Conservationists have hailed the extension of protection of the Gardens of Stone, a region of dramatic rock formations and rare wildlife in the Blue Mountains that has long been threatened by coalmines.
The New South Wales government is set to announce on Saturday a $50m plan to transfer about 31,500ha of state forest and other crown land west of Sydney into a state conservation area.
The area is home to the endangered giant dragonfly and purple copper butterfly, delicate alpine swamps, and sand and ironstone rocks weathered into pagoda-like formations.
“That’s the beauty of the place and every bit of it is a thrill to discover,” said Keith Muir, a former director of the Colong Foundation for Wilderness who began campaigning for its protection almost 30 years ago. “It’s a fantastic achievement to get that money through cabinet for this reserve.”
The state’s environment minister, Matt Kean, inspected the region by helicopter in January but had to secure support from Paul Toole, the local Nationals MP, wooing him with a plan to develop the area into an eco-tourism and adventure destination.
With the resignation of Gladys Berejiklian as premier last month, Kean is now also the treasurer, while Toole has become deputy premier following the exit of John Barilaro.
“This new set of reserves will rival the Three Sisters in Katoomba as the destination for visitors and tourists to the mountains west of Sydney,” Kean said. “It will also provide a much-needed lasting legacy for the environment, protecting and providing habitat for numerous threatened and endangered species for future generations.”
The area will retain existing four-wheel-drive circuits and about 30km of mountain bike tracks. It will also have a five-day walking track linking the Wollemi and Blue Mountain national parks and the state’s first Via Ferrata rock-climbing route.
The attractions are expected to lure an extra 200,000 visitors a year and create about 200 jobs in a region hit by declining coal production and the closure of one of its two coal-fired power plants.
Julie Favell and Chris Jonkers from the Lithgow Environment Group, who have also campaigned for many years to protect the region, say they are “humbled and overjoyed” by the announcement.
“It’s a storybook of nature,” Favell said.
Their efforts were prompted by the discovery of dying swamps caused by subsidence from an underground coalmine in the area.
“Once we found the first swamp that was damaged, honestly in our hearts, we couldn’t walk away without fighting,” Favell said. “It was passion and it was just heart-wrenching – I mean, it’s still heart-wrenching.”
They have opposed plans for other mines in the region, including open-cut ones, often speaking out in hostile public gatherings.
“It’s one of the worst feelings walking into a room and it’s that divide-and-conquer feeling. We always felt we were losing but we still fought,” Favell said, adding members of her group would often rush home after the meetings, fearing their homes would be damaged by pro-coal locals.
Madi Maclean, senior vice president of the Blue Mountains Conservation Society, said it was the campaign to save the Gardens of Stone that got her interested in environmental activism.
“It just seemed so unfair and so wrong, I guess, that this area was not being protected, given the richness of the plants and animals, and the incredible landscape,” she said.
The challenge now will be ensuring that the expected influx to areas such as the Lost City and other rock formations, as well as Indigenous rock shelters and other heritage at the Maiyingu Marragu Aboriginal Place, can be managed, Maclean said.
Toole said the spending had the potential to deliver “a massive boost”, pouring millions of dollars into Lithgow’s economy.
“This investment will deliver an iconic tourism and adventuring experience right on Sydney’s doorstep and represents one of the state’s largest ever investment in a regional ecotourism project,” he said.
For Muir, it’s a crowning achievement of his career to know many more people will get to experience what he has on his countless walks in the area.
“Clambering down narrow defiles and, you know, walking around a corner and discovering an overhang or a ferny glade or a canyon, wading through a creek and discovering groves of huge trees and trickling streams,” Muir said.
“Every bit of it is a thrill to discover and that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “That’s why you and me and everybody keeps going back there – because it’s always different.”