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CENTRAL TABLELANDS, NSW

Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area

Proposed Development Project:  Lost City Adventure Precinct & Gardens of Stone Great Walk

Pagoda landscape. Image credit: Henry Gold

The Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area in NSW’s Central West is a stunning landscape of rock pagodas, cliffs and canyons, and it 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.

A seventy kilometre ‘Great Walk’ with three exclusive accommodation hubs is proposed for the SCA, along with 100km of 4WD tracks and 35km of MTB tracks. Also proposed, but subsequently scrapped, was the Lost City theme park, which involved zip lines and via ferrata and elevated walkways. Although supposedly shelved, it is still in the plan of management. Until it is removed from the plan, it can be reactivated.

The NSW Government has placed a lease notice for exclusive cabin accommodation located among pagoda landforms on exhibition for comment until 31 May. There is a dot-point guide to making an objection here (preferred), or a webform for making an objection here.

THE DEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL IN BRIEF:

- A 70 kilometre ‘Great Walk’ with three exclusive accommodation hubs.
- An adventure precinct including zip lines and via ferrata
- 35+ kilometres of mountainbike singletrack
100+ kilometres of 4WD tracks

THE DEVELOPERS:

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.

Lost City adventure activity precinct and multi-day walk visitor accommodation nodes. 
Map Source: NPWS  Gardens of Stone State Conservation Area Plan of Management

The Proposed Development


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.

The initial development proposal also included plans to build the ‘Lost City Adventure Experience’,  an adventure ‘theme park’ replete with zip lines and via ferrata. While the plan is now supposedly off the books, it remains on the Plan of Management. Until it is removed from the plan, it can be reactivated.

Artist’s impression of the proposed zip line at Lost City. The image fomed part of NPWS’s Gardens of Stone SCA Draft Master Plan publication 

The Problems 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.

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.


‘Lost City Adventure Experience’ theme park site map

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 2023, 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.

In May 2024 the NSW Government  placed a lease notice for exclusive cabin accommodation located among pagoda landforms on exhibition for comment until 31 May. There is a dot-point guide to making an objection here (preferred), or a webform for making an objection here

Further information

- Visit www.gardensofstone.org.au to keep up to date on this important campaign and take action on current issues.


How you can help

- Write an objection to the NSW Government’s lease notice for exclusive cabin accommodation located among pagoda landforms, on exhibition for comment until 31 May. There is a dot-point guide to making an objection here (preferred), or a webform for making an objection here
 
- 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.

    - 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

- Keith Muir from the Gardens of Stone Alliance: keith.muir6@bigpond.com; 0412 791 404; www.gardensofstone.org.au

- Bridget Jackson from the Blue Mountains Conservation Society:  bridget@seedcommunications.com.au; 0411 160 293