Reaction to State Government's approval for AWC's Flinders Chase proposal

SANDY CREEK: Friends of Parks KI Western Districts members standing next to posts identifying the locations of guest accommodation buildings 5, 6 and 7 at Sandy Creek.
SANDY CREEK: Friends of Parks KI Western Districts members standing next to posts identifying the locations of guest accommodation buildings 5, 6 and 7 at Sandy Creek.

The Australian Walking Company will now seek development approval from the Kangaroo Island Council to build its accommodation buildings in Flinders Chase National Park.

The Native Vegetation Council this week granted its approval for the development at Sandy Creek and Sanderson Bay, meaning AWC now has all the necessary State Government approvals.

Eco Action KI and the Parks not Playgrounds group are however promising to take legal action against the approval, using funds generated in a crowd funding campaign.

The Friends of Parks groups have expressed their anger at the approval process, while tourism bodies and the KI Commissioner have welcomed the approval.

AWC thanks bodies

Australian Walking Company general manager, Heath Garratt said the latest approval was a significant milestone in delivering the project, which would provide a $4.8 million world-class tourism experience on the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail.

"We would like to thank members of the Native Vegetation Council, State Commission Assessment Panel and the six other referral bodies that we have worked with over the past 15 months," Mr Garratt said.

"Australian Walking Company is a recognised leader in environmentally sustainable travel practices with more than 30 years proven experience in delivering award-winning guided walks within national parks.

"Throughout the development approval process, we conducted more than 20 voluntary public and private consultations, working closely with experts including local ecologists to refine the design and lessen the environmental impact.

"It has been a most stringent process that has helped us to produce an outstanding solution. We take our environmental stewardship responsibilities seriously and know we will deliver a world-class outcome for the park and South Australia.

"Our new sites in Flinders Chase National Park will be less than half the footprint of the existing campsites with 14 walkers sheltered in compact two-person off-the-grid sleeping pods.

"Since submitting our original development application, we have minimised the overall impact on the park by choosing to build on only two of the four sites available under the Park Management Plan and reducing the overall tracks and trails required to access these sites by 45 per cent.

"Our new four-day guided walking experience will provide the equivalent of 30 new full-time jobs when operating at full capacity and will offer guide training opportunities for local residents to become environmental educators and interpreters.

"Australian Walking Company will continue to work with the community to ensure this experience reaches its full potential, bringing significant benefits to Kangaroo Island, while also creating advocacy for the protection of its special wild places."

AWC clarified that $832,889 grant mentioned by the Acting Minister was the Future Job Funds Grant, that requires the company to provide the equivalent of 30 full-time jobs when operating at full capacity.

Eco-Action engages lawyer

Eco-Action KI meanwhile says is not only disappointed, but annoyed that the Native Vegetation Council would dismiss the overwhelming evidence against approving the development.

Eco-Action's Fraser Vickery said as of Wednesday, July 17, the minutes giving reasons for approval have not been released, which was weeks after their meeting.

"This seriously raises the issue of their independence from political interference," Mr Vickery said. "Consequently we have engaged a lawyer and QC to fight the overall approval in court.

"Mark Parnell summed up the situation beautifully, when he said, 'As an environmental lawyer, I've assessed the evidence and I think they. (Eco-Action) have a strong case against the State Planning Commission, the Native Vegetation Council and the Liberal Environment Minister, David Speirs, for allowing a National Park to be abused in this way'.

"The NVC is has abrogated it's responsibility and breached key principles of the Native Vegetation Act; the Act they administer.

Under the NVA, the NVC cannot give approval for clearance of native vegetation which is seriously at variance with one or more 'Principles of Clearance' under the Act.

"For example native vegetation should not be cleared if; it comprises a high level of diversity or it has significance as a habitat for wildlife or if it includes plants of a rare, vulnerable or endangered species.

"The habitat, at all sites, supports wildlife species that are listed as threatened under the EPBC Act and listed as threatened species under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 and also the NVC cannot give its consent to the clearance of native vegetation if the vegetation comprises or forms part of a stratum of native vegetation that is substantially intact."

Friends of Parks dismayed

Friends of KI Parks Western Districts, Friends of Dudley Peninsula Parks and Friends of Cape Gantheaume issued a joint statement in response to the AWC approval.

"The Friends of Parks groups on Kangaroo Island have given decades of volunteer service to help restore and enhance our parks," the statement reads.

"Reluctantly, however, since the beginning of the year we have suspended our activities in parks in protest at the proposed accommodation on the coast of Flinders Chase.

"We have been heartened by the widespread community support for our stand.

"Our groups are all in favour of promoting our parks. And we endorse the concept of low-impact accommodation in discreet locations on the Wilderness Trail.

"But the private resorts proposed for Sandy Creek and Sanderson Bay are the wrong structures in the wrong place.

"Both sites are exposed coastal cliff tops with low vegetation in fragile dune habitats. The abuse of the Native Vegetation Act to approve construction on the most spectacular cliff tops in Flinders Chase is shameful.

"These villages will ruin the pristine character of the coast. As such they undermine the essence of what any good wilderness walk is all about - not to mention put at risk the $5m investment South Australians made to create this trail.

"The idea doesn't stack up. It's like saying the MCG needs a corporate box in the centre square to give well-heeled patrons a better view of the game.

"As the island's most committed supporters of parks our Friends groups are concerned about the harm this issue is causing for tourism here and our hard-working National Park employees.

"If this development proceeds we are fearful of the lasting impact of protests, legal campaigns and damaging media publicity on what has become a national issue.

"Our hope is that commonsense will prevail and that the original vision for accommodation on the trail is restored.

"The ultimate goal is for the Friends to get back to work in our parks. In the meantime, our groups are actively involved with island landholders and farmers, lending a hand with tree planting, weed control and other work.

"By all means get in touch with your local group if you want help with a native vegetation project on your patch.

"We're here for the long-haul. We believe the wild beauty of our parks should be too."

Resident vows to keep fighting

Kangaroo Island resident Becky Westbrook, who together with her family rallied against the proposal, has vowed to continue fighting.

"All our community asked was to put these developments back on the track where they won't ruin the National Park vistas for everyone and will have less of an impact on the fragile coastal environments," Mrs Westbook posted on Facebook.

"Jobs will still be created, a luxury option will still be available, a win win for the people and the private company making the profits.

"This is a ruthless company not at all concerned with the environment or the local people.

"I love wild places and I will never ever stop defending them for my children and for all the future generations of our planet. This is not over."

Commissioner, TKI to assist AWC

Commissioner for Kangaroo Island, Wendy Campana said now that the final stages of the approval had been granted, "discussions could commence with local businesses and recruiters".

"This development has been subject to a rigorous independent planning approval through the State Commission Assessment Panel and finally through the Native Vegetation Council.

"One of the conditions of the $832,889 grant from the previous government's Job Fund was the creation of new jobs during construction and the equivalent of 30 full-time, new jobs when operating at full capacity.

"The Kangaroo Island Lodge Walk project delivers a new world-class tourism experience for the Island. There has been some strong community concerns raised and these have been considered in the final design adopted by the AWC, setting a new benchmark for eco-sensitive accommodation in SA.

"I am keen to assist AWC to link up with local businesses through the industry associations to start the conversation about contracts and job opportunities" Ms Campana said.

Kangaroo Island Tourism Food Wine and Beverage Association chairman Pierre Gregor said the development would be positive.

"Now that the development has been given final approval local businesses should capitalise on the opportunities presented," Mr Gregor said.

"There will be future engagement with AWC by the board to establish synergies and assist with marketing. I am confident that there will be positive flow on effects and opportunities for a range of local businesses from transport providers to suppliers of food and wine and of course the building trade.

"The experience and product being developed is a niche offering for young and not so young adventure seekers who want to experience the uniqueness of the trail but also want to enjoy the comfort of the eco-sensitive accommodation at the end of the day.

"It adds another component to the Island's offerings," he said.

TiCSA welcomes announcement

The Tourism Industry Council (TicSA) welcomes the announcement of the AWC proposal.

"The project, in addition with the companies proposed Kangaroo Island Lodge Walk will deliver numerous benefits to Kangaroo Island and the broader South Australian economy and raising the profile of SA as a major international eco-tourism destination," TicSA CEO Shaun de Bruyn said.

"To have the AWC expand its Australian walking program to South Australia is an exciting new development of our State. AWC are arguably the best walking tour company in Australia, having won numerous national tourism awards."

"Having operated walks on the World Heritage listed Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair National Park in Tasmania for many years, they have demonstrated a high level of capability to deliver environmentally sensitive tourism experiences.

"Kangaroo Island is a place recognised around the world for its special nature-based tourism experiences.

"Having AWC delivering walking experiences on the island will add significantly to KI's global appeal and result in new visitors choosing to visit KI who otherwise wouldn't.

"These visitors will spend money that will result in new jobs to the tourism economy on the island and SA."

State opposition sounds warning

SA Labor is urging the Marshall Liberal Government to address concerns the accommodation proposal will destroy native vegetation on the island.

Shadow Minister for Environment and Water, Susan Close said AWC should reconsider the location of its proposed development, which includes up to 20 buildings.

"The Marshall Liberal Government welcomed the decision, despite strong protests from locals and environmental groups," she said.

"Alarmingly, the location of the development is more than 1km from the track, requiring clearance of native flora.

"When the development was first proposed it was understood the accommodation would be adjacent to the track to minimise disturbance.

"SA Labor supports the views of Friends of Parks groups and other environmental campaigners who have raised a series of concerns, mostly centring on the project's potential to damage vulnerable flora and fauna.

"There are also concerns that the approved plans are not consistent with the national park management plan.

"I understand that visitors want to enjoy Kangaroo Island - it has some of the most stunning flora and fauna in the world.

"However, we must balance this need with ensuring that the fragile and pristine natural beauty is not disturbed.

"Friends of Parks groups and other environmental campaigners have raised a series of concerns. The plans have attracted harsh criticism from locals, who are concerned the development will threaten vulnerable animal species.

"It is very disheartening that the Marshall Liberal Government has welcomed the decision, despite such strong opposition from locals and environmental groups."