A staggering 70 per cent increase in visitors to national parks on the NSW north coast is being undermined by ‘savage’ cuts of $121 million inflicted by the NSW government, according to the opposition.
New figures show that in the last two years, the area has become the most popular region outside of Sydney, leapfrogging the Hunter-Central Coast and the Blue Mountains.
But shadow environment minister Penny Sharpe has warned of the devastating impact of cuts to National Parks staff and funding to this growth.
Ms Sharpe said the increased number of visitors ‘is putting significant pressure on the National Parks and Wildlife Service, leaving overworked staff under pressure to keep facilities operating, make repairs, provide visitor services and education, as well as undertaking core park priorities of conservation programs, fire and pest management’.
She condemned the state government for a series of cuts and restructures that had the left the service ‘reeling and struggling with more visitors and fewer resources’.
‘With the bungling Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton at the helm, funding cuts and “efficiency dividends” have smashed the National Parks budget to the tune of more than $121 million cut over two years,’ Ms Sharpe said.
‘This is on top of a cut of $24 million to the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2014.
‘At the same time, permanent National Parks staff have been drastically reduced. Since 2011 – staff cuts mean that 26 per cent of permanent rangers have been lost and 35 per cent of area managers are gone.
‘There are fewer field officers on the ground to maintain the parks, assist visitors and undertake bush fire management operations.
‘The ecologists in the Service have been made redundant and the staff coordinating the work of volunteers who are working to protect threatened species is rapidly diminishing.
‘The Berejiklian Government is without doubt the greatest danger to our treasured National Parks estate since the National Parks and Wildlife Service was established in 1967.
‘NSW should have a world class National Parks and Wildlife Service, but this is impossible with the cuts being imposed by this government. Labor calls on the government to reverse the cuts and commit to properly resourcing the Service to look after our parks now and for the future.
‘I’ve been approached by experienced former National Parks staff almost in tears at the way this great public institution is being ground down – their greatest fear is a deliberate campaign of neglect, in which the government leaves parks to ruin so they can be opened up for logging or shooting instead.
‘With the government prioritising spending $2.5 billion on stadiums in Sydney, it is appalling to see our National Parks and the staff who manage them treated so poorly.’
But the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) said the claim $121 million had been cut from the NPWS budget was ‘categorically incorrect and undermines confidence in the excellent work the NPWS continues to provide’.
An OEH spokesperson told Echonetdaily the restructure ‘will see an increased number of 119 full-time equivalent roles, of which 115 are frontline roles, placing resources where we need them to support the community, and especially in regional areas’.
The spokesperson said ‘this is a cost-neutral program, designed to increase the number of employees in the field, where resources are needed most’.
‘This increase in staffing guarantees NPWS’ ability to continue to meet its land management goals, and continue to deliver world-class visitor experiences.’
The rise in visitation ‘has increased the demand for NPWS services and is one of the key reasons that the agency is currently restructuring its workforce’, the spokesperson said.