Occasional closure part of Indigenous Protected Area plan for troubled Never Never River’s Promised Lands: ABC

ABC Mid North Coast / By Jasmine Kassis

Promised Lands on the Never Never River has become a popular spot for visitors. (ABC Coffs Coast: Charles Rushforth)

In short:

  • There have been concerns about pollution in the Never Never River at a popular swimming spot known as the Promised Lands, near the town of Bellingen.
  • The spot has now been declared part of an 81,000-hectare Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in the Bellingen Valley.
  • What’s next? Yurruungga Aboriginal Corporation hopes the declaration will allow traditional owners to lead the way in curbing problems caused by unchecked tourism in the area.

It looks and sounds like something out of a fairytale. 

But the pristine appearance of the Never Never River, which runs through an area known as the Promised Lands on the NSW mid-north coast, is deceiving. 

“It’s somewhere where the world goes, ‘Oh, look how beautiful it is’ and we stand here going, ‘This was trashed’,” said Dean Kelly, chief executive of the Yurruungga Aboriginal Corporation.

dean kelly
Dean Kelly says part of the Never Never River has been overrun by tourists. (ABC Coffs Coast: Charles Rushforth)

The place locals call the Promised Lands lies within Tuckers Nob State Forest, close to the town of Bellingen.

It was once regarded as something of a secret spot, but coverage on social media has seen it become an increasingly popular swimming site.

But as the site is not recognised as a tourist area by Forestry Corporation NSW, which manages the Crown Land, there are no public toilets or rubbish bins, and minimal parking.

Mr Kelly and Brentyn Lugnan are Gumbaynggir men and traditional owners of the land.

They said the hotspot, which was geotagged online, was paying a price for its popularity.

NeverNever Busy
The Never Never River has long been an idyllic swimming spot during summer. (ABC Coffs Coast: Claudia Jambor)

In January 2023, water quality at the river showed concerning levels of faecal matter, with human and dog excrement the suspected source.

“There’s a lot of people with heads in the sand on this”, Mr Kelly said. 

Mr Lugnan said he was worried by other, less deliberate forms of contamination.

“Because it’s such a pristine and shallow waterway, with the amount of people we get through here, things like the fly spray, sunscreens, fake tans — it all settles on the top of the water,” he said.

Never Never Chemicals
Dean Kelly says sunscreen, fly spray and fake tan creates a slick of chemicals in the shallow river. (ABC Coffs Coast: Charles Rushforth)

“It creates a flow-on effect throughout the valley.”

Joining the IPA Program

But now Mr Kelly and Mr Lugnan have a say in how the land is protected.

The river has become part of a new 81,000-hectare Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in the Bellingen Valley.

It is one of 12 new IPA sites announced this year as part of an ongoing program, which now covers 87 million hectares of land.

Under the program, the federal government assigns First Nations groups with responsibility to manage their particular site.

Minister for Environment Tanya Plibersek joined Yurruungga Aboriginal Corporation’s Dean Kelly to launch the Bellingen Valley site as an Indigenous Protected Area. (ABC Coffs Coast: Charles Rushforth)

‘Closed to rest’

For the Yurruungga Aboriginal Corporation, which has received $1.19 million to run the Bellingen Valley IPA, it offers a chance to suggest solutions to curb the effects of excessive tourism in the area.

These include controlling visitor numbers and declaring the area off-limits during certain times of the year. 

“Rather than it being a free-for-all, driving up and down from sacred places, we need to give it a rest sometimes during the year,” Mr Lugnan said.

Other proposals include raised walkways, introducing rangers to offer guided tours, and building an office near the entrance of the site to sell organic sunscreen. 

“We’re not always going to get the answers we like, but we’re going to go for everything we can,” Mr Lugnan said. 

“It’s not just ‘stay away’ — we need to actually protect some of these places because they’re of very high cultural significance to our mob. 

“If we can stop people from wandering up there, that would mean a lot to us culturally.”

Brentyn Lugnan
Yurruungga Aboriginal Corporation’s Brentyn Lugnan says the Never Never River includes sacred women’s and men’s sites. 
(ABC Coffs Coast: Charles Rushforth)

Voluntary compliance

However, getting these ideas over the line is not guaranteed.

Under the terms of an IPA, compliance is only voluntary and involves a mandatory consultation period with landholders of the particular area, which can typically last between three to five years. 

For Mr Kelly that means negotiating and consulting with multiple landholders of the Never Never River, including Forestry Corporation NSW and the Bellingen Shire Council.

“We’ve built a pretty good relationship and we’re in a place where we can make really good change,” he said. 

Both Bellingen Shire Council and the Forestry Corporation of NSW told the ABC they endorsed Yurruungga Aboriginal Corporations’ application for funding under the IPA program.

The council recently launched a “Go Before You Go” campaign, encouraging visitors to use a toilet before visiting the remote swimming hole. 

Both the council and the Forestry Corporation of NSW said they looked forward to discussing opportunities and initiatives to better protect the land.

Read the original article on the ABC website here

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