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Queensland's Wild Rivers

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Queensland is lucky to retain some of the world’s healthiest natural river systems. They underpin regional economies and support unique and diverse wildlife. Free of dams, weirs, polluting irrigation schemes and industrial development, the natural and cultural values of these rivers remain largely intact.

Queensland’s free flowing rivers are located in a number of distinct geographic regions, including Cape York Peninsula, the Gulf Country, the Channel Country in Western Queensland, and some areas along the east coast of the State.

Rivers under threat

River systems such as these are increasingly rare. Many of the world’s major rivers are severely degraded or on the brink of collapse. These rivers are plagued with environmental problems caused by dams, irrigated agriculture, mass water diversions, destructive mines, dramatic loss of wildlife and fish, and encroaching invasive weeds and pests.

In Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin is our own stark example of river management gone terribly wrong. In 2007 the Federal Government spent $10 billion on restoring the Murray-Darling Basin. This is only the tip of the iceberg of the real cost of degradation, including the irreversible decline of species.

The Wilderness Society’s Wild Rivers campaign

In 1992, in recognition of the growing threats to our remaining free-flowing rivers, the Federal Government commenced the Wild Rivers Project. Working with the State and Territory Governments, the Australian Heritage Commission undertook a national assessment of Australia’s rivers, and recommended a Code of Management to protect wild rivers.

Motivated by disastrous irrigation developments like the colossal Cubbie Station cotton farm in southern Queensland and the lack of regulatory protection afforded to Queensland’s free flowing rivers, the Wilderness Society and other conservation groups initiated a campaign in the early 2000s to seek government action around a Wild Rivers framework building on the Australian Heritage Commission’s earlier work. In 2004, former Premier Peter Beattie announced his intention to protect 19 river systems in Queensland by creating a stand-alone Wild Rivers Act.

How the Wild Rivers legislation works

Following Beattie’s re-election, the Wild Rivers Act was passed in 2005. The legislation enables the Queensland Government to protect healthy river basins through a “wild river declaration”, following public nomination and consultation processes.

A Wild River declaration is akin to a planning mechanism - it effectively means that big developments like dams, intensive irrigation and strip mining is kept out of rivers, but supports smaller-scale commercial uses such as outstation development, grazing and fishing.

Native Title rights are explicitly protected in the legislation. This means that cultural practices, including traditional hunting and fishing activities are not restricted. Additionally, for the first time in Australia, Wild River declarations also provide a special water reserve specifically for Indigenous economic development.

Successes so far in the campaign

The Queensland Government officially declared the first Wild Rivers under the legislation in 2007. These rivers systems are Settlement Creek, Morning Inlet, and the Gregory and Staaten Rivers, all located in the Gulf of Carpentaria, as well as the waterways of Fraser and Hinchinbrook Islands. The Queensland Government declared the first three river systems on Cape York Peninsula - the Archer, Stewart and Lockhart River Basins - in April 2009.

Following many months of public consultation, the Wenlock River system, which was under serious threat from bauxite mining (also covering the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve) was declared protected in June 2010.

In response to an ongoing campaign from an alliance of conservation and grazier groups, including The Wilderness Society, the Queensland Government has also promised to protect the Channel Country rivers in Western Queensland under the Wild Rivers legislation.

A campaign of misinformation

Regrettably, the declarations on Cape York have triggered an extraordinary five year anti-wild rivers campaign which has attacked the need for Wild Rivers protection, and sought to discredit The Wilderness Society for its support of the initiative. This anti-Wild Rivers campaign has been built on misinformation and deliberate deception.

Examples include the distribution of materials to Cape York communities that claim Wild Rivers regulations are the same as creating a national park and will lead to the banning of traditional activities such as hunting and fishing. Such claims are simply not true.

Community engagement in the campaign

The Wilderness Society has a long worked with local communities to ensure protection of Queensland’s rivers. This includes Indigenous people, who have strong cultural, spiritual and social connections to their rivers, and unique rights and interests. For example, for the first round of rivers protected under the Wild Rivers legislation, the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and Traditional Owners in the Gulf Country joined with the Wilderness Society to ensure their rivers were protected

Through advocacy from the Wilderness Society, the Queensland Government has initiated a program to employ 100 Indigenous Rangers to manage ongoing threats to wild rivers such as invasive weeds and feral animals. The program is proving a huge success, with real jobs being created in remote communities, and demonstrated positive outcomes for the rivers. For instance, rangers recently culled 3,700 feral pigs in the Staaten River Basin, and have been controlling weeds such as Rubber Vine in the Gulf country, and Sicklepod on the Wenlock River. Thirty rangers are now employed, with another 10 positions to follow soon.

Further reading

Wild Rivers: The Queensland river protection campaign
An image-rich pamphlet about The Wilderness Society’s Wild Rivers campaign. Download >>

The Wilderness Society Wild Rivers media releases and other information
Click here to see all the latest media releases from the Wild Rivers campaign. Learn more >>