Updated: August 02, 2011
Cape York wonder returned to Traditional Owners
Rinyirru National Park is the largest national park on Cape York Peninsula and one of the largest in northern Australia. Rinyirru is home to spectacular and abundant bird life, beautiful lakes and waterholes and is choc full of saltwater crocodiles.
In late June 2011, the ownership and management of this special place was returned to its Traditional Owners after a 30 year campaign.
Rinyirru protects 5,440 square kilometres (544,000 hectares) of rich floodplains and wild rivers in south-eastern Cape York Peninsula. The original national park was created in 1979 and was known for a generation as Lakefield National Park. Before becoming a national park, Rinyirru was a sprawling and well-known cattle property and before that it was the homelands of aboriginal people for millennia.
For many years Rinyirru was held up by opponents of conservation as an example of everything that was wrong with national parks on Cape York Peninsula.
Created with zero consultation with Traditional Owners, for many years under-resourced National Park Rangers valiantly tried to repair country badly damaged by a century of cattle grazing. All while trying to manage ever-increasing visitor numbers and a range of ecological threats including feral animals and radically altered land management practices that came with the arrival of the cattle.
Traditional Owners locked out
Meanwhile the traditional owners of Rinyirru, the Lama Lama and Kuku Thaypan peoples, watched in despair and frustration, locked out of the park, as the health of the country progressively deteriorated.
In response, all through the 1990’s and 2000’s, the Wilderness Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Cape York Land Council and traditional owners advocated for law reform that would support shared management of the national park between traditional owners and park rangers and which would return ownership of the park to Traditional Owners.
Politicians from all sides, agreed in private that something needed to change, but in public refused to countenance reform, even as the ecological health of the Cape York national parks continued to decline.
Weeds, which crowded out native grasslands needed to be removed, feral cattle, which destroyed sensitive waterholes and river banks needed to be rounded up and erratic fire management, which disrupted the cycles of breeding and feeding that had sustained beautiful grassland birds such as the Golden Shouldered Parrot and the Star Finch led to a crash in numbers. All these problems and more needed to be addressed.
In 2005, we released a landmark report called ‘Cape York Parks in Crisis’ which found that Rinyirru was profoundly under resourced with only a small number of rangers being expected to manage the huge park with almost no operational and management funds whilst Traditional Owners, desperate to help and provide expertise, were barred by law from assisting.
This report was the catalyst for a wave of negotiations over many months in 2006 between the Wilderness Society, the Queensland Government and the Cape York Land Council that culminated in a visionary wave of law reform encapsulated in the Cape York Peninsula Heritage Act (2007) and a significant funding boost to national park management across Cape York. The then Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, led the negotiations and left an important legacy for the future.
When both sides of politics passed the Heritage Act through the Queensland Parliament, the Heritage Act finally created the pathway for real shared management between Traditional Owners and rangers, new management resources and finally acknowledged Aboriginal ownership of the national parks of Cape York.
All this work culminated on 22 June 2011, when after three decades of struggle, Rinyirru was handed back to the Traditional Owners. This was a great day for conservation, a great day for Rinyirru and a great day for the Traditional Owners on Cape York.
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