Big Kimberley park a positive for the State

Mitchell Falls, part of the new Kimberley national park created by the State Government. Picture: Jeanette Jones

The creation of Australia’s biggest national park in the Kimberley is an important step in the preservation of the unique natural wonders of this extraordinary part of the world.

West Australians should welcome the setting aside of a substantial and spectacular area of wilderness in a major new conservation reserve. The Mitchell Plateau and Mitchell Falls will be the focal points of the Kimberley National Park but the reserve will stretch over 20,000sqkm north of Derby.

It has taken detailed negotiations between the State Government and two of the world’s biggest resources companies for the park plan to take shape. Rio Tinto and Alcoa should be commended for their agreement to relinquish mineral leases over 175,000ha of the park area.

The strong focus on the need to preserve the unspoilt wilderness of the Kimberley, combined with the high cost of developing the bauxite reserves, made it unlikely that the companies would ever develop the leases, but handing them back to the State for conservation purposes was a magnanimous gesture which should be recognised.

Rio Tinto and other companies have explored the area since the 1970s for its mineral potential. Rio and Alcoa had a State Agreement allowing bauxite mining but also requiring the development of an alumina refinery, which Rio Tinto chief executive Sam Walsh conceded this week would be “economically challenging”.

WA has built its strong economy on the back of the resources industry but this agreement is recognition that tourism also plays a key role in the State’s success. West Australians may be well aware of the appeal of the Kimberley but for the rest of the world, it is an undiscovered gem. The establishment of this park, as well as providing protection for rare flora and fauna, should help lift the region’s profile on the global tourism map.

Premier Colin Barnett was enthusiastic about the national park announcement on Tuesday. He pointed out that his Government has also been a strong advocate of marine parks in the Kimberley, establishing significant reserves in Camden Sound and Eighty Mile Beach, and planning is under way for three more at Roebuck Bay, Horizontal Falls and the north Kimberley.

All this is inarguably a good outcome for conservation. But Mr Barnett does have a deficit of goodwill with environmental campaigners in the Kimberley and this may be seen as a step towards making up for some of the ground lost in the battle for James Price Point.

The Premier’s single-minded bid to develop land north of Broome for a gas processing hub created a huge backlash and division in local communities.

Despite the obvious merits of the James Price Point project in terms of job creation and economic development, there was much resentment about the environmental effects of a big industrial estate on the unspoilt Kimberley coast.

The decision by Woodside Petroleum and its Browse partners to drop the hub plan in favour of floating technology effectively ended the issue but it will take a long time for the ill will to dissipate.