CNature conservationists have hailed the extension of protection of the Gardens of Stone, a region of dramatic rock formations and rare wildlife in the Blue Mountains that has long been threatened by coal mines.
That New South Wales The government is set to announce on Saturday a $ 50m plan to transfer about 31,500ha of state forest and other crown land west of Sydney to a state-protected area.
The area is home to the endangered giant dragonfly and purple copper butterfly, delicate alpine swamps and sand and ironstone cliffs that have weathered into pagoda-like formations.
“It’s the beauty of the place, and every part of it is a thrill to discover,” said Keith Muir, a former director of the Colong Foundation for Wilderness, who began fighting for its protection nearly 30 years ago. “It’s a great achievement to get that money through the cabinet for this reserve.”
The state’s environment minister, Matt Kean, inspected the region by helicopter in January, but had to secure the support of Paul Toole, the local Nationals MP, who is courting him with a plan to develop the area into an ecotourism and adventure destination.
With Gladys Berejiklian resigning as prime minister last month, Kean is now also treasurer, while Toole has become deputy prime minister following John Barilaro’s exit.
“This new set of reserves will compete with the three sisters in Katoomba as a destination for visitors and tourists to the mountains west of Sydney,” said Kean. “It will also provide a much-needed lasting legacy for the environment, protect and provide habitat for several endangered and endangered species for future generations.”
The area will preserve existing four-wheel drive circuits and about 30 km of mountain bike trails. It will also have a five-day hiking trail connecting the Wollemi and Blue Mountain National Parks and the state’s first Via Ferrata climbing route.
The attractions are expected to attract an additional 200,000 visitors a year and create around 200 jobs in a region affected by declining coal production and the closure of one of its two coal-fired power plants.
Julie Favell and Chris Jonkers of the Lithgow Environment Group, who have also been fighting for many years to protect the region, say they are “humbled and overjoyed” at the announcement.
“It’s a history book about nature,” Favell said.
Their efforts were prompted by the discovery of dying swamps caused by subsidence from an underground coal mine in the area.
“Once we found the first swamp that was damaged, honestly in our hearts, we could not go away without fighting,” Favell said. “It was passion, and it was just heartbreaking – I mean, it’s still heartbreaking.”
They have opposed plans for other mines in the region, including open pit mines, and often speak in hostile public assemblies.
“It’s one of the worst emotions to walk into a room, and it’s that part-and-rule feeling. We have always felt that we lost, but we still struggled, ”said Favell, adding that members of her group often hurried home after the meetings for fear that their homes would be damaged by pro-coal locals.
Madi Maclean, senior vice president of the Blue Mountains Conservation Society, said it was the campaign to save the Gardens of Stone that got her interested in environmental activism.
“It just seemed so unfair and so wrong, I think this area was not protected because of the richness of plants and animals and the incredible landscape,” she said.
The challenge now will be to ensure that the expected influx to areas such as the lost city and other rock formations, as well as native rock shelters and other heritage at Maiyingu Marragu Aboriginal Place, can be managed, Maclean said.
Toole said the spending had the potential to deliver “a massive boost” pouring millions of dollars into Lithgow’s economy.
“This investment will deliver an iconic tourism and adventure experience right outside Sydney’s doorstep and represents one of the state’s largest investments ever in a regional ecotourism project,” he said.
For Muir, it is the crowning achievement of his career to know that many more people will come to experience what he has on his countless walks in the area.
“To climb down narrow impurities and, you know, walk around a corner and discover an overhang or a ferny clearing or a canyon, wade through a stream and discover groves with huge trees and rippling streams,” Muir said.
“Every part of it is a thrill to discover, and that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “That’s why you and me and everyone keep going back there – because it’s always different.”
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