Kakadu traditional owners receive personal apology at Gunlom Falls over sacred site damage: ABC

By Matt Garrick

Gunlom Falls is a popular waterhole in Kakadu National Park, which has been closed for years after a sacred site was damaged.
(ABC News: Andie Smith)

In short:

Documents obtained by Freedom of Information show the director of National Parks has been making moves towards resolving a long-term legal matter in Kakadu.

Gunlom Falls in Kakadu has been closed since 2019 after a sacred site was damaged by Parks Australia contractors building a walkway, triggering the legal dispute.

What’s next?

Director Ricky Archer has said he’ll plead guilty over the matter, with Parks Australia saying they’re working with traditional owners on a possible compensation payout.

The Commonwealth’s director of national parks has travelled to Gunlom Falls to make a formal apology to traditional owners over damage to a sacred site in the area.

Gunlom Falls, the spectacular infinity pool and waterfall on Kakadu’s southern edge, has been closed since 2019 due to a heated and ongoing legal stoush between traditional owners and the Commonwealth over agency Parks Australia’s handling of the incident.

Documents obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information (FOI) show the director of National Parks, Ricky Archer, invited all involved parties to the rare on-country meeting.

The meeting took place in late June, the ABC has confirmed, with federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek saying all parties are now working towards Gunlom’s reopening.

“At the meeting, [Mr Archer] provided a formal apology to traditional owners and conveyed his deep and sincere regret to traditional owners about the damage at the site and the government response,” Ms Plibersek said.

“He also committed to building a stronger relationship going forward.

“All parties have agreed to work collaboratively towards reopening the Gunlom Falls site and ensuring the correct approvals are in place.”

a bald man with facial hair wearing a suit in front of palm fronds
National Parks director Ronald ‘Ricky’ Archer has apologised to traditional owners over damage to sacred sites at Gunlom Falls.(Supplied: Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water)

Officials from the Northern Land Council (NLC) and Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) also attended the meeting, with AAPA’s boss describing it as a positive step.

“We welcome the director’s personal apology to custodians, and look forward to improving positive relationships in the park,” AAPA CEO Benedict Scambary told the ABC.

None of the parties would offer an exact timeline for when the falls could be reopened.

Parks Australia flags compensation settlement

The FOI documents also show Parks Australia is working to settle a lease dispute with traditional owners over the site, which the agency indicated could involve compensation.

The internal Parks Australia documents show that since the resolution of the sacred sites damage case in the High Court earlier this year, and Mr Archer’s subsequent decision to plead guilty in Darwin Local Court over the matter, the parties are working to resolve the lease dispute.

“Now that these issues have been determined, the NLC is expected to request [Mr Archer] amongst other things, pay compensation to settle the lease dispute,” the document read.

Neither Parks Australia or the NLC would say how much compensation could be paid.

“There are legal proceedings underway concerning Gunlom Falls,” an NLC spokesperson said.

“Traditional owners, the NLC and the director of National Parks are dealing with these issues constructively in joint management partnership, and therefore cannot respond directly to your questions at this time.”

The Gunlom Falls case is scheduled to return to Darwin Local Court on July 29.