Pastoralists angry over Ningaloo 'land grab'

Quobba Station. Supplied picture

When Bernice McLeod is feeling up to it, the 97-year-old loves nothing more than watching the humpbacks go by as she sits on her veranda overlooking the Ningaloo marine park.

Warroora Station has been her home for more than 20 years.

Guardianship of the fragile coast and surrounding waters is a labour of love for four generations of the family living on the property.

About 100km to the north, 90-year-old Billie Lefroy has spent her life living on Ningaloo Station.

In the twilight of a hard but wonderful life, she spends her time worrying about a State Government push to take control of the station and its coastline.

Billie Lefroy's daughter Jane and son-in-law Phil Kendrick face losing their entire pastoral lease within months because they refused to agree to a Government demand to give up almost half their land, including their house, all of their watering points, their shearing shed and quarters, their airstrip and camping areas.

Bernice McLeod and her family at Warroora Station face losing a 2km-wide strip stretching 50km along the coast that includes carefully managed camping spots and valuable grazing land for their merino sheep.

Gnaraloo Station owner Paul Richardson will also lose a big chunk cut from his lease in what he describes as a land grab under plans for tourism development on the Ningaloo coast.

The Government is standing firm on a planning document prepared in 2004 that earmarks pastoral land along the coast for a string of "tourism nodes", including facilities with up to 500 beds.

Mr Richardson said one of the sites identified for a 100-bed eco-lodge at Gnaraloo - where he maintains a ban on beachside camping and use of motor vehicles - is right on top of WA's biggest mainland loggerhead turtle rookery.

The pastoralists from Ningaloo to Quobba - where the rough and ready Red Bluff surf camp is earmarked for a "200-bed equivalent minor tourism node" - argue they are far better custodians of the coast.

They have been fighting State and Federal authorities on the issue for more than decade.

In 2011, they sent a representative to Paris and convinced UNESCO to exclude their leases from Ningaloo world heritage listing. UNESCO took the world heritage boundary to 40m beyond the high-water mark and recognised that the management skill of the pastoralists was part of the reason the coast was in almost pristine condition.

In addition to their livestock businesses, the stations run camping and wilderness tourism ventures that rely on people power and local campsite rules to protect the coast.

People can stay at the various camping, fishing and surfing spots for as little as $35 a week but the pastoralists warn time is running out to save this unique slice of WA life.

All of WA's 507 pastoral leases covering more than 87 million hectares are due to expire on June 30.

The Department of Lands sent out lease renewals for signing late last year but the owners of Ningaloo, Warroora, Gnaraloo and Quobba missed out.

They are still in the dark about their future and just how much of their land the State Government will take as part of any lease renewals.

Bernice McLeod's daughter Leonie said the family agreed to a 2km-wide, 50km-long exclusion in 2004 after the Government "put a gun to our head".

The McLeods fought the exclusion all the way to the Supreme Court but were told they risked losing their entire lease unless they agreed.

Leonie McLeod is scathing of the Government and fears for the coast if it falls into the hands of the Department of Lands, the Department of Parks and Wildlife and tourism developers.

"If we don't sign off on these exclusions, all the pastoral lease holders along the world heritage area face having no lease at all come June 30," she said.

"We have four generations living here, including my seven-year-old grandson, who would love to run the place one day, two granddaughters, my son and his wife. We are passionate about the place."

The family have launched an online petition that states: "We (the pastoralists on the land 365 days of the year) have kept this priceless wilderness intact for over 20 years and now our government wants to carve up slices and sell it off to the highest bidder for tourist developments, all the while under the pretext of conservation."

Mr Kendrick said Ningaloo Station was the lifelong home of his wife and mother-in-law, but the Government seemed determined to take it away for tourism development.

"They want to do glamp-ing development for ecotourism, which is just flavour of the month terminology for putting in $600-a-night tents to cater for the rich and famous," Mr Kendrick said.

"We are booked out until 2018 and our camping fees are only $35 a week.

"The point is the pensioners and other people who stay on the coast become the eyes and ears of society, they become involved in clean-up, they become involved in rehabilitation, in delineation of roads and camping sites.

"The people who live on the ground like us we are with fire and emergency services, volunteer sea rescue, involved in recovery of vehicles and medical evacuations and you just don't get that when you live 138km or two hours away in Exmouth."

Lands Minister Terry Redman, who is responsible for lease renewals, said the Government was in negotiations with pastoralists on coastal exclusion areas.

He said exclusion areas would become unallocated crown land on July 1 and reserves following completion of indigenous land use agreements.

Mr Redman said any low- impact tourism and recreation development would be consistent with the WA Planning Commission's Ningaloo coast regional strategy from 2004.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting