The state budget allocation of $8 million over the next two years to the Parks and Wildlife Service for infrastructure in parks and reserves may be a mixed blessing.
The media release by Minister Matthew Groom made it very clear that the ‘new’ funding for parks and reserves is for built infrastructure management and we have received confirmation from the minister’s office that funding is for ‘replacement’ and ‘refurbishment’ and not for ‘new’ infrastructure.
We have no problem with new funding to upgrade existing roads, tracks, signs, fencing, toilet blocks, car parks etc, and we are pleased that funds are to be directed into replacement and refurbishment rather than new infrastructure. But it is extremely disappointing that none of this funding has been allocated to managing the natural and cultural values in reserves.
The TCT recognises the need to facilitate appropriate access and use for visitors and managers and this involves a certain amount of built infrastructure. Retaining and maintaining appropriate infrastructure in reserves can help reduce environmental impacts. Also, we recognise there is a large backlog of works to repair and replace existing infrastructure.
The media failed to pick up on the lack of funding for managing natural and cultural values. This is probably because many in the community, media and politics do not understand what is involved in protecting and managing natural and cultural values but do understand that toilets and tracks require maintenance.
We prompted opposition parties to ask questions during the budget estimates process. When asked why the new funding is just for infrastructure, the minister deflected the question by referring to increased funding being promised for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) – without stating that this was federal funding, mainly directed to road management and an unspecified amount for invasive species. He also referred to the $3.5 million per year increase for the PWS in last year’s budget but failed to mention that the increase came after many years of cuts, and that it was directed to reserves and Crown land. This means that much of it could be used for managing areas of Future Permanent Production Forest Land (which is Crown land), including providing access for harvesting special species timbers.
The best question asked at budget estimates was from the Labor member for Bass, Michelle O’Byrne, who asked for copies of existing PWS regional infrastructure maintenance plans. She has promised that this plan will be provided; they should be the primary basis for allocating funding.
The minister was not asked to explain why noneof the new funding is for the management of natural and cultural values.
The other problem is that the government has given no commitment to widely consulting the community in deciding on what infrastructure gets funding, instead focusing the consultation on ‘regional communities, local government and other stakeholders’.
At budget estimates, Minister Groom was at pains to say ‘it won’t be a top-down process, we will consult local councils and regional communities’, but we learnt nothing more about the consultation process and criteria that will be used to decide on works. We do not know whether the broader community and conservation groups will be consulted, nor whether PWS scientists, planners and rangers will be involved. We are left fearing that the tourist industry will be the main stakeholder consulted.
We have written to Minister Groom asking to be involved and seeking further information about the consultation process and the criteria to be used in prioritising works.
We must also keep a very careful eye on the allocation of funding to make sure that maintenance is prioritised ahead of new infrastructure and that it is not provided for the private benefit of commercial developers. We will also be asking that the government is making a commitment to prioritising spending on infrastructure where there is a benefit for natural and cultural heritage values as well as for visitors and tourism.