Parks Australia to plead guilty over alleged sacred site damage at Kakadu’s Gunlom Falls: ABC

By Steve Vivian

Looking down from the top of Gunlom Falls in the Northern Territory. (ABC Open Contributor Heath Whiley)
  • In short: Parks Australia has indicated it will plead guilty to allegations it damaged a sacred site in Kakadu National Park during construction work in 2019.
  • The long-running court case centres on allegations Parks Australia damaged a sacred men’s site at popular swimming spot Gunlom Falls, which has now been closed for five years.
  • What’s next? The Aboriginal sacred sites authority is seeking penalties for the alleged damage, with the charge carrying a maximum fine of $350,000.

Parks Australia has announced it will plead guilty in criminal proceedings alleging it violated a sacred site in Kakadu National Park during construction work, following a landmark High Court decision earlier this month.

Traditional owners and the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) have been locked in a long-running court case with Parks Australia centred on alleged damage to a sacred men’s site at Gunlom Falls during the construction of a new walking track in 2019.

Gunlom Falls, which is one of Kakadu’s most renowned tourist destinations, has been closed since the dispute began.

Earlier this month the High Court ruled that Parks Australia, the Commonwealth body which jointly manages Kakadu with traditional owners, could be held criminally liable for the alleged damage.

The decision meant AAPA could continue its case against Parks Australia in the NT Local Court, where it is seeking penalties.

The High Court decision dismissed a 2022 ruling in the NT Supreme Court that found Parks Australia was immune from the NT Sacred Sites Act.

In a statement on Wednesday, director of national parks Ricky Archer said he had advised AAPA and traditional owners that Parks Australia would plead guilty.

“I understand that the trackwork at Gunlom Falls which was undertaken in 2019 before my tenure in the role, caused great distress and upset to the Jawoyn Traditional Owners of the site,” he said.

“I express my deep and sincere apologies to Traditional Owners for the wrongs of the past.

“Our focus now is working with Traditional Owners, AAPA and the Northern Land Council on the next steps in relation to the Gunlom site. This includes obtaining an Authority Certificate from AAPA for continued use of the site.”

a bald man with facial hair wearing a suit in front of palm fronds
Ricky Archer says Parks Australia is determined “to ensure something like this never happens again”.(Supplied: Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water)

The relationship between Parks Australia and traditional owners has deteriorated since 2019, with custodians delivering a no-confidence vote against the body over the management of Kakadu in 2020.

Mr Archer, a Djungan man who became the first Indigenous director of national parks when he was appointed to the role last November, said he was “committed to resolving the Gunlom Falls matter and repairing relationships with Traditional Owners”.

“Over the past two years, Parks Australia staff have worked with Traditional Owners from the Gunlom Aboriginal Land Trust and with the Northern Land Council (NLC) to realign the walking track,” he said.

“I would like to reassure all of Kakadu’s Traditional Owners, the Gunlom Aboriginal Land Trust, and the Kakadu National Park Board of Management, that the lessons learned from this situation will improve how Parks Australia plans and executes projects.

“This includes how Parks Australia works with the NLC and AAPA to facilitate consultation around projects, to ensure something like this never happens again.”

In a statement, AAPA chief executive Benedict Scambary said it “welcomed” the news the director of national parks intended to enter a guilty plea, a move he described as long overdue.

“While the matter is still to be heard in the NT Local Court, today’s announcement from the new director of national parks is a welcome step forward in resolving this case,” he said.

Unlike most of the NT’s national parks, which are managed by the territory government, Kakadu — along with Uluru — is managed by the Commonwealth in a joint-management arrangement with traditional owners.

The Gunlom Falls matter is listed to appear in the Darwin Local Court on July 29.

The charge carries a maximum penalty of $350,000.

Read the original article on the ABC website here