Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area

Gardens of Stone




Central Tablelands, NSW


This stunning landscape of rock pagodas, cliffs and canyons protects important cultural heritage, threatened species and ecological treasures. Reserved as a ‘national park in waiting’ while coal mining in the region winds down, this reserve links the Wollemi, Blue Mountains and Gardens of Stone national parks.



Proposal


  • 70 kilometre ‘Great Walk’ with three exclusive accommodation hubs. This is: expensive to build (and comes at the expense of conservation outcomes and low-key, publicly accessible visitor amenities); exclusive; has negative impacts on the environment
  • 35+ kilometres of single-track mountain bike loops: expensive, requires land clearing
  • 100+ kilometres of 4WD tracks: environmentally destructive


Developer


Wild Bush Luxury Experience Ltd (an Experience Co subsidiary), World Trail


Artists impression of Gardens of Stone ‘accomodation hubs’.

Background


This rugged landscape is a stunning place of sandstone plateaus, enigmatic rock formations and eucalypt forests. A significant cultural landscape, it’s also home to more than 80 rare and threatened species, as well as 16 threatened ecological communities. The Gardens of Stone should be an accessible wonderland, not the next tourism development opportunity.

Just north of Lithgow, on the western side of the Blue Mountains, the new 28,000 hectare Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area (SCA) has been reserved as a ‘national park in waiting’ while coal mining in the region winds down.

The place lives up to its name: amongst its internationally significant pagoda rock formations are more than 1,000 native plant species and even forested wind-blown sand dunes from the last ice age. There are also nationally endangered upland swamps, and 15 other rare and threatened ecological communities.

It took a 90-year battle for the Gardens of Stone area to gain protection, but the conservation struggle continues. Now it is about securing effective reserve management that allows environmental restoration, environment protection and the establishment of basic facilities to enable families to get close to nature.

In 2019 the Gardens of Stone Alliance of environment groups developed ‘Destination Pagoda’, a visitor management plan designed to present the pagoda landscapes to visitors in a low-impact, environmentally-sustainable manner, similar in nature to the Royal National Park. Under this plan, Lithgow would be the gateway to the reserve for visitors, delivering benefits to the local community.

 Evening glow. Photo: Henry Gold

Development Proposal


Much of the National Parks & Wildlife Service’s effort has not embraced the conservation-focussed ‘Destination Pagoda’. Instead, its efforts have gone into major tourism development projects allowed through a rushed plan of management. These include:
  • A costly ‘Great Walk’ over remote, rugged terrain with three proposed commercial accommodation hubs by Wild Bush Luxury Experience Ltd - exclusive and expensive;
  • Tens of kilometres of costly single-track mountain bike loops proposed by World Trail, a track construction company; and
  • More than 100 kilometres of 4WD roads, some with technical challenges.

These initiatives are very expensive: this funding could be used for better things such as environmental management or more appropriate spending on establishing the reserve. Nature, the local community and families miss out: it’s a lose, lose, lose strategy.


Current status


During the 2022 Christmas period, lease notices for privately operated accommodation and an adventure park within the Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area were exhibited, accompanied by just five lines of information. Following public outcry and subsequent legal action, the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) has agreed to restart the public review process for the leases. On 3 November the NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe announced the adventure theme park was scrapped but an Intention to lease cabins in the reserve would be readvertised.

Figure 1. Gardens of Stone development Site



Issues with the development


The 2022 lease notices received more than 300 objections to the pro-development plan of management and more than 1,000 submissions strongly objected to the proposed commercial leases.

The three proposed accommodation hubs are located on pristine ridgelines, contrary to NPWS sustainability guidelines. These commercial developments require the establishment of a ‘Great Walk’, which would require thousands of steps, be very expensive and similar to many other steep tracks in the Blue Mountains. The walk is too demanding for families with grandparents or younger children. It is a taxpayer-funded, gold-plated walk designed to deliver customers for Wild Bush Luxury facilities.

Building this track would soak up funds, leaving none for the ‘Destination Pagoda’ vision of family-friendly, accessible, gentle walks through iconic pagoda landscapes easily reached from park roads. These plateau walks could also be interlinked to create relatively easy overnight walks at little extra cost, but this does not suit Wild Bush Luxury as pristine environments and exclusivity are better marketing tools.

The scrapped Lost City theme park, located on another prominent, iconic site, is still in the plan of management. Until it is removed from the plan, it can be reactivated. This adventure park proposal is visually intrusive, including prominent platforms with cables strung between the platforms above the Lost City pagodas, creating horizontal lines that cancel out world-class iconic views. The proposed via ferrata and elevated walkways would create further scenic blight. Theme parks have no place in a conservation reserve.

Figure 2. ‘Lost City Adventure Experience’ theme park site map.

At least 35 kilometres of specially constructed mountain bike tracks are also proposed by World Trail. Building these comes at the expense of basic visitor facilities, and would require clearing several hectares of bushland. ‘Destination Pagoda’ proposes bike riders use park roads or old trail-bike tracks in the former pine forest.

Even the $28 million in compensation for coal-mining damage to upland swamps prior to reservation may not go towards management of nationally endangered environments. Under the signed offset deal, funds can be used for reserve establishment, and perhaps even for facilities that benefit tourism development.


Waratah Ridge.


Further information



How you can help


  • Write to Penny Sharpe, Minister for the Environment and Heritage, at nsw.gov.au/nsw-government/ministers/minister-environment-heritage to let her know your views.

  • Ask that the management priorities for the new Gardens of Stone reserve be basic visitor facilities, restoring damaged areas and controlling pest species rather than deliver gold-plated infrastructure for commercial interests.

  • Request the NSW Government to drop the commercial lease developments, re-exhibit the plan of management to remove these proposals and deliver ‘Destination Pagoda’.

Key contacts






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