Data collected from Daintree Rainforest Camera Traps over the month of September 2020, accrued 62-cassowaries, 22-dingoes and 136-feral pigs.  As aggregated percentages, cassowaries were 5% down for the month, dingoes were 24% up and feral-pigs were even.

As I tallied the monthly data, my mind persistently wavered toward the Daintree River Crossing (DRC) – Options Assessment Report, which is currently open for public consultation.  The outcome of the Local Government Election on 28 March 2020, gave the incoming Douglas Shire Council (DSC) a clear mandate for change, which they are pursuing, in part, with the DRC.  Daintree ferry congestion is a significant and outstanding problem, particularly between the winter and spring school holiday periods, when travellers can spend between 2 and 3-hours queueing in each direction, whilst community surveying identified that reduction in waiting times is by far the main area sought for improvement.

As a word of warning, neither the ferry, nor a replacement bridge, exists in isolation.  To all intents and purposes, the DRC is the gateway to the second-most irreplaceable natural and mixed World Heritage site currently included on the World Heritage List.  Greatly enhancing these outstanding values, the contiguous portion of Great Barrier Reef and, at its nexus, the world’s most diverse mangrove community, compounds this phenomenal fusion of World Heritage wonders into nature’s masterpiece.  The only World Heritage-listed property ranked higher, is Canaima National Park in south-eastern Venezuela along the border between Guyana and Brazil, which covers more than 3-million hectares.  As Queensland’s Wet Tropics covers less than one-third the area of Canaima and the Daintree – Cape Tribulation section indisputably contains the richest and most irreplaceable portion, the area of the shire that the DRC provides access to represents the most irreplaceable World Heritage area on the planet per unit area.

Australia is duty-bound to protect, conserve, present, rehabilitate and transmit to future generations these World Heritage Values.  Members of the Douglas Shire are also utterly dependent on the tourism revenue generated by these values and the quality of their protection, making the irreplaceability even greater and for the people of the Douglas Shire that inhabit this unique environment and the progeny of those that were forcibly evicted after thousands of generations of inhabitancy, the irreplaceability and economic importance is even greater again, for it is also the environmental repository of their collective memories.  Therefore, in aspiring to improve service-delivery, DSC must embrace the unrivalled treasury of these irreplaceable World Heritage values, with a world-class gateway infrastructure and management.

Camera Traps – September 2020 – image highlights for the month of September

There are, of course, regulatory and economic constraints and guidelines that limit the scope of the gateway’s potential.  Australia is bound internationally by the articles of the World Heritage Convention and has vested its compliance requirements through the Wet Tropics World Heritage Management Scheme and the statutory powers of the Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA).  Whether or not a bridge across the Daintree River requires approval from the Wet Tropics Ministerial Council or a permit from the WTMA Board of Directors, opponents have already beseeched UNESCO, as well as the Hon. Sussan Ley MP, Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Ms. Emma Campbell, the Chair of the ACIUCN Executive Committee & Acting First Assistant Secretary, Biodiversity Conservation, with an impassioned call to intervene.

Only two properties have been de-listed, since the World Heritage Convention was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1972; one, in 2009, because the bridge (below) was constructed across the Elbe River, within the World Heritage-listed Dresden Elbe Valley in Saxony, Germany.  Construction stalled to ensure that the endangered Lesser Horseshoe Bat was protected, as it was believed that only around 650 remained in Germany, with some living near the site of the proposed bridge, however German courts ruled in November 2007 that work could resume.

Daderot / CC0
Waldschlösschen Bridge (148 m.)

I fear that federally-declared Endangered Southern Cassowaries, which are far more important to irreplaceable World Heritage Values than Lesser Horseshoe Bats, are also far more vulnerable to car strike with the increased numbers of vehicles and vehicular traffic-flow conferred by a bridge.  Also, the number of cassowaries killed by illegally-released pig-dogs, which is already unacceptable, will significantly increase with 24-hour bridge thoroughfare.  This unacceptable mortality will extend to a great many other World Heritage inhabitants, including Bennett’s Tree-kangaroos and other endemics.

Denying the custodial community of the requisite tools and authority to protect their environmental assets from mass intrusion of unmanageable interlopers, has allowed the devastation that is already inflicted upon declared Indigenous Sacred Sites, but this destruction and desecration will only worsen with more open access across the DRC.

State & Local Government Constraints:

“The Far North Queensland Regional Plan 2009–2031 is a State planning instrument made by the Minister to protect or give effect to State interests.  Under Transport infrastructure – Regional FNQ – The car ferry crossing on the Daintree River will continue to limit development north of the river, while the road between the Daintree and Bloomfield Rivers will continue to be a scenic/adventure drive, adjacent to the Wet Tropics World Heritage area.  Under Regional landscape values – Land use policies – Aligned strategies – The ferry crossing at the Daintree River is maintained to protect the World Heritage and scenic values of the area north of the Daintree River.  The landscape and scenic elements of the Douglas Shire are considered by many residents and visitors as being regionally significant. The policies included in this section protect these values of the area by maintaining existing policies to maintain the car ferry crossing on the Daintree River.  It is important that development north of the Daintree River remains low key and sustainable to protect the scenic and World Heritage values and character of the area. The existing access configuration and lack of mains power are two major reasons why the area north of the Daintree River has remained in a relatively undeveloped state.  They are also the reasons why the area has maintained its heritage status and attractiveness to tourists.  The Douglas Shire planning scheme provides for limited infrastructure provision north of the Daintree River, with a strong preference for self-sufficiency using sustainable technologies.  The regional plan supports these elements of the scheme.  The Daintree River ferry crossing is an important element of the tourist experience and tourism economy, creating a sense of destination and emphasising the isolation and significance of the area.  The ferry limits the number of vehicles that can travel into the area during peak periods, which serves to limit undesirable crowding on roads and at visitor facilities.  In this regard, maintaining a car ferry, as opposed to constructing a bridge crossing, remains a policy for the region.

The DSC Planning scheme policy – Places of significance
SC6.11.6 Details of Places of significance & Table SC6.11.a – Places of significance:

6.  Daintree Ferry – Cape Tribulation Road at the Daintree River crossing
7.  Blue Hole – Diwan – Off Turpentine Road, including Blue Hole, the watercourse and banks beyond, to the north of Cooper Creek (extent to be determined)”

Development Concerns

Concern has been expressed for runaway development and most particularly human modifications that degrade the highly-evolved World Heritage values that the area is renowned for.  The residential subdivisions of the early nineteen-eighties were most concerning.  Whilst the contingent approval of the Queensland Government arguably protected vast areas of rainforest from sugar-cane-cropping, the sheer number of properties and their relatively small size had potential for terrible environmental degradation.  Subsequent reduction in settlement density was sought by all levels of government, with $23-million allocated for that very purpose, but only 83 properties were purchased, three-quarters of which was cleared land.

The most significant developments to have occurred since World Heritage-listing, are the bitumen-sealing of the Cape Tribulation Road to a two-wheel-drive standard and the construction and maintenance of enough publicly-funded-boardwalks and picnic-facilities to cater for some 700,000 visitors-per-year.  The subsidisation of these facilities for free-entry skews the tourism market into a largely non-contributory coincidental mass-visitation, causing grotesque congestion on the ferry and destruction of sacred sites.  The local community is largely by-passed and their lands rampantly trespassed upon.  Whilst the abundance of subsidised visitor facilities was meant to support the accommodation hubs of Cairns and Port Douglas, its greatest beneficiaries are almost certainly the car-rental agencies within these regional hubs, deriving subsidised income from free & independent travellers (FITS).

There can be no denying that this particular investment in development sought to undermine the viability of a politically-opposed residential community and to achieve an ideological objective of minimised residential impact.  In 1993, Commercial Activity Permits were frozen under Ministerial moratorium and shortly thereafter, WTMA established within its policy framework, that future growth beyond the sustainable level of visitor-use in the Daintree-Cape Tribulation area will be directed to appropriate areas south of the Daintree River.  Serving an international purpose on Australia’s behalf, under State administration, the formal adoption of this re-direction policy was intergovernmental, but it also extended beyond the boundaries of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area into adjacent jurisdictions and across the trade boundaries of privately-held lands.

In November 2000, the Wet Tropics Ministerial Council endorsed the Daintree Futures Study, which promoted the Daintree Ferry as an attractive gateway experience for visitors to the area, recommending that ferry-fees be increased from $7 to $10 per crossing, to deflect an additional fifteen-percent of travellers from crossing the Daintree River, on top of the fifteen-percent already identified as having turned away at the ferry because of existing ferry-charges.  Ferry-fees were further increased in 2003 with the introduction of a Conservation & Infrastructure Management Levy.  In response to complaints from the business community north of the Daintree River, the Queensland Ombudsman investigated the levy and found it illegal, but the DSC challenged the Ombudsman’s findings in the Supreme Court, where the presiding Justice noted:

“The operating surplus in respect of the ferry (including the conservation component) exceeds fifty-percent of the costs of the ferry’s operation and maintenance.”

According to the Minister for Local Government at the time, legal obligation based on case law requires that funds from such general charges should represent, as near as practicable, the cost to the local government of supplying the service or facility (in this case, the fee for using the ferry should reflect the cost of operating and maintaining the ferry service).  In 2008, the Queensland Government amalgamated the Douglas Shire into an expanded Cairns Region and the new Regional Government subsequently increased ferry charges, which were increased yet again, subject to de-amalgamation after 1 January 2014.  This ever-increasing over-charging, as a condition for travel across the ferry, seizes income from visitors attracted to the area north of the ferry-crossing and sets these accrued funds aside, purportedly to ensure that the income generated from ferry operations is sufficient to fund whole of life-cycle costs to sustain the required level of service and to establish an internally constrained reserve to cover future capital works expenditure and unforeseen events.

Restitution

DSC’s long-term vision to develop a world-class gateway befitting the World Heritage values of the Daintree-Cape Tribulation area, has been defined within a Daintree Gateway Master Plan, which prioritises a suite of foundation projects for the transformation of the gateway precinct.  Clear and precise practice regarding the contribution and application of funds for the Daintree Ferry operations, are established within DSC’s adopted Daintree Ferry Revenue General Policy, including expenditure related to progressing the initiatives detailed in the Daintree Gateway Master Plan.  User-pays is an important principle defined within the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment 1992 and a defining quality of sustainable ecotourism.  To comply with such a principle, the extraction of payment from travellers across the ferry and over-charging beyond full operational cost-recovery, should rightfully go into the management of the area that the traveller has paid to enter, however, not only does the Daintree Ferry Revenue General Policy preclude the application of these accrued funds for such an ecologically compliant purpose, it also allows for the surplus funds to be used to support the infrastructure upgrading of the Daintree Ferry Crossing Reserve Project, which has since become known as the western precinct and yet this launch facility had the dedicated purpose of deflecting tourism away from the ferry-crossing.  Contrary to the principle of user-pays, travellers determined to cross the ferry are required to pay for the development of a facility whose strategic purpose is to decrease the number of people willing to pay for the ferry-crossing.

As Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest nations per capita, such an irreplaceable environmental treasure deserves a world-leading ecotourism, that inspires other destinations of environmental significance to emulate Australia’s outstanding performance.  The reason it shamefully delivers the opposite, is mirrored in the uncharitable electricity policy, where the environment most-deserving of the cleanest form of electricity, rather receives the dirtiest and most-expensive.   A history of prejudice has poisoned policy and regulation into this area since the sub-divisions of the early-eighties were approved and this is the principal change that DSC’s mandate needs to overturn.  The area could easily become as important as an example of environmentally harmonious human occupation, as for its surrounding natural treasures, if, in the official support of the area, love of landholders could replace contempt and if regulatory provisions allow for the custodial community to benefit from the protection of their natural environment, the visitor and resident alike could enjoy the spiritual refreshment of penetrating the edge of a wilderness while enjoying the reassurance of basic human society.

The most critically important threats to the World Heritage values, require that the people and communities from within that specific environment be entrusted with an area-inclusive management and protection power, including all the requisite tools for the fulfilment of such a responsibility and that a world-class ecotourism provides the conservation economy.  Ideally, the authority for this all-encompassing authority would be delegated through local government for local employment.  After all, it is the people living within the valuable landscape that not only provide the eyes and ears for its passionate and freely-given vigilance, but also derive the greatest and most-cost-effective benefits from its optimised custodianship.  Their inhabitancy provides the most reliable response to emerging concerns and their successfulness will inspire other communities within other valuable natural landscapes, in-kind.  To this end, a review of the existing ferry’s management and charging has the greatest potential to undo the ill-spirited impacts of the past, including the horrendous congestion and initiate a new era of pro-active world-leading management.

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