In the mid 1970s, when I was about 18 or so, I spent the summer with friends rockclimbing at Mt Buffalo. While I was there I met a park ranger from the United States. He was on some sort of exchange program for what was then called the National Parks Service. In the mornings he would collect our camping fees and in the afternoons he would deliver wood for our campfires. I remember him because he’d worked as a ranger in California’s Yosemite Valley, a place where I and many of my climbing friends dreamed of one day visiting. I don’t recall his name but I do remember that he had an extraordinary passion for the environment. Each evening after work he would take a large hessian sack, pull on a thick pair of leather gloves and descend into what we climbers call Glass Gully. This was where the Mt Buffalo Chalet had for many years tipped their refuse and thousands of empty bottles. He would collect the glass, haul it up to the carpark and arrange for it to be transported down to the valley. I and a few other climbers joined him on occasion and I remember it as a nasty backbreaking job. He was also very critical about what we climbers still call Sewer Wall. The Chalet at that time was piping its raw sewage directly into the gorge, which resulted in a number of us becoming sick or getting infected sores on our hands. One afternoon, towards the end of his stay, his frustrations boiled over. He had been walking on the Bogong High Plains and had encountered herds of cattle trampling across fragile alpine meadows. While I can’t remember his exact words, his anger at our general environmental apathy was very clear indeed.
At about the same time a friend gave me a copy of a book titled The Alps at the Crossroads by Dick Johnson. It had been recently published by the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA) and in it Johnson described the VNPA’s vision for an alpine national park and recommendations for its management. Johnson described cattle as having ‘… done considerable damage over a century of abuse’ and under the heading Exploitative Commerce, the VNPA recommended that ‘cattle grazing be phased out of the High Country in the long term’. In retrospect the VNPA should have been much more critical about grazing but you have to remember that in the mid 1970s cattlemen were firmly entrenched in the High Country (both physically and ideologically) and the idea of displacing them, even in the long term, was considered unlikely.
In 1979, I turned 21 and spent the next few years travelling around the world. I spent three months in Yosemite Valley and visited many other parks across New Zealand, the United States, the UK and Europe. As I travelled my environmental awareness grew and with it the realisation that we in Australia had a great deal to learn about the responsible management of our unique and valuable landscapes. My love of climbing, bushwalking and cross-skiing also strengthened my resolve to make people more aware of the ongoing environmental issues we faced, particularly in our alpine regions.
When the Bracks government removed cattle from the Alpine National Park in 2005 I felt that we had won a major environmental battle. The removal of cattle was accompanied by an enormous sense of relief among the majority of recreational park users. Finally our alpine areas were to be returned to their natural state after 150 years of degradation. Don’t get me wrong, I know we still have problems with many other feral animals in the park, many of which we will never fully eradicate, but the removal of thousands of cows, each weighing over 600kg, was a massive step in the right direction. As a bushwalker, writer and photographer I rejoiced in seeing wildflowers emerging in places which had once been nothing more than trampled cow paddocks covered in flies. Creeks, bogs and moss beds that had once been filled with cow dung were for the first time in generations doing what nature had intended them to do, that is to keep our water clean and our landscape healthy.
It was comforting to know that the bad old days of tipping rubbish into alpine gullies, pouring raw sewage into mountain streams and allowing cattle to trample through our alpine meadows were finally over. I was therefore bitterly disappointed when the coalition government allowed cattle back into the Alpine National Park. The reintroduction of cattle will potentially set back the vision of a future three state Australian Alps National Park as well as any possible World Heritage nomination by a decade or more. The environment will suffer, tourism will suffer and Victoria’s reputation as a responsible guardian of public lands will also suffer. The cattlemen cynically justify their cause by arguing that grazing cows reduce fuel loads and therefore bushfire intensity. Peer reviewed scientific studies (which were started back in the early 1940s) have repeatedly shown that cattle do not have any effect on the severity or the spread of fires across the High Country. But lets be honest here. This isn’t a debate about whether or not cows reduce bushfire intensity. It was a political strategy that in part was to ensure that the seat of East Gippsland was returned to the National Party. It’s also about a small number of cattlemen that will benefit financially from this decision. And its about ideology. However, I suspect that cattlemen are doing themselves no favours by bringing cattle back to the park. The movie Man from Snowy River is almost 30 years old and can no longer be considered the powerful propaganda and marketing tool that it once was. An increasingly environmentally aware public are growing sceptical of old bumper stickers that declare that ‘Mountain Cattlemen Care for the High Country’. The once proud image that cattlemen have long enjoyed with the public is today becoming tarnished.
What is especially disturbing is that this government allowed cattle to return to our alpine meadows under a veil of secrecy, at a time of very little media scrutiny due to the mass coverage of the Queensland floods. The government then dressed it up as ‘scientific research’ which is reminiscent of the discredited so-called ‘scientific research’ currently undertaken by the Japanese whaling fleets in our Antarctic oceans. I also believe that Parks Victoria and its staff have been placed into a particularly difficult situation over the reintroduction of cattle grazing. Parks Victoria view themselves as a benchmark in land management, but how do they seriously justify to the public that a cattle station inside a national park is a good idea?
Hope now appears to rest with the federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, who can remove the cattle if his department decides they have the legal grounds to do so. This is based on whether or not cattle have a place in a National Heritage listed area. Also, some of the half dozen sites chosen to host the cattle are reported to be home to nationally endangered and vulnerable species of which the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act could be enacted to protect. The Australian Greens have also indicated that they intend to introduce legislation to outlaw cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park if there is no intervention by the federal government. Even the traditional owners, the Gunaikurnai people, are threatening the Baillieu government with legal action to have the cattle removed.
It was 34 years ago when a visiting park ranger and a book first made me aware of the damage cattle were doing to our High Country, and despite all of our environmental enlightenment over the intervening years we are still battling to get rid of them. Allowing cattle back in the High Country is simply wrong.