Local residents of Dungog, a small country town in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, held a celebratory nature walk on Sunday after they received assurance that their local forest was deemed worthy of "enduring protection." Previously, a proposal before the NSW government to log over one million hectares of protected national park forests had caused alarm among nature conservationists.
To celebrate the continued protection of national parks in NSW, a free guided walk was held on Sunday in the Black Bulga Range Conservation Area. This family-friendly nature ramble meandered along the mountain's ridge, with locals enjoying the forest, sharing a cup of billy tea and knowledge about the local forest's ecology and history. The physical presence of the locals in the forest demonstrated their continued use of this area and the importance of national parks for the community.
Since early 2012, the possibility of logging for commercial timber in NSW national parks had been emerging. A state government inquiry on the management of public land in NSW received submissions and evidence from both the Australian and NSW Forest Products Associations (FPA). The FPA's recommendation to "tenure swap" between national parks and state forests in order to sustain the timber industry were included in the final governmental report.
The process began in April 2012 when the NSW Legislative Council —the upper house of the parliament of NSW— established an inquiry into the management of public land in New South Wales, conducted by the General Purpose Standing Committee No. 5. According to a media release from the Legislative Council at the time, the primary purpose of the inquiry was to "scrutinise the management of the State's public land and review the process and impact of converting Crown Land, State Forests or agricultural land into National Park estate."
By August that year, the committee had received a recommendation from Mr. Grant Johnson of the Australian Forests Products Association for the "re-introduction of harvesting activities in forest areas previously set aside for conservation." The following month, Mr. Johnson and Mr Russell Alan Ainley, Executive Director, NSW Forest Products Association, were invited before the committee. At this hearing, the chair, Mr. R. L. Brown, member for the Shooters and Fishers Party, asked Mr. Ainley for "a calculation of the area currently in [national parks] reserve that would need to be returned [to state forest] to be available for timber extraction". In response, Mr. Ainley suggested "a little more than one million hectares."
On May 15, the NSW Legislative Council published a Final Report on the management of public land in New South Wales. Among its key recommendations was that "the NSW Government immediately identify appropriate reserved areas for release to meet the levels of wood supply needed to sustain the timber industry, and that the NSW Government take priority action to release these areas, if necessary by a 'tenure swap' between national park estate and State forests. In particular, urgent action is required for the timber industry in the Pilliga region."
A "tenure swap" would reserve areas of NSW state forest where logging is now allowed, in exchange for opening areas of national parks for logging.
Environment groups such as The Nature Conservation Council of NSW and The Wilderness Society announced that these government documents signaled an immediate threat of logging in national parks in NSW. This information raised concerns of other community and activist groups because logging is not conducted in national parks in Australia. According to the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water, a national park is an area designated to "protect Australia's plants, animals, ecosystems, unique geology and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultural connections to the land."
The Black Bulga State Conservation Area was one of many parks listed by the environment group Save Your National Parks as potentially vulnerable for "tenure swap". This forest covers 1554 hectares and connects Dungog Shire to the World Heritage listed Barrington Tops National Park, part of a green corridor from the ocean to the mountains.
Residents living near the forest were concerned by the proposal for logging in their area. A local information day held in June, at the Settlers Arms, Dungog, motivated local action. As a consequence of the event, over forty hand-written letters were posted to the Premier and local MPs. In a recent reply from the NSW government, the Minister for the Environment, Robyn Parker, stated: "The Government does not support commercial logging in national parks and reserves, including Black Bulga State Conservation Area, and has no plans to allow it. The NSW Government recognises that our national parks and reserves are special and unique places that deserve enduring protection. The Government is committed to their important role in conserving native flora and fauna and cultural heritage, and to improving community well-being through increased opportunities for recreation and tourism".
As reported in the Dungog Chronicle, Jo New of the Black Bulga Range Action Group was thrilled by the government's response to a community-driven campaign. "It goes to show what a wonderful impact local people can have after they do something simple, like posting a letter".