History of cableway proposals in Springbrook National Park

Periodically, the idea of a cableway to Springbrook National Park, part of the Gondwana Rainforests World Heritage Area, is proposed.

Originally proposed in 1998 by Ray Stevens (see background below), he then again, as a Member of the Newman government, announced in Parliament (October 31, 2014), he would build a private tourist enterprise – the Skyride Cableway through the world heritage listed Springbrook National Park. His announcement was made right after he voted in Parliament to change the purpose of the Nature Conservation Act to allow private business development on publicly owned national parks. Indeed when he announced the project in the Parliament he said that, despite his job as a member of parliament, he was the consultant and investor for the project, holding 300,000 class A shares. The LNP subsequently lost the 2015 election, and the Palaszczek government made changes to the purpose of the Nature Conservation Act in its first term, largely reversing it (but not entirely).

A cableway to Springbrook was again mooted in 2017 by Paul Donovan, Chair of Destination Gold Coast in the Gold Coast Bulletin. Wayne Moran, former – and now disgraced – chief of staff for Mayor Tom Tate, was/is a director on the Board of Ray Stevens cableway company. Former Tourism Queensland and theme park boss Terry Jackman was Chair of the company. It didn’t go anywhere at that time.

In 2019 (before Wayne Moran was stood down) and prior to the 2020 Council election, Mayor Tom Tate made an election commitment for a feasibility study into a cableway through Springbrook National Park. That study is currently in a “pre-feasibility” stage. There is speculation in the Tallebudgera Valley that land owned by Ridong towards the end of Tallebudgera Creek Road has been identified for the entrance facility to the cableway (although Ray Stevens’ company also owns land at Neranwood, which was originally mooted for the entrance facility).

This is an issue that is likely to raise alarm bells on a number of fronts.

Background

In 1998, Ray Stevens, then a private businessman, with a consortium which included Terry Morris (Sirromet Wines/Carrara markets), announced on the front page of the Gold Coast Bulletin that he was going to build a cableway, called Naturelink, through the spectacular World Heritage listed Springbrook National Park. National Parks (and the then Beattie Government) didn’t know about the proposal until it appeared in the paper.

After an extensive Environmental Impact Assessment process, and considerable concern by not just the Springbrook community, but the Gold Coast community, the Coordinator-General in the Beattie government refused the application, based on a range of unacceptable impacts. This was just before the 2001 election, and the Gold Coast, including Mudgeeraba (a key seat protesting about Naturelink), secured 6 seats, This was no doubt assisted by the turn against One Nation, but the cableway was a very contentious issue being run through a high profile “Cableway, No Way” campaign.

The Assessment process found that;

  • being a small park of less than 2,800 hectares, the clearing for the giant pylons, landing stations and access paths would adversely impact on the natural values (which include some 60 threatened species);
  • there was also a significant fire history and danger in getting people out if fire broke out;
  • there were big issues with hundreds of thousands of visitors to the head of the Gold Coast water supply catchment with no sewage treatment works (saying they would truck the human waste off the mountain);
  • geotechnical studies demonstrated the vulnerability of the area to landslide (indeed walking tracks have been repeatedly closed due to landslide) and;
  • the narrow winding road to Springbrook and the road through Mudgeeraba to the proposed entrance station weren’t suitable for the number of proposed tour buses and supply trucks.

So, after two years of careful consideration, the Beattie government refused it. Perhaps a good idea, but in the wrong place.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its State of Conservation Report in 2000 “reiterated its concern in relation to the potential impact of the cable car project on World Heritage values and draw attention to similarities between this project and the cable car proposal at Morne Trois Piton National Park of Dominica. In the case of the latter, the State Party, following the recommendations of the Committee decided to relocate the site of construction of the cable car to areas outside the boundaries of the World Heritage property.

None of these issues have changed. Springbrook is still world heritage listed and a comparatively small park with a high number of threatened plants and animals, the town still has no town sewerage system (unable to cope with the estimated 800,000 people depositing their human waste at the head of the Gold Coast water supply), it is still eucalypt forest at risk of fire, there is still a narrow road up and down the mountain (so how will the supply trucks get there – indeed the main road was closed for 18 months following ex-tropical Cyclone Debbie), power upgrades to support the cableway are estimated to cost the state at least $10million and “big hitters” on the Gold Coast are still pushing for a massive private development on a public, world heritage listed national park, despite it falling over numerous times.

What has changed is that last season’s bushfires burned more than 50% of the Gondwana Rainforests World Heritage Area, including 26% of its rainforest, (forest that ‘doesn’t burn’). Springbrook was spared this time, but with more intense and frequent fire events as a result of climate change, it remains an even greater risk for a cableway. And the unburnt areas are even more important for protecting the area’s outstanding universal values. It is mooted that the feasibility study will look at less fire-prone routes than the original proposal, but in contemporary conditions, that is an illusion.

Given the impact of fire across the world heritage area, the World Heritage Committee and IUCN would look even less favourably at such a proposal than they did in 2000. Indeed, the IUCN World Heritage Outlook Report 2020 assessed the Gondwana Rainforests World Heritage Area to be of “significant concern”, the same assessment as the Great Barrier Reef in 2017 (now assessed at “critical”). The Gold Coast tourism industry does not need another Reef ‘World Heritage in Danger’ issue.

The Skyrail in Cairns has been successful – why is this different?

The Skyrail has been a successful tourism venture in the Wet Tropics. After 7 years of assessment, it was approved on the edge of a 900,000ha world heritage area – so does not sever a relatively small area like Springbrook at less than 3000ha. Although there are threatened species across that 900,000ha, there are half as many across a much wider area. It runs through rainforest so the fire risk is much lower and there is highway infrastructure and other tourism infrastructure to support it, leaving from Cairns and arriving in Kuranda. It is not at the head of the Cairns water supply, and Kuranda has sewage systems. Also, it commenced in 1995, predating the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, which now assesses impacts on matters of national significance, including World Heritage and threatened species. So Skyrail in Cairns is very different to a Springbrook proposal.

There are great cableways throughout the world, but Springbrook is not the right location. There had been talk that a cableway to Tamborine would give great views of the Gold Coast and a great experience, with a lot of tourism infrastructure already established and no water catchment issues, but that would mean the developers would need to buy or use private land for more of the route, instead of taxpayer funded land.

Why do they want to use Springbrook National Park?

Springbrook is a spectacular place – people go there and are refreshed by its unspoilt beauty, both the town and the park.

It is recognised as part of one of the world’s most outstanding and valuable places – the Gondwana Rainforests. Some 500,000 people (including tourists, bushwalkers, picnickers and birdwatchers, and numerous commercial tour operators) visit each year and are refreshed by its unspoilt beauty, both the town and the park. It is world heritage listed – which means it has values that are internationally significant and have, or should have, the highest level of protection.

No doubt that would give a private developer a marketing advantage. Of course, it is also proposed to build the cableway predominantly on state owned lands – which must be seen as a cheap option – but there is no indication who would pay for electricity, road upgrades and sewage treatment.

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