Rylstone rises against coal
Locals protest coal on the doorstep of Wollemi National Park
The people living in and around the town of Rylstone, west of the Blue Mountains on the doorstep of Wollemi National Park, have been through a lot of late. Nature has dealt them many blows over recent years including drought, flood and the devastating 2019-20 bushfires.
As many communities have done, they came together to work through all that nature could throw at them. People here ran through choking smoke and intense heat to save each other's homes and lives in the Black Summer bushfires.
Those fires also burnt most of Wollemi National Park, which is in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Yet months later, the New South Wales government earmarked three areas next to the park for coal exploration. The announcement came without any real environmental reviews and a distinct lack of community consultation.
Cheryl Nielsen, a farm stay tourist operator in Rylstone, remembers the meeting when people learned that a climate-wrecking coal mine could be built in their community.
"The trauma was too much for many people. They burst into tears and left. The few of us who were left formed Rylstone Region Coal Free Community and had to get to work."
Rylstone thrives off agriculture and tourism—and that’s how it should stay, says group president Cheryl Nielsen. Image: Ingvar Kenne.
Community coming together to protest in Rylstone. Image: Victoria Jack
Glossy black cockatoos feed on a wide range of sheoaks in Wollemi National Park. They are listed as Vulnerable in NSW. Image: Adam Blyth Photography
The Brush-tailed rock wallaby is listed nationally as Vulnerable. The population at Wollemi National Park is one of eight listed as important for the survival of the species in their National Recovery Plan. Image: Donald Hobern
The community is clear on their opposition to coal on the doorstep of Wollemi National Park. Image: Victoria Jack
Cheryl runs a successful farm stay on her property, which is not far from the headwaters of the Cudgegong River. Visitors from all over the world come to see the nearby Wollemi National Park. Famous for its ancient Wollemi pines, the national park and its surroundings delight visitors with its breathtaking mountains and exceptional diversity of flora. And because of the variety of plants and the environments they create, there is an abundance and diversity of fauna too, including one-third of Australia's bird species.
If a mine is built on the border of Wollemi National Park, there's no doubt tourists will stop coming, Cheryl says. "All this destruction when coal will only last another decade or two. How can you justify it?"
The community has said “no!”
Fossil fuel projects are being forced on communities across the country. With little to no community consultation, it is left to small self-funded community groups like Cheryl's to prove the places they love and depend on are worth more than coal.
For four months, Cheryl and the other passionate members of the Rylstone Region Coal Free Community put a massive amount of time and effort into documenting the values of their region. They did an incredible job writing detailed submissions on a range of subjects, such as the impacts on biodiversity, water and health.
Cheryl's group drummed up submissions from more than 2000 people. Some are locals, others passionate visitors from around Australia and the world. More than 99% of all the submissions opposed coal exploration next to Wollemi National Park.
Despite the hurdles the community had to face, good news finally came at the end of 2021.
“All three areas next door to Wollemi National Park that were nominated for coal exploration were finally spared after two years of campaigning. This result would not have been possible without the incredible efforts of the local community, led by Rylstone Region Coal Free Community Group, says Wilderness Society NSW Campaigns Manager Victoria Jack.
“This case proves that when the community is heard, we get better outcomes for the environment. But we need strong community rights so that communities don’t have to spend every spare waking moment for years on end fighting to keep our precious wilderness areas safe from destructive development.”
Where are our rights?
The stress and cost to Cheryl and her fellow group members in taking on this fight in such a short amount of time were enormous. Their livelihoods and health suffered.
“The NSW government should stop trying to appease the fossil fuel lobby, admit there is no future for a greenfield coal mine on the edge of a World Heritage Area, and put the community out of their misery,” says Jack.
“Groups like the Rylstone Region Coal Free Community shouldn’t have to spend endless nights and weekends fighting a rearguard action to save the places they love.
They should have rights that guarantee them a genuine say in the decisions that impact nature—and impact them. ”
Despite the emotional toll, Cheryl and her fellow community members are committed to fighting the new coal mine for as long as it takes.
According to Cheryl it's not just about preserving their own livelihoods and way of life. It's about protecting the special places in this area for visitors from across Australia and worldwide. "This doesn't belong to us. This is everybody's," Cheryl says.