Analytical Viewpoint: Strategic Direction For Cooloola
  |  First Published: November 2008

During September, the Minister for Sustainability, Climate Change and Innovation and Member for Hervey Bay, Andrew MacNamara released Strategic Directions for Cooloola for public consultation. This document outlines the proposed future usage of Cooloola National Park and the adjacent beaches and is intended to strike a balance between tourism and the environment with a view to future World Heritage Listing.

Among the proposed changes outlined in Strategic Directions for Cooloola are: the closure of specific beaches to vehicular traffic, compulsory portable toilets for campers and the declaration of the area to come under the RAM (Recreational Area Management) Act. But by far the most controversial of the changes is the introduction of access permits for vehicles travelling anywhere within the Cooloola National Park, including the beaches.

The proposed introduction of this fee has attracted strong criticism from some quarters, but is roundly welcomed in others. The Rainbow Beach community has received quite a lot of media attention for their staunch opposition to any beach access fee as this could cause a potential reduction in tourist numbers to the region. Local business owners are understandably concerned that any drop in tourist numbers could spell the end for many businesses already suffering after a disastrous summer and autumn of foul weather and evacuations. Residents of Rainbow are also unhappy that the beach, which has always been free for them to enjoy, now will cost them and their friends and relatives the price of a permit but with less beach available to drive on.

Teewah residents however are mostly in favour of a permit system and, with no business interests within the community to be affected, their wishes are naturally different to those of Rainbow Beach. It is hoped by Teewah landowners that the introduction of access fees for vehicles, combined with capped camping numbers in Cooloola, will reduce the often heavy traffic flow along this stretch of beach.

Residents of Noosa’s North Shore that don't need to drive on the beach to get to and from home, would largely prefer not to have to pay for permits. And with the 1st cutting to the Noosa River mouth and 3rd cutting to Teewah being proposed as permit free beaches, then many won't need or want to. It remains to be seen however, if these two sections of beach remain permit free with concerted opposition to this plan anticipated.

Then there's the tourists, around whom this whole exercise revolves. The feedback so far received from visitors both long and short term to the region is divided. Many feel that the cost of the permit on top of the well documented increase in the cost of living would be too much for some families to afford, but others are hoping that this cost will provide a better quality experience when visiting Cooloola.

Green groups are delighted that measures are finally being put in place to protect an area that is of significant environmental value and there are few critical voices being heard from this quarter.

The idea of a vehicle permit for Cooloola is certainly not a new one. In January 1989 the then Noosa Shire Council announced that a vehicle permit system would be introduced “within weeks”. This came about after big seas eroded Teewah and Rainbow beaches causing Christmas holidaymakers to drive on the dunes to get up and down the beach. Incidents involving Teewah landowners and the drivers of the dune-going 4WDs brought the issue to a head.

The Noosa Council, under Noel Playford as Mayor, had for some time been concerned about the escalation in vehicle numbers on the North Shore and saw a permit as being a controlling mechanism for these increasing numbers. Negative publicity in the media about damage to the frontal dunes by 4WDs and erosion from heavy seas, were the catalyst for the move. However, due to the fact that Teewah Beach is a gazetted road, Council had no authority to collect monies from permits derived from its usage and the idea died a somewhat rapid death.

Under the RAM act, the State would take control of lands in the Cooloola National Park area, now to be called the Cooloola Recreation Area, that were previously controlled by Sunshine Coast or Gympie Regional Councils. This enables the State, with EPA as managers, to charge fees for access to the region. This is a bone of contention for some who are concerned that under RAM, the EPA would have extra powers and rangers insufficiently trained in the use of these powers. This scenario would be identical to that which currently exists at Fraser Island with Police remaining responsible for traffic related offences.

So where does this leave Andrew MacNamara when decision time arrives and he has to weigh all the wants and wishes of the affected communities against the primary objective of reducing beach traffic and environmental degredation?

The reality is that he can't please all of us irrespective of what is finally decided on. Another reality is that vehicle access permits won't be dropped from the agenda and attempts to convince the Minister otherwise would be futile. The LNP Member for Gympie and Shadow Minister for Sustainability, Climate Change and Innovation, David Gibson, says that 'natural attrition' keeps camping and vehicle numbers down in Cooloola and that vehicle permits and capped camping is unnecessary to achieve this aim. Mr Gibson’s theory that many people don't go to the beach to camp and fish at peak periods and choose to go when it's quieter would have some substance, but Mr MacNamara will not place much value on it and nor can he when the numbers defy the theory.

The Minister, attempting to find some middle ground, stated recently after meetings with representatives from the Rainbow Beach community, that he wasn't greatly opposed to the idea of a day permit or a weekend pass and that he would be looking into the costings associated. Of course a day permit, depending on cost, would be of great value to those wishing just to go for a drive up the beach for a days fishing or surfing or a picnic on the sand and who would otherwise have trouble justifying the $37.10 monthly permit fee to do so. It doesn't assist the weeklong camper, although it can be argued that per day, the cost of a monthly permit is low when considering the benefits associated. But would vehicle numbers still reduce as envisaged when a less expensive day pass is available, and if not, then should permits be put in place at all?

To be considered is the modern philosophy of user pays. The argument has been presented that our beaches are culturally significant to Australians who have always had free access to the beach and World Wars were fought to maintain this democratic right. But does this argument hold water now that the population of Australia and, more specifically South East Queensland, has risen to levels unimaginable 30 years ago and continue to rise? We are all aware this has placed unforeseen pressures on our environment that can't be left unchecked. And if the user who is paying in this instance, stands to gain some tangible benefit through a better quality experience of Cooloolas' beautiful beaches, then is this extra cost such a bad thing? Then there is the fact that virtually every other beach in Australia that has vehicle access already requires a permit.

One of the measures outlined in Strategic Directions for Cooloola is the capping of camping numbers at Inskip Point and along the 15km stretch of Teewah Beach where camping is allowed. Inskip Point will allow a maximum of 3000 campers at peak periods and 1800 for the rest of the year and Teewah Beach a maximum of 2000 campers at peak period, 1200 in shoulder season and 600 campers outside of holidays.

Based on recent year’s camping numbers on Teewah Beach, this in itself will negatively influence vehicle numbers only on occasions when good weather and holidays coincide. Of course, vehicles owned by campers aren't the only vehicles on the beach. Day trippers, tour buses, Teewah residents and those that are using Teewah Beach as a through road to Rainbow Beach and Fraser Island, are also providing a fair proportion of all vehicles on Teewah Beach.

The beach closure between the 1st and 3rd beach access cuttings at the southern end of the Cooloola Recreation Area and the near doubling in size of the Beachfront Caravan Park is also a factor when considering future visitor numbers. This camping and caravan area is currently well used by 2WD and 4WD owners and is right on the beach. With the extra facilities that the upgraded campground will have and the closure of the adjacent beach to vehicles, it can be expected that this caravan/camping park will be well attended by those concerned about the mix of traffic and pedestrians on the beach.

The expansion of the Beachfront Caravan Park will allow for as many as another 300 people to stay there on top of the existing maximum of 400 people. Adjacent land to the south of the caravan park will also be set aside as a day use area with barbecue and picnic facilities supplied. Added to this, the owners of the North Shore Retreat at Lake Cooroibah, Petrac, are currently constructing stage two of a five stage housing development located on lands opposite the High Tide Hotel. On completion of 'Beach Road', 124 houses will be available for rent along with the existing units and bungalows and camping ground. Permits will not be required to access these areas. Lake Freshwater camping area will also be upgraded to cater for an expected 100 extra campers than can currently be accommodated here.

These numbers of extra visitors needs to be included in any estimate of vehicle numbers irrespective of permits that may be imposed. Certainly, this new infrastructure and the tourists that will be drawn to it will potentially counteract any drop in vehicle numbers caused by the introduction of permits at the southern end of Cooloola.

There is another consideration that I have heard very little discussion on so far and that is of the positive affects of World Heritage listing. Successful listing of Cooloola as a World Heritage site would almost certainly attract huge numbers of international visitors, as happens at all World Heritage listed sites. The vast majority of these tourists require the services of hire vehicles, accommodation houses and tour companies along with hospitality providers, which injects capital from outside the community, directly into the businesses providing services to this sector. Fraser Island will continue to draw tourists to Rainbow Beach as a launching pad to the island irrespective of any permit issues.

It is also possible that a vehicle permit system may have very little impact on Rainbow Beach businesses anyway. The majority of traffic going through Rainbow is destined for Fraser Island, which won't be slowed up in the slightest by permits. Inskip Point camping number restrictions still allows for 3000 campers at any one time in peak season. Access to Inskip from Rainbow Beach is a bitumen road, so many of the campers arrive there in 2WD vehicles and wouldn't be interested in permits. It can be anticipated that many of the 4WD owners will be happy to purchase a monthly permit if the feedback from the visiting tourist sector so far is anything to go by.

Then there is the nature of Inskip Point camping ground being very close to the beach, which means that driving on the beach is not essential for able-bodied individuals on this beach. If the Minister follows through with a closure of the beach at Inskip Point, then it is likely that not many will want or need to purchase permits. I feel however, that a walking pace speed limit for the beach at Inskip Point would be advisable in order to assist in finding an appropriate balance between safety and the quality of the experience of campers to the area. This also provides the ability for elderly or disabled individuals to still enjoy this beach.

There will undoubtedly be those who refuse to purchase permits and will find alternative destinations to spend their hard earned cash. There will also be those who have stayed away from Cooloola because of the high traffic volume on the beach and legitimate safety concerns for themselves and their families. Already there are a number of these people voicing their enthusiasm for the permit system so that they may return once again to the area with the knowledge that there would be less traffic that is greater policed.

In the past, the Noosa Shire Council has resisted contemplating a bridge over the Noosa River, insisting that the ferry is the only means by which to control vehicle numbers on the North Shore. This may have been the case in the early 80s when only one ferry operated from 6am to 6pm and requests by the ferry owners at the time to be allowed to run a second ferry were refused by Council on these grounds. At some stage however, this philosophy seems to have fallen into antiquity and with a percentage of each fare collected on the ferry going to Council, then one can perhaps understand why.

The current owners of Noosa River Ferries commenced their 10 year lease with the Council in 1999 with new, larger ferries that could carry more vehicles and operated for longer hours. This lease expires next year and is currently out to tender with three other applicants having announced intentions to tender. It is anticipated that the successful tenderer would be required to install new, larger ferries with the objective of carrying more vehicles to increase the efficiency of the service.

This being the case, then any controlling of vehicle numbers that the ferries may once have been contributing, can't be considered to be doing so any longer. So it would appear that if vehicle numbers are to be controlled, as seems to be the want of most beach users, then there needs to be introduced some method that will do just this. To date, I haven't heard any credible suggestions made as to how this might be achieved which leads us back to vehicle access fees as being the only method available.

It is after a great deal of thought on my part and after consultation with all user groups involved, that I have arrived at a conclusion that can't be avoided. If the Cooloola Recreation Area is to be afforded any realistic environmental protection, then protective measures must be functional. Likewise, if future users of Teewah and Rainbow beaches are to be given the opportunity to enjoy their experience without massive and increasing volumes of traffic to contend with, then vehicle numbers need to be controlled.

When there is no other practical measure available to us for controlling vehicle numbers, then the cost associated with an access permit is the only measure, other than the natural attrition that Dave Gibson talks about, that would cause 4WD owners to adjust their beach going regularity. If we arrive at the point where natural attrition is keeping numbers down however, then that means that this beach isn't a very good place to be anymore. Be assured though, that I would much prefer it if these beaches weren't under the amount of pressure that they are and measures such as this weren't required. But that is not the case and the realities are what they are.

The introduction of a day permit, as well intentioned as it would be to soften the blow to those least able to afford extra costs, undoes any original intentions of traffic control. A growing population ensures that vehicle numbers would still climb and as such becomes merely a revenue raiser for Government. Unfortunately, under these circumstances, the day permit idea needs to be scrapped to ensure that Strategic Directions for Cooloola is an effective management plan.

Furthermore, the proposed permit-free beaches from the 1st cutting to the river mouth and 3rd cutting to Teewah need to have permits apply also. These stretches would become insanely busy with day visitors and through traffic and this causes serious safety concerns for bathers and beach users generally. Add an increasing horse riding population to these very beaches and the risks are compounded substantially.

Pressures being brought to bear on these sections of beach from 4WDs and foot traffic on the frontal dunes will have consequences in an area that is particularly vulnerable to erosion. Low pressure systems and cyclones arrive here from the north, bringing large northerly swells that impact greatly on this north facing stretch of Laguna Bay, as was well demonstrated last summer. Coffee Rock patches that exist between the 3rd cut and Teewah exacerbate this erosion and safety can again be compromised when vehicles traverse these rocks following storm events. Locations where vehicles park at the back of the beach are the erosion points most affected, with the dune proper often exposed as a result. There have been countless incidents over the years around these rocks and in front of Teewah with many serious injuries involved. These incidents can only become more frequent with increased traffic and greater erosion as a result.

The accumulation of vehicles in front of Teewah resulting from the currently proposed permit boundary will definitely have drastic ramifications for Teewah landowners. The village is already somewhat of a tourist attraction with a steady stream of vehicles driving around the streets, just having a look. This would become a significant problem for the village in itself with safety likely to be compromised and a high population of children playing and running within the village become vulnerable. Then there is foot traffic from the accumulated vehicles and potential for vandalism, crime, squatters, and a depreciation in land values.

Erosion is also a very significant issue here with coffee rock present and a volume of foot traffic that already creates erosion points in front of the village. A major increase in vehicle and foot traffic in front of Teewah has the potential during cyclone seasons to cut through the dune proper, exposing houses constructed at the top of those dunes in the long term.

The wisdom of allowing the 1st cutting to the river mouth to remain permit free has to be questioned. A traffic free area has been set aside at the river mouth for protection of tern and shorebird populations. The banning of vehicles was designed to prevent the crushing of eggs and disturbance of the resting terns, but would now be a pointless exercise as the volume of pedestrians that will use the area are likely to impact to the same level anyway. This stretch of beach is particularly vulnerable to erosion due to northerly swells also and areas that are used for parking of vehicles and picnics in the past are the erosion points most affected.

Regularly voiced in this debate so far is the scepticism of people that revenue raised from vehicle permits will be funnelled back in to the region in the way of infrastructure. As has been widely recognised, there is a limit to how much infrastructure can actually be provided to the area, which begs the question of where the collected monies will really be spent. There is certainly a requirement for more rangers to be employed in the policing and management of the camping areas, but beyond that, it is hard to envisage where this money will be spent.

David Gibson argues that the upgrade of Cooloola Way, from Kin Kin to Rainbow Beach, would be a suitable alternative to vehicle permits as it would provide another avenue for Brisbane based tourists to get to Rainbow Beach. Although I would disagree that an upgrade of this road would reduce traffic flow on Teewah Beach to any measurable level, the idea itself has distinct merits as a further lifeblood to the businesses of Rainbow Beach. And if the revenue raised from permits exceeds that which is required to fund infrastructure on the North Shore, then Cooloola Way would be a worthy beneficiary of these extra funds. Having said this, I wonder whether those businesses in Gympie, which are in the heartland of David Gibsons electorate, that currently tap into this tourist traffic would have the same sentiments.

I have no doubts that there will be many readers who disagree wholeheartedly with much of what is written here. However I am well aware that there will be plenty who agree with me. Striking the balance between conservation and human usage of the Great Sandy Region has always been a two edged sword. But for the first time, we actually have a management plan that addresses the obvious overcrowding issues that have been prevalent since 1989. As it stands, Strategic Directions for Cooloola is not quite perfect in my opinion, but it is not far off. Even the Rainbow Beach business community have applauded aspects of the plan and access permits are the only real sticking point.

However, compared to logging of Fraser Island, sand mining of Fraser and Cooloola, or green zones in Moreton Bay or the Great Barrier Reef, the repercussions to the business and employment opportunities of the region are at worst minimal and at best an improvement. And gauging from feedback across all communities on this plan so far, it will be received by the majority in a positive light and this justifies the end.

Note: Lindsay Dines is a permanent resident and landowner of Teewah.

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