THE ALPS AT THE CROSSROADS

The threat to all shelter huts within the Kosciuszko National Park had become apparent in early 1966 following the sending to the AAC of a letter of intent by the Kosciuszko State Park Trust (KSPT) to compulsorily acquire the AAC's Lake Albina lodge. The "Sydney Morning Herald" of 28 May 1966 published an opinion piece on the apparent desire of conservationists within the KSPT to remove alpine shelter huts, under the heading "Ski tourers versus conservationists". After noting the magnificent skiing available to ski tourers on the Kosciuszko Main Range, the article drew attention to the potential hazards. "It is also a dangerous world, where a blinding mist can come down in minutes and often freezing winds, unbroken by any intervening mountain chain, blow from the Antarctic with devastating force. It is not a place for the foolhardy, the unfit or the inexperienced." The ski tourers would like "a chain of simple, non-commercial touring huts similar to Albina on the Main Range, making possible easy ski-touring of the area with overnight stops, as is the practice in Europe. .....Under the present provisions of the master plan, however, such a project seems unlikely to be permitted."

The Victorian National Parks Association published Dick Johnson's 208 page book "The Alps at the Crossroads" in December 1974 to support its quest for an Alpine National Park in Victoria. The first paragraph of that book's introduction sets the scene. Whilst the book is specifically focused on Victoria, it encapsulates the main concerns, goals and objectives of the Green Movement for alpine areas in Australia during the early nineteen-seventies.

"In the 19th Century the alpine region of Victoria was extensively mined for gold and during this period and in all the years following was grazed by cattle. Despite the harmful effects of these activities the country, even thirty years ago, was very much an unroaded wilderness, a vast natural expanse of mountain country with a wonderful feeling of spaciousness that gave an intense exhilaration to those visitors privileged to pass through it. But the destruction of the 1939 fires and the post-war industrial boom brought a need for timber which could only be obtained from the mountains, and the roading and logging of the great wilderness commenced."

The Introduction then notes that only a few tiny pockets of unroaded country are left and that "roads bring trailbikes and four wheel drive vehicles, litter and damage and the path of the thoughtless vandal". Concern is expressed that "the absence of a national park means that no-one has the specific responsibility to consider the conservation of the natural scenery, the natural environment, or the more intangible but no less important features of the high country – its solitude and its silence." At that time (1974) the State Electricity Commission, the Lands Department, the Soil Conservation Authority and the Forests Commission all had responsibilities in the alpine region. "Divided control, disunified objectives and the failure to include socio-environmental considerations in the making of decisions" were marked features of alpine management then.

With the coming of the white man, the previous mosaic of burnt and unburnt country throughout the alpine region, which had allowed the mountain forests to sustain themselves through natural wildfire on a limited scale, was replaced by intense fires, deliberately lit at inappropriate times (such as mid-summer) and in inappropriate places. "Gradually, the grassland understorey turned to dense thickets of scrub, creating an environment more prone to fire and less subject to self regulation by natural mechanisms." A good example of this scrub is on the north-west bank of the Snowy River uphill from the suspension bridge near Illawong Lodge.

Dick Johnson does draw attention (on page 143 of "The Alps at the Crossroads") to the valuable contributions to the Community made by the mountain cattlemen and their huts. "The cattlemen also service the high country. Their huts, open to all, have saved the life of many a traveller and the cattlemen themselves have assisted in many search and rescue operations in the mountains over the years. The cattleman is almost a resident – he knows the area, he lives in it for lengthy periods and he is hardened to its harsh conditions. He is a source of information, a keen observer of men and his own hopes for the mountains are not so very far removed from those of most conservationists. This is the paradox of the cattlemen; the cattle are a tax upon the environment, their masters a benefit to it."

From the skiers' point of view, the more significant of the Green Movement's conclusions and recommendations for alpine areas, as contained in "The Alps at the Crossroads", can be summarized as follows:

Recommendations for alpine areas

  • "Recreational use of the mountain region is already intensive and will increase much faster in the future."
  • There should be a "rational allocation of land for the benefit of all citizens. We see this aim best achieved by the creation of a large Alpine National Park, which considers the total resources of the high country and provides the best opportunity for comprehensive land-use planning and management."
  • "Exploitative commerce which directly derives revenue from the material resources of the region has no place in a national park";
  • "Cattlemen represent an historic tradition and a practical and useful presence in the high country. These factors must be respected in any policy which affects them";
  • "Fire is a natural and inseparable part of the Australian forest cycle, but Western man has altered the original environment so that a natural and self-balancing situation no linger exists";
  • "The Alpine National Park should be a good neighbour to adjacent farmlands . . . (eg. "Specific measures be taken to eliminate blackberry and other noxious weeds from within the Park" and "Vermin be reduced by specific disease or other acceptable control".)
  • "All developments should be simple, in keeping with the natural environment of the Park itself."
  • "That luxurious accommodation and fully-serviced caravan parks be located in towns."
  • "That simple camping sites be provided throughout the Park at many points along river valleys and on one or two selected points along the lower elevation high plains."
  • "That existing huts be allowed to remain, but that no more be built."
  • "That no more ski villages be allowed to develop above the snow line, and that all future accommodation (once the existing village sites are declared full) be provided in the major river valleys."
  • "That wilderness zones be delineated in the management planning of the Alpine Park" and "that such zones be actively managed by allowing fire-access tracks within them to deteriorate and regenerate and by closing off public access along roads well back from the perimeter of the declared wilderness."

To justify the proposed ban on building additional huts within the proposed national park, the prevailing view of the Green Movement was that ski tourers should overnight in tents or snow caves. The risk to ski tourers of asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen, caused by burial of their tents and/or snow caves by an overnight heavy dump of snow, was not understood at that time (1974). For further details, please see the section headed "Death of Four Snowboarders in their Snow Cave" at the conclusion of this installment.

The Alpine National Park, covering the alps in North-Eastern Victoria, was established in the late 1970's. The three organizations that supported and participated in all stages of the preparation of Dick Johnson's book were:-

  • The Victorian National Parks Association;
  • The Federation of Victorian Walking Clubs; and
  • The Save Our Bushlands Action Committee.