilderness management, including the use of fire, control of feral animals and weeds, and tourism opportunities. It would also allow appropriate Indigenous usage of wilderness areas using traditional methods while always ensuring protection of environmental values.

Strategic firebreaks would allow wide bands of bush to be regularly burnt so as to allow better control of wildfires. Key infrastructure facilities such as existing campsites and walking tracks would be retained but rationalised to better manage their use. For people who would otherwise be unable to access and enjoy wilderness areas, some eco-tourism opportunities would be provided, such as access by a small number of off-road personnel carriers for wilderness tours.

Selection of any new wilderness areas and the preparation of their management plans would require wide-ranging community consultation, including the involvement of existing recreational and other users of the proposed wilderness areas.

A Liberal government would oppose the Gallop Government’s elitist, restrictive and bureaucratic draft wilderness policy.


The WA Liberal Party acknowledges that creating wilderness areas can provide important social benefits and can preserve valuable ecosystems and bio-diversity. However, the protection of wilderness areas does not end with their gazetting. Money and expertise are required for these areas if they are to retain their wilderness qualities due to the on-going threats from feral animals, exotic pests, inappropriate fire regimes and, on a larger scale, climatic change. Already, funding for the environment is below acceptable levels, so any new wilderness areas would need to be adequately resourced.

Specific guidelines for the identification, recognition and management of wilderness areas need to be prepared, with the protection of bio-diversity as the primary for setting aside these areas.

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