The future of the world heritage-listed Kakadu national park now rests with the federal environment minister, after a turbulent week in which escalating tensions led to a vote of no confidence in senior management by the board and traditional owners, who said the relationship was “broken” and “irretrievable”.
Allegations of serious mismanagement have been raised by board members, traditional owners and park rangers. A series of letters referred to at least one out of control bushfire that destroyed park facilities, rangers’ own cars and homes and objects of historical and cultural significance late last year.
A senior traditional owner said he “personally nearly perished voluntarily fighting the fire” at the East Alligator ranger station.
“If I had not come across the fire and taken action to fight it, more assets would have been lost,” senior Bunjti traditional owner Jonathan Nadji wrote in a scathing letter to the director of Parks Australia, James Findlay, on 1 July.
The board and rangers have also raised concerns about a 2019 helicopter crash, in which three employees were injured. Parks management commissioned an independent report into the incident . But in a letter to the minister, the board said the investigation “did not interview all of the key witnesses” and should have been conducted by “an expert in medical retrieval and incident management”.
The accident is currently being investigated by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB).
The federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, asked for and is currently considering a full report into the matters raised from Findlay, which was delivered on Friday.
A spokesman for the minister said Covid-19 restrictions presented “logistical challenges” to an in-person meeting, but Ley intended to travel to Kakadu as soon as possible to sit down with traditional owners and hear their concerns.
The chair of the Kakadu board of management, Maria Lee, told Guardian Australia the minister should come “sooner rather than later” because joint management of Kakadu, between Parks Australia and the traditional owners, was not working.
“There’s a lack of communication,” Lee said, “to the point where because they are not listening, joint management doesn’t work.
“I’d like to see us go back to that time where everyone was working together and everyone was getting along, communicating with each other. Everyone that worked in Kakadu national park used to treat each other like a family.”
Kat Noonan, a tourism member of the Kakadu board, said the situation was “untenable”.
“Management is broken and we need to fix it,” Noonan said. “It is irretrievable, it is untenable. We cannot ever allow this to get this bad ever again.
“It’s affecting people’s livelihoods and that’s from the rangers out there in the park doing their job every day, as traditional owners who are also working as rangers as well because they’re so bloody proud of their country, to the tourism industry, to the people who run hotels. Everyone’s livelihood is affected in the Top End in regard to this.”
The national auditor warned the federal government a year ago that there were significant problems with parks management, and the relationship with traditional owner groups was fraught.
“The Director’s performance measures are not complete, and lack rigour, clear targets, baselines and descriptions of measurement methods,” the ANAO report said.
“The Director does not effectively manage risks to the objectives of the parks. The Director’s risk management framework lacks engagement with boards of management on risk oversight. The implementation of the framework has been undermined by a lack of suitable system support to record risks and monitor the implementation of treatment measures. There is also scope for the Director to strengthen its management of climate, probity and compliance risks.”
“These concerns have previously been raised by traditional owner board members at board meetings and conveyed to the Director. Correspondence and board papers note that traditional owners have been ‘very unhappy with the current state of joint management’, that ‘joint management is not working’ and ‘the principle of joint management has disappeared’.”
The director’s response at the time was to agree to all recommendations for change.
“Working in partnership with traditional owners, improving the governance and performance of the joint boards of management … will be a particular and ongoing focus,” Findlay said.
Parks Australia said it values and respects the long-standing joint management relationship it has with the traditional owners.
The Northern Land Council will host a two-day meeting of traditional owners in coming weeks, saying it has a responsibility under the Aboriginal land rights act and the Kakadu park lease to “heed the distress calls from traditional owners”.
“The NLC has a real obligation to act, not only because of the resolutions last week … but also because we’ve been receiving serious complaints from traditional owners about mismanagement of the park in recent years,” the council’s chief executive, Marion Scrymgour, said.
“Attempts by the NLC to resolve these issues have been protracted, frustrating and difficult. We can’t let this go on any longer.”
In a statement issued this week, Parks Australia said it values and respects the long-standing joint management relationship it has with the traditional owners of Kakadu.
“Following the correspondence received by the Kakadu board of management, the Director of National Parks is preparing a report for consideration of the Minister to assess both perspectives,” a Parks Australia spokesperson said.
“Parks Australia wants to ensure that the issues are properly addressed and that we can continue to work collaboratively with the Traditional Owners in managing the park.”
Kakadu is a world heritage-listed 1.9 million hectare estate of floodplains, woodlands, forest, ancient stone country and sandstone cliffs, is home to at least 33 threatened species, and is one of three mainland parks jointly managed between Parks Australia and the traditional owners. The others are Uluru-Kata Tjuta in central Australia and Booderee on the New South Wales south coast.
“My focus will be on finding the best ways that we can work together in the interests of the traditional owners and the good of the park, which remains a national and international treasure,” Ley told ABC Radio in Darwin this week.
Ley said the model of joint management was “the right one” and she was confident the issues could be resolved.
“I do believe we can go forward, and we have to for the benefit of the communities that live in the parks and the people who visit them,” she said.
“What I can see is the angst that’s been caused by a chain of events. And perhaps there is something going wrong in the system as a whole, or perhaps these are individual issues that have just bubbled along and now reached a critical point.”
But she gave a firm “no” when asked if the federal government would consider Northern Territory chief minister Michael Gunner’s offer to take control of Kakadu.