Protecting Wilderness and National Parks

Saving Wilderness in the Southern Blue Mountains – 1861 to 2014

The rugged Blue Mountains wilderness is tied to the lives of the traditional owners who manage it. Their widespread occupation is evidenced in its occupation sites, rock shelters and rock platform engravings that extend back in time for at least 14,000 years.

While the traditional owners enjoy a holistic, spiritual relationship with the natural environment, modern immigrants and their descendants saw land as a resource, regarding the Blue Mountains as an unproductive and hostile wilderness. Over time this narrow perspective has evolved in fits and starts as the area became a venue for recreation, aesthetic appreciation and, more recently, scientific study.

The Blue Mountains is culturally significant to modern Australia because it is where a handful of astute and empathetic Australians, chose to stand up for nature. This engagement and concern led to the establishment of the early bush walking clubs and ultimately to the reservation of national parks and wilderness areas. Through this process the Blue Mountains, once seen as useless for economic exploitation, became appreciated for its intrinsic worth as precious bushland suitable for preservation in its own right.

The Blue Mountains is unique because the struggle for its preservation was conducted by volunteer community groups. These community-based conservation efforts have had five distinct phases:

  • The health-based movement of the 1870s that saw the establishment of small scenic site reserves and the construction of a track network for tourists from Sydney;
  • The bushwalker movement of the 1930s that established the first community-based nature conservation movement which in turn developed plans for large national parks with wilderness areas;
  • The green revolution of the 1960s when broad community support was organised for the earlier wilderness park vision;
  • The consolidation of wilderness protection in the 1990s and confirmation of the area's natural values through World Heritage listing;
  • Blue Mountains wilderness management in the 21st Century and its ongoing protection from many threats.

The health-based movement

Sydney in the 1870s experienced a major economic boom that saw a quadrupling of its population by 1901. This rapid growth combined with poor sanitary conditions led to a vigorous health movement that sought to improve community well-being. Outdoor recreation was an offshoot of this movement, seen as a counter to the adverse effects of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, air pollution and disease that were then rife in the inner suburbs of Sydney.

The arrival of the railway at Mt Victoria in 1868 and the perceived health properties of mountain air attracted large numbers of Sydney residents to the Blue Mountains villages looking for recreation. Walking was then an extremely popular activity with these holiday-makers who sought fresh air and exercise. In response hoteliers combined with community service groups across the Blue Mountains to establish a very extensive walking track system along the scenic cliff lines and into the valleys to cater for visitor needs.

As a result of this grassroots movement, a series of small reserves over lookout points and waterfalls were made by government surveyors to protect scenic areas for general public recreation, even in remote areas. Amongst the earliest reserves for recreation in NSW was the Jenolan Caves protected in 1861. Other reserves included the Tuglow Caves (1878) and Colong Caves (1899).

These tracks and reserves mark the commencement of the Sydney community's engagement with the conservation of the Blue Mountains and by 1880 citizens were petitioning Parliament for further reserves to protect the sights. Through such action the reserves and walking tracks were consolidated into the Blue Mountains Sights Reserves in 1917.

The longest track constructed in the Blue Mountains network is the 44 kilometre 'Six Foot Track' completed in 1884, connecting Katoomba with Jenolan Caves.

The Six Foot Track

This scenic walking track passes through the land of the Gundungurra and Gandangara people, who lived and followed their Dreaming pathways for thousands of years.

Since the Six Foot Track was built in 1884, it has inspired generations to make the three day walk from Katoomba to the popular Jenolan Caves. The track starts at the 'Explorer's Tree', where Gregory Blaxland, William Wentworth and William Lawson carved their initials before completing their crossing over the Blue Mountains in 1813. 

This historic walking track descends steeply down the cliff walls of Nellie's Glen, a cool, moist rainforest gully, named after an adventurous daughter of an early Katoomba businessman.

Here the track passes near a waterfall before entering the open forests of the Megalong Valley where it passes by the ruins of shale mining that worked the seams of Narrow Neck Peninsula until 1904.

The track descends to the Cox River and passes over a suspension bridge, built in 1991 and then climbs steeply toward the crest of the Black Range that offers spectacular views.

Finally the Six Foot Track descends through tall forests to the magnificent limestone caves at Jenolan, one of the largest underground cave systems in the world.

The bushwalker conservation movement

Many Sydney residents were introduced to the pleasures of walking through Blue Mountains bush and by the end of the first decade of the last century some were beginning to explore further afield, and so the art of overnight bushwalking developed. Among the first were Myles Dunphy and his friends who started exploratory walks through the southern Blue Mountains, initially from a Katoomba boarding house in 1910 on established tracks, then through the sparsely settled Burragorang Valley in 1912 and the following year into the Nattai, a fairly straight forward wilderness adventure from Picton to Mittagong following major streams.

In 1914 Myles and his friend Herbert [Bert] Gallop tackled more adventurous country through the spectacular Kowmung Valley. This was a seminal adventure and it led Myles to transform the Orizaba Tourist Club of his youth into the Mountains Trails Club so that others could share these experiences. This club virtually invented the art of bushwalking, and members designed their own equipment. Once the basic techniques of walking were mastered by the 1920s, the attention of these early bushwalkers turned to the preparation of detailed maps for walking and also the conservation of the remote and rugged areas through which they walked.

From 1924 onwards Dunphy began to prepare large national park proposals for the Blue Mountains and other important large natural areas, including Kosciuszko. This action was inspired by the many trips Dunphy and his walking friends made from 1908 to 1923 to the National Park, now Royal National Park. Over that time it became increasingly apparent to them that the management priority granted to car users made National Park far too small to maintain wilderness conditions, especially as it was poorly supervised. 

Being a highly skilled draughtsman his interest in maps led Dunphy to assist the Department of Lands to prepare a special walkers edition of the Blue Mountains and Burragorang Tourist map in 1932.  Through this association he was encouraged to table the 450,000 hectare national park plan over the same area.  This request triggered the formation of the National Parks and Primitive Areas Council, the first wilderness society in Australia, to promote the proposal. The Council had prominent members from leading bushwalking clubs, and it secured support from local councils in the Blue Mountains.  The Council then further promoted it through the publication of a special supplement to the Katoomba Daily in 1934.

However, without strong support in the NSW Parliament, the proposal languished, and alternative schemes, such as the Narrow Neck tourist road, began to make inroads into the park scheme. A few lesser category Crown reserves were created, centred on Kanangra Creek, but these led to road development in 1940 and the commencement of logging on Boyd Plateau. The first 'national park' reservation in the Blue Mountains did not happen until 1959, and it only covered 62,000 hectares.

The Couridjah Corridor and the Battle for Blue Gum

Situated on Little River in what is now the Nattai National Park, this sandstone canyon cradles what was the finest stand of Blue Gums in the Blue Mountains. The canyon is twelve kilometres long and was accessed by walkers from the now defunct Buxton Railway Station without a steep descent via Picton Lakes. It was popular with early camping walkers and their children until the end of the 1920s.

The forest was completely logged following the letter Myles Dunphy wrote to the Forestry Commission in the late 1920s alerting them to the magnificent stand decorating the gorge that he proposed protecting. The destruction of this forest was the most significant loss to early conservationists and it was an error not repeated in 1931 when action was taken to save Blue Gum Forest in the Grose Wilderness from being developed as a farm. This time conservation groups acted decisively buying out the licence over 16 hectares of forest, and only then was the Department of Lands asked to reserve the area, which they did in 1932.

Today the Couridjah Corridor has recovered much of its former glory, but it will be perhaps another hundred years before the majesty of this forest is fully restored.

The 1960s green revolution

Two threats to the Blue Mountains stimulated greater public awareness of the area: the proposal to mine limestone at Colong Caves in 1966 and plans a few years later to plant exotic pines on the Boyd Plateau. These campaigns marked a new era where the preservation of nature became a public issue, uniting people from all walks of life and political affiliations. The egalitarian bushwalkers had almost overnight spawned an egalitarian conservation movement with surprising political influence.

The Colong Caves campaign was the first politically focused high profile wilderness campaign in NSW. It was the first time shareholder rights were used to call a corporation to account over its environmental impacts. Such protests were necessary because the proposed mine was to be located at the focal point of a future national park but the NSW Government was remarkably unresponsive to community concern about this wilderness.

The Colong Caves story

The threat of limestone mining at Mt Colong above the Kowmung River in the southern Blue Mountains emerged in the mid-1960s. In May 1968 in response to this dire threat Milo Dunphy formed the Colong Committee to co-ordinate a spirited campaign to save the wilderness. Climbers, cavers and bushwalkers were involved from the start. 'Cave-ins' were organised to refute the claim by the minister for mines that there were no caves, there was a walk from Colong Caves to NSW Parliament and climbers abseiled off the Government Office Block to bring attention to the issue.

Surprisingly the Askin Government was the first 'pro-conservation' government in NSW and it hoped that the new national parks legislation introduced in 1967 would remove public pressure over the Colong Caves. However, despite the gazettal of the Kanangra-Boyd National Park in 1968 the new legislation did not protect the caves ensuring the Colong campaign became most prominent and sustained attack on any NSW Government over a single conservation issue. The mining leases at Mt Colong had been granted in 1967 with no public consultation, ignoring good alternative resources and overturning reserves created in 1891.

Like the Blue Gum campaign, conservationists again did not trust government, and dealt effectively with the mining company which agreed to hand in its mining leases if alternative limestone deposits were found. Alternative resources were proven to exist by consultant geologists commissioned by the Colong Committee and the leases were subsequently relinquished by the miner in 1972. 

The battle for Boyd Plateau also demonstrated that conservationists had to resolve land management problems for the government. Logging on Boyd Plateau had not stopped with the creation of Crown reserves in the 1930s, and by 1970 efforts to reserve the area as a national park intensified when a proposal emerged for a 2,000 hectare pine plantation. The proposal would have destroyed the last sub-alpine forest in central NSW but it required Federal Government funding.  This raised the profile of the Boyd debate to a national level. The newly established State Pollution Control Commission then hastily convened an investigation into the proposal and the Colong Committee commissioned its own ecological studies. The SPCC found the Boyd Plateau was not critical to the plantation program.

By this time, the NSW Labor Opposition had already come out strongly against the proposal and in the lead up to the 1975 state election the Liberal Minister for Lands and Forests, Milton Morris announced there would be no pine plantation on Boyd Plateau.

Consolidation of wilderness protection and World Heritage listing

The Colong Foundation decided to seek World Heritage listing for the Blue Mountains in 1984. The area had already been placed on the register Australia's National Estate in 1976 after Colong had engaged Michael Bell to define the area and assess its threats. Colong's World Heritage submission was published as a book, authored by Dr Geoff Mosley, and launched by Bob Carr in 1989.

As part of the campaign for World Heritage, a proposal for a Nattai National Park and wilderness area was prepared in 1987. Fortuitously, the reservation of the Warragamba Water Supply catchment in 1942 had protected the Nattai division of Myles Dunphy's 1932 park scheme. From the mid-1970s, however, development pressures from mining, a freeway north of Mittagong and several proposed developments for the Nattai Valley were beginning to encroach on the area.

How the Wilderness Act came about

The historic NSW Wilderness Act proclaimed in 1987 may well have had its origins on the banks of the Kowmung River. The story goes that a young and enthusiastic Bob Carr had just been made been made the new Minister for the Environment and shortly thereafter was persuaded by Milo Dunphy to join a party of bushwalkers traversing the Bulga-Denis Canyon in 1984. Milo's walk took Carr deep into the wilderness and no doubt the magic of the Kowmung played its part. He was to make many return visits to the River in the coming years, such was his delight but it was on this first trip that the germ of an idea was to have its birth.

Bob Carr like any idealistic Minister of the Crown no doubt desired to leave for posterity a lasting achievement. His boss, soon to retire Premier Neville Wran, was to famously say that when all else was forgotten, it would be Saving The Rainforest that would be remembered. So striding along the Kowmung River that afternoon with Pat Thompson of the Colong Foundation Pat burst out with the suggestion, "What we need Minister is a Wilderness Act!" As a keen student of American History, Carr was already familiar with their 1964 Wilderness Act and the idea put to him had an immediate impact. Carr needed little further convincing. He was after all in the heart of the wilderness and he could hear it calling!

In September 1991 the former Minister for Education, Dr Terry Metherell, who had controversially became an independent parliamentarian holding the balance of power in the Lower House put forward a Bill for a Nattai National Park on the suggestion of Milo Dunphy. The Bill was immediately adopted by the NSW Government so that the Nattai Wilderness became the first area protected under the NSW Wilderness Act 1987 in December 1991. Consideration of the longed for Kanangra-Boyd Wilderness, nominated by the Colong Foundation in 1988, was deferred in 1993 due to a proposal to raise the Warragamba Dam Wall, triggering a major campaign. In September the following year, Bob Carr, the Opposition Leader censured the Fahey Government in Parliament for breaching his promises on wilderness and committed Labor to protecting wilderness in NSW, including Kanangra. The Carr administration declared the Kanangra-Boyd Wilderness in 1997 and also extended national park and wilderness boundaries to the full supply level of Warragamba Dam, ruling out further dam development.

Another achievement associated with the World Heritage campaign was the construction of a transfer scheme to Winmalee that now diverts all sewage from Blue Mountains towns, cleansing Sydney's Warragamba catchment area. Given the various conservation campaigns, the path toward World Heritage listing was tortuous and often delayed, despite the listing proposal having almost universal public support.

Sixty-five years after the publication of Myles Dunphy's vision to protect the vast wilderness areas of the Blue Mountains the Greater Blue Mountains were inscribed on the World Heritage list on 29 November 2000. The Greater Blue Mountains were listed for their eucalypt diversity and as a living laboratory of natural biodiversity, including ancient plants, such as the Dwarf Mountain Pine found on the escarpment between Wentworth Falls and Katoomba.

Blue Mountains wilderness in the 21st Century - ongoing protection from many threats

Through several generations the southern Blue Mountains have seen a more caring relationship between the community and the natural world. The Blue Mountains towns, now a City within a World Heritage National Park, offer hope in the fight to retain strong conservation controls over constant pressure for urban expansion. A recent 11,000 hectare addition was made to the Nattai Wilderness further enhancing protection of Sydney's drinking water catchment. Yet while the Nattai is now well protected, the 29,000 hectare Murruin Wilderness to the north-west is not secure.

Sydney is renowned worldwide as a large city surrounded by a belt of wilderness-quality national parks and reserves. These National Parks, however, remain at risk from the tyrannies of self-interest, short-sightedness and the damaging effects of urban expansion. The NSW Government now desires to turn the Nepean floodplain into real estate, generating new calls to raise the Warragamba Dam wall that would in turn inundate wilderness and smother it in sediment. A second airport for Sydney at Badgerys Creek has been announced and will be less than five kilometres from the boundary of Blue Mountains National Park. If this new airport were built, flight paths will inevitably be diverted over wilderness, generating unacceptable noise pollution.

If the southern Blue Mountains wilderness is to survive long into the 21st Century it will need to maintain its status as a world-class centre of achievement in grassroots conservation. World and National Heritage listing is yet to result in a greater emphasis on reserve management, although the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute and the World Heritage Advisory Committee have progressed research and better recognition of the area's many heritage values.

Don't Raise the Dam

The proposal to raise the height of Warragamba Dam by 14 metres is unnecessary and environmentally damaging.

The existing dam and auxiliary spillway provides the necessary dam safety. Improved flood monitoring and lowering the full storage level would provide substantial flood management at a saving of more than $500 million.

Some of the amount saved could be used for comprehensive flood management plan, including voluntary purchase and/or re-location of low lying houses and other structures; removing them from the path of all floods, not just smaller floods as is the case with the 14 metre raising.

There will be no protection against large floods (one in 500 average, and higher) even if the dam is enlarged.

We are so lucky to have such precious wilderness as an integral part of the Sydney landscape but it can vanish in a moment. We must value these areas passionately and veto all harmful projects that threaten them.