Public Access at Preminghana (Mount Cameron West)

Foreward by Peter McGlone

Since the last newsletter a number of people, including our members, have contacted the TCT to discuss our position on the State Government’s proposal for a Bay of Fires National Park.  Some have supported our position and some have not. Just to remind people of the TCT’s position we quote here from our to the Premier, David Bartlett, stating:

The TCT strongly encourages you to put on hold the State Government’s proposal for a Bay of Fires national park and re-start negotiations with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community to determine if they want a national park and, if so, under what conditions. The Government should also ask the Aboriginal community if they want part or all of the Bay of Fires area transferred to their ownership and if so what management arrangements they would consider.

A number of people have raised concerns regarding public access, particularly to the coast, if the Bay of Fires were handed over to the Aboriginal people. One person commented they thought public access to the coast was restricted when land at preminghana (Mt Cameron West) in the north-west was handed back to the Aboriginal community in the 1990s. We knew this was less than the complete story but thought it would be helpful for a Tasmanian Aboriginal representative to respond to the issue of public access to preminghana. We have invited Clyde Mansell, Chair of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, to have his say. TCT Vice President, Geoff King, who lives close to preminghana, passed on the observation that while the area has been owned by the Aboriginal community, its management has significantly improved.

Public Access at Preminghana (Mount Cameron West)
The issue of public access at preminghana always generates a high level of public debate. So, is it purely an argument of the right to drive vehicles onto a beach? No. The debate is about the right of a landowner to determine what is important and needs protection on the land and who may enter their land. The Tasmanian Aboriginal community is a landowner and must have the right to make decisions about what happens on the land it owns the same as any other land owner, Aboriginal or not.

When preminghana was returned to the Aboriginal community in 1995, the Aboriginal lands Act 1995 specified that public access to the coast be retained. However there were provisions in the legislation which limited this access, i.e. 15 metres above high-water mark, similar to the coastal reserve provisions applied to other coastal areas around the state. The legislation included a map or site plan for preminghana which identified a vehicle track (commonly called Mt Cameron Road) that allowed visitors to drive to a point outside 15 metres above high-tide mark and then to walk along a pedestrian track to Annes Bay (also called Carvings Beach).

Coincidentally this track was established before 1995 against the wishes of the managers, Parks and Wildlife Service, during their period of management.

Section 27 (8A) of the Aboriginal Lands Act states:

‘There is reserved to the public at all times, in relation to the land referred to in item 2 schedule 3 [Preminghana], a right of pedestrian access over the land 15 metres wide immediately above the high water mark except that area of land between points A and D shown (site of rock carvings) as being on the high-water mark in the Plan 3467 in the Central Register.’

As mentioned above, restricting vehicles to within 15 metres above the high tide mark was intended to prevent damage to a sensitive dune area that includes evidence of Aboriginal cultural existence covering thousands of years and threatened species of flora and fauna, and to restrict access to the world-renowned rock engravings of our traditional Aboriginal ancestors. The right of access to the coastline is always conditional on preventing damage to environmental, heritage and other values. There are many examples of the Parks and Wildlife Service stopping vehicle access to beaches to protect vegetation, threatened species and heritage values. The Aboriginal community as a landowner is also determined to provide protection for our cultural and environmental landscape for our future generations.

However, the Legislative Council member for the area (at the time), some Smithton Council representatives and a few local people demanded a right of the public to drive vehicles through preminghana onto the beach, regardless of the damage to Aboriginal heritage.  Also central to the debate were a few four-wheel-drive people who demanded they be allowed to drive over the landscape regardless of the impact.

In the years following the hand-back of preminghana the Aboriginal community organised a number of consultative meetings to explain the restrictions and encourage compliance.  Our attempts at conciliation and arguments about the need for protection of heritage and the environment did not stop the damage from continuing.

In 2001, the Aboriginal community, through the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania (ALCT) – the title holder – and the land manager, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (TALSC), stopped all vehicle access down to the beach. Camerons Road was blocked 800 metres short of the coast and visitors were required to leave their vehicles at a car park and walk to the beach.  A separate track still provides vehicle access to the coast south of Mt Cameron, which is mainly used by surfers. We were able to negotiate this arrangement because the majority of the surfing community agreed we don’t need to destroy the environment to enjoy the beaches or coastline.

Is it illegal for private landowners to protect their property? No. Why then, when it comes to the Aboriginal community, do the rules of engagement differ dramatically? There is a belief within sections of the non-Aboriginal community that they have a public right to drive their vehicles onto our property, irrespective of any cultural and environmental damage; without question and without asking.

What is also significant in this debate is that the Circular Head Council, without dispute, was able to ban vehicles going onto Greens Beach south of preminghana. Further to this, the adjacent landowners to preminghana are not challenged to provide public access over their land to the beach. We suggest that neither should we. 

When the late Premier, Jim Bacon, spoke about public access over Aboriginal land in the parliament (2003) he said. ‘I would have thought the first point that needs to be made in relation to Aboriginal land – that is, land that has been transferred to the Aboriginal community and title has been transferred to the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania – is that those landowners, like any other landowner in Tasmania, are entitled to say who will come onto their land and who will not. That is nothing unusual, and to impose some different conditions on Aboriginal people compared with titleholders in the rest of Tasmania in relation to privately-held real estate would be absolutely discriminatory.’
To fuel the debate, a counter argument about the Aboriginal community stance (of protection) was that their own (white people’s) ‘cultural’ link to preminghana was more important than Aboriginal cultural links and values, arguing they have always driven over the dunes to get to the beach, and to stop this activity was to stop that cultural pursuit.

The debate also ignored the fact that the Aboriginal community has achieved further protection for the area under the Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), a Commonwealth legislation framework.

The Indigenous Protected Area System is another way Indigenous Australians are being supported to meet their cultural responsibility to care for their country and to pass on their knowledge about the land and its resources to future generations. Through Indigenous Protected Areas, the Commonwealth Government supports Indigenous communities to manage their land for conservation – in line with international guidelines – so its plants, animals and cultural sites are protected for the benefit of all Australians. It helps Indigenous communities to develop a plan to manage their land's natural and cultural values, and provides ongoing support for work to control threats such as weeds, feral animals and wildfire.

People must not forget that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have managed their lands for tens of thousands of years. That was until the land was taken from our ownership and control. The Aboriginal community believes that land is central to our lives and wellbeing – it can provide an economic base, underpins history, innovation and culture, and is fundamental to our spiritual beliefs. Therefore, land return is a process to ensure that the land is once again given the protection of Aboriginal custodial ownership.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal community’s view was, and still is, that those who wish to access preminghana and wish to enjoy the foreshore do so in keeping with the protection of the area. They are simply asked to use the road as far as the turning circle and interpretation platform. If people wish to access the beach, they can do so via the foot track.
To reject this decision is to ignore the destruction of Aboriginal cultural heritage and environmental values, in the pursuit of a belief that non-Aboriginal values and their rights prevail over those of Aborigines.

All we are asking is to be given the same rights as other landowners and the right to protect our cultural heritage and environment landscape for the enjoyment of future generations.

We are the custodians of this landscape and we must be given the right to manage its protection!

Clyde Mansell
Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania (ALCT)