Alpine National Park... ...or cow paddock?

‘The Age’ Editorial 5/2/04

The High Country: not the preserve of the few
Mountain Cattlemen and bush riders need to appreciate theirs are not the only interests.

Gather a bunch of stockmen to the fray. Mount them on horses and parade them defiantly, Australian flags flying, to the steps of parliament or outside the office of the national parks authority. Alert the media. Encourage on old digger, preferably in lighthorse uniform, to talk about city "bastards" taking rights from the true inheritors of the bush. It is a tried and tested stunt, a little tired perhaps, but almost guaranteed to get coverage on the evening news and the next day’s newspapers. It is one thing to be proud of Australia’s bush heritage – remote as it has always been from the daily lives of most in city-dwelling Australia, one of the most urbanized nations on earth. But there is something almost shameless about misusing the romance and imagery of the past to prop up the claims of a handful of graziers to a lucrative hangover from the century before last or a right of access for recreational trail riders to alpine parks.

That is not how the small number of graziers currently being denied access to Victoria’s alpine areas see it, of course. Arguments about "heritage rights" and "caring for the high country" are raised, but increasingly these are being exposed for the rhetoric that, for the most part, they are. The National Trust put it rather bluntly last year: the mountain cattlemen are not as culturally important as the environment their activities damage. Similarly, the recent inquiry into the 2003 bushfires in Victoria found claims that grazing in the high country helped reduce the risk of bushfires to be largely illusory. "We conclude that there is currently no scientific support for the view that grazing prevents blazing in the High Country," the report found, recommending that any decision about the future of grazing in the high country should not be based on the argument that grazing helps fire management.

Not unreasonably, a scientific panel late last year advised the Government to extend a ban on cattle grazing in bushfire-affected areas for at least another two summers to allow the bush time to recover. The Government has said it will examine the longer-term future of high-plains cattle grazing in the next few years. Up to 8,000 cattle graze in the mountains each summer – a lucky few of the 4 million head across the state. As an economic issue, it scarcely rates, except to those few fortunate graziers for whom the high country access is a handy source of cheap feed. The good old days when the bush was simply there for all comers to be exploited for timber, for grazing, even for recreational pursuits such as shooting and fishing are long gone. Exploitation of such areas must now meet criteria that are sustainable, especially in complex and fragile environments such as the high country. Bush lore and romantic tales about what went on in the past must give way to more rational, scientific assessments if there is to be a future in such areas for anyone.