Recently I had the honour of accompanying Paul Brown, a Yuin man and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service Ranger, for two days in Gulaga and Biamanga National Parks on the south-east coast of NSW.
During this time, Paul and I explored the Parks, and I learned a lot about how they are managed both for cultural and biodiversity conservation.
The management of Gulaga and Biamanga National Parks is carried out in a way that is unique to this area. This is because the Parks have been handed back to the Traditional Owners who manage the landscape with the Office of Environment and Heritage and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
To understand how the Parks are managed and how management decisions affect the rich biodiversity in these areas, I had to learn the history of the mountains and how stakeholder’s perceptions have changed over time.
Sacred places: conflict and reconciliation
The Gulaga and Biamanga Mountains are sacred to Aboriginal people of the Yuin Nation. According to lore, Biamanga is a men’s mountain, a place where ceremony and initiations take place for men and boys. In the same way Gulaga Mountain, the mother mountain, is a sacred place for women. The protection and management of these sites and everything within them is key to the continuing culture of the Yuin Nation.
Areas within the Parks were logged as state forests in the 1970’s, sparking protests from local aboriginal people. These protests, led by elder Guboo Ted Thomas, raised awareness about the importance of Gulaga and Biamanga for Yuin people.
‘Why we are interested in this land is that they are sacred sites, they are part of us,’ said Guboo Ted Thomas when lobbying to halt logging operations on Biamanga mountain.
‘You have your cathedrals in Sydney where you worship. It is the same for Aboriginal people. We do not want to lose our culture. We are trying to restore all our sacred sites. We want to retain where we worship’ (Fox, 2002).
After years of lobbying, logging in Biamanga ceased, and in 1980 the area was protected as an Aboriginal Place. Biamanga and Gulaga were gazetted as national parks in 1994 and 2001, respectively (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2014).
In 2006, Minister for Environment Mr Bob Debus handed back Gulaga and Biamanga National Parks to their Traditional Owners, making them the first National Parks to be returned to Aboriginal ownership on the eastern seaboard (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2014).
‘For as far back as the mind can reach, the Yuin people possessed and worshipped these mountains, these creeks and trees,’ Mr Debus said at the hand-back ceremony.
‘Long before Babylon was built, or the great pyramid, Gulaga and Biamanga had their present names, and people related to people here this morning saw them as heartland, as mother, as blessed home, and gave them reverence.’
Stakeholders: culture, conservation and recreation
The Parks are managed by the Gulaga Biamanga Board of Management. The Board has an Indigenous majority, with non-Indigenous members including the Regional Manager of NPWS, an elected councillor of the Eurobodalla Shire Council, local citizens concerned with the conservation of the area, and a representative for landowners adjacent to the Parks.
Unlike most of Australia’s National Parks, which focus on biodiversity conservation first and cultural conservation second (Parks Australia, 2016), Gulaga and Biamanga National Parks have a commitment to the conservation of local Aboriginal cultural above the conservation of biodiversity (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2014).
As Paul Brown says, the Parks are ‘guided by, but not bound by NPWS nature conservation policies’.
However, this does not mean that conservation falls by the wayside. The Board argue that cultural and biodiversity conservation are inexorably linked because Aboriginal culture is built on valuing every aspect of the landscape.
This concept has been put forward in many papers discussing the interconnectedness of Aboriginal cultural connections with the natural world (Morrison and Carmody, 1996; Altman and Whitehead, 2003; Pascoe, 2014; Gammage, 2011; Sveiby, 2009).
Biodiversity and management
Gulaga and Biamanga National Parks play host to an extensive range of animal and plant biodiversity (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2014). There are 11 mammal species classified as endangered under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 including the southern brown bandicoot (Isoodon obesulus obesulus), green and golden bell frog (Litoria aurea) and swift parrot (Lathamus discolour); a further 43 species are listed as vulnerable including koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) and powerful owl (Ninox strenua).
Biodiversity in the park is managed and conserved through on-the-ground surveys, data collection and data analysis which inform decisions made by the Board of Management and NSW NPWS.
Critical processes for conserving biodiversity are pest control, public awareness programs, and strategic fire management.
Fire in the landscape
Two large, intense bushfires in Biamanga, one in 1972 and another in 1980 had devastating effects on small mammal communities (Lunney et al., 1987) including EPBA listed eastern pygmy possum (Cercartetus nanus), the native bush rat (Rattus fuscipes), the swamp rat (Rattus lutreolus), and the latter completely wiping out the population of dusky antechinus (Antechinus swainsonii) (Recher et al., 2009). In 2009, 3,480 hectares of the Parks were burnt due to an escaped fuel reduction burn (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2014).
Fire has historically been an integral part of the environment and was used by the Yuin Nation for many reasons including to ‘clean up’ areas (fuel load reduction) and for ceremonial purposes (ibid, 2014).
Modern fire management strategies in the Parks mainly focus on strategic fuel reduction to mitigate the threat of wildfire and to preserve the habitat of key species, especially koala populations who are extremely vulnerable to fire.
The Gulaga Biamanga Board of Management and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service are interested reintroducing traditional Aboriginal burning practices in the parks for cultural and biodiversity conservation (ibid, 2014) and will begin trails in winter 2017 (Personal correspondence, 2016).
Looking forward, looking back
Improving and maintaining biodiversity values in Gulaga and Biamanga National Parks is vital for ensuring the continued provision of the ecosystem services this beautiful country provides. Aboriginal culture sits at the heart of this, with sustainable land management practices shaping this landscape. The move to include Yuin values in the management of these parks is more than respecting the Traditional Owners – it is an acknowledgement that best practice must be built around the thousands of years of local knowledge and connection to the landscape.
Altman, J. and Whitehead, P., 2003. Caring for country and sustainable Indigenous development: Opportunities, constraints and innovation, Centre For Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. Available at: http://www.anu.edu.au/caepr/
Fox, T., 2002. Guboo Ted Thomas: 1909-2002, Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2002(2): 120-122.
Gammage, B., 2011. The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.
Lunney, D., Eby, P. and Cullis, B., 1987. Effects of logging and fire on small mammals in Mumbulla State Forest, near Bega, New South Wales, Australian Wildlife Research, 14, 163-81.
Morrison, J. and Carmody, M., 1996. Working Within The Framework Of Aboriginal Culture: Indigenous Initiatives For Sustainable Development Through Landcare, International Permaculture Conference and Convergence.
NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2014. Plan of Management, Yuin Bangguri (Mountain) Parks, NSW Government.
National Parks, 2016. About Us. Available at: https://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/.
Pascoe, B., 2014. Dark emu – black seeds: agriculture or accident?, Magabala Books, Broome, Western Australia.
Recher, H. F., Lunney, D. and Matthews, A., 2009. Small mammal populations in a eucalypt forest affected by fire and drought. I. Long-term patterns in an era of climate change, Wildlife Research, 36(2): 143.
Sveiby, K. E., 2009. Aboriginal principles for sustainable development as told in traditional law stories, Sustainable development.