How the West could be bought and sold
Words by Tim Baker
Changes to WA’s pastoral leases may impact some of Australian surfing’s most prized coastline.
All pastoral leases in WA are set to expire in 2015, and negotiations are underway to determine the future of these vast tracks of land.
Pastoral leases comprise 35% of WA’s total land area, and much of it fronts the coast. In particular, several pastoral leases border the wave-rich, mid-west coast, north of Carnarvon. Sometimes referred to as the Quobba or Ningaloo Coast, it has been a favourite haunt of surfers and fishermen for decades.
There is great debate in WA at the moment over what will happen when the pastoral leases expire. Many of these leases were struck 100 years ago or more in a very different world, when the still new colony of Australia was keen to lease potential farming land to anyone keen enough to run livestock on it.
The first incursions of surfers and fishermen into this area in the ‘60s and ‘70s were met by padlocked gates and protective farmers with rifles drawn. Today, many of these pastoralalists derive a growing proportion of their income from tourism. Quobba, Gnaraloo, Warroora and Ningaloo stations all offer low-key camping and station stays along this coastline.
The WA Department of Regional Development and Lands recently released a discussion paper, Rangelands Tenure Options, to determine the future of Pastoral Leases. And some of its proposals are making recreational users of this coast nervous. Among the options it presents is the granting of “perpetual pastoral leases,” to provide lease-holders with security of tenure to invest in infrastructure.
“Tenure options may be able to be taken up by pastoral lessees, new investors and/or for joint investment,” the discussion paper explains. Perpetual leases are likely to attract the interest of developers keen to profit from this coast that is one of the last bastions of affordable, wilderness surfing holidays.
Professor Andy Short, one of Australia’s leading marine scientists and a driving force behind the National Surfing Reserves movement, finds the prospect of perpetual leases alarming.
“That would be very negative. Essentially you’re giving them freehold title,” he says. “It’s crown land that the leases are on, it belongs to us. There’s no reason they should go on occupying the whole lot. The coastal strip should be returned to the people and be managed by the community as a coastal national park.”
It is a sentiment echoed by many long-time users of this coast. Yet with cash-strapped governments always looking for new sources of revenue, and a Liberal state government in power in WA, the rights of recreational users are unlikely to hold sway. “While the Liberals are in its’ going to lean towards the pastoralists,” Professor Short predicts.
The recent World Heritage listing of Ningaloo Reef has shone a spotlight on coastal management practices in the area. Searching questions are being asked about waste management strategies at some makeshift campsites, and the wisdom of allowing camping and four-wheel driving in fragile dunal systems.
Initially, the WA government wanted to resume all coastal land in a two kilometre strip along the Ningaloo Coast. Leaseholders like Tim Meacham on Quobba Station argued this two kilometre ribbon accounted for 10% of his total land area, but 40% of his prime grazing land and would make the station unviable.
“A review of the original two kilometre exclusion was agreed to by the Minister for Lands, the Minister for Environment and the Minister for Planning in October 2010, with a view to a reduced exclusion,” says a spokesperson for the Department of Regional Development and Lands.
Negotiations are ongoing to determine how much coastal land the stations will have to surrender and what that means for the existing coastal campgrounds so beloved of surfers. In practice, some sort of joint management regime is likely, as government agencies simply do not have the resources to manage this much coastline.
At Gnaraloo, station staff have been made honorary Coastal and Land Management officers. Station owner Paul Richarson is adamant nothing should change at Three Mile Camp, though he is developing cabins and other accommodation at the nearby homestead.
“What would be good is if people come in 20 years time and bring their kids and say, this is exactly the way it was,” says Paul, an Irishman who neither surfs nor fishes. He happened to snap up the pastoral lease when it was going cheap six years ago, when the previous Japanese owners fell out with their Australian partners. “Irish management regime, nothing should change, the vibe should be the same,” he says.
Despite these assurances, Richardson has earnt the mistrust of some local surfers, over Rip Curl’s failed plan for a Search event at Gnaraloo and his opposition to a proposed National Surfing Reserve.
The North-West Surfers Alliance collected over 3000 signatures in opposition to the Rip Curl event and it never went ahead. But Richardson hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a future contest at Gnaraloo. And his opposition to the National Surfing Reserve has many surfers up in arms.
“It’s the first location we’ve had serious resistance,” says NSR founder, Brad Farmer.
“Places like Lennox Head where you’ve got residential development encircling the area, there may be some sort of need to have that in that area, “ Richardson argues. “But out here you can’t (develop). Nobody’s going to do anything out there because they can’t do anything out there ... It was going to be a purely political forum for people who have nothing to do with the management and running of the place to stand up and say, we’re going to make you do this,” he claims.
Surfers are also concerned that other coastal stations like Warroora and Ningaloo are now charging day fees of up to $7.50 for visitors to access their coast. Pastoralists argue the fee is justified because they are responsible for maintaining the roads on their properties. Local users say there is no transparency in how the fees are spent and the charges go beyond the costs of maintaining roads. It is a measure of the mood in the west at the moment that none of these local surfers want to be identified or quoted.
Ray de Jong works for the Department of Environment and Conservation at Cape Range National Park, on the Ningaloo Coast. He is also a keen surfer and is in a good position to appreciate the varying points of view on coastal management here.
“We need proper waste management. It’s not about taking away the experience, but let’s manage it better or it will end up like the east coast, where lots of these things aren’t allowed any more,” Ray says.
Camp Range National Park has 113 camp-sites and each year they pump out 40,000 litres of human waste from the park’s toilets. Ray estimates there are more than that many campsites spread among the pastoral stations. How much human waste is being deposited into pit toilets in coastal campgrounds without proper sewage systems, he asks?
“There are no proper toilet systems, people are camping down there with their rubbish chucked into open land fill somewhere on the station. Batteries and oils are going into landfill with no proper management. If we keep doing this we’re going to screw the whole place up. We’re trying to retain that experience but improve facilities.”
The Ningaloo Coast is attracting a lot of attention from government agencies, keen to preserve the natural environment while growing the region’s tourism industry. The CSRIO has spent $36 million carrying out research on the Ningaloo Coast, and how best to strike that delicate balance. Surprisingly, they concluded that surfing accounts for only three to five per cent of tourism activity in the region. Recreational boating, fishing and snorkeling are the area’s main drawcards. They have identified a series of “tourism nodes” along the coast suitable for development, where fixed accommodation like cabins or chalets may be built.
Surfers have been vocal in their efforts to preserve the area as it is – campaigning against a major tourist development at Coral Bay and Rip Curl’s aborted plans for a World Tour event at Gnaraloo. Yet we may have to accept that some of our own activities – camping and four-wheel driving in fragile dunes, collecting fire wood, walking over reefs and digging bush toilets where ever we choose - might not be too environmentally friendly either.
And surfers are going to have to remain vigilant if they don’t want to see this coast sold out to the highest bidder.
- Tim Baker
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