This paper considers a problematic dynamic in the protection of natural World Heritage properties for sites that also possess significant cultural assets, but that fall short of the World Heritage designation ‘outstanding universal value’ standard for cultural significance. The destruction of cultural heritage places in natural settings is a global concern and we use an Australian case study to illustrate the argument that cultural assets located within natural properties should be given an allied protection status. We argue that protection problems arise, represented by a nature/culture binary trope, despite significant progress in using more holistic approaches, as exemplified by cultural landscapes. To demonstrate our argument, we consider controversy surrounding a development proposal within the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (GBMWHA), located in the state of New South Wales, Australia. We find that a development proposal to raise a storage dam wall triggers significant problems for protecting both natural and cultural heritage features across the GBMWHA landscape and, in this context, we recommend a reconsideration of the rigid natural/cultural heritage binary of World Heritage classifications.
The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage area (GBMWHA)
The Blue Mountains area is located approximately 100 km to the west of Sydney, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Parts of the Blue Mountains were first formally designated as ‘sights reserves’ in the 1800s (NSW NPWS 2001). In 1875, the Grose River catchment was reserved from sale to protect water quality and as a natural spectacle (Macqueen 1997). The first official proposal for a Blue Mountains National Park (BMNP) was put forward by conservationist and bushwalker, Myles Dunphey in 1922 (Mosley 1989; NSW NPWS 2001). The idea gained momentum, and by 1931 the Sydney Bush Walker’s Club committee formed to prevent land clearance and instead to designate the lease area of Blue Gum Forest in the Grose Valley as recreational reserve (NSW NPWS 2001). In 1959, a trust was established and 62,000 hectares of land was gazetted as BMNP and extensive additions have been made continuously since then (Mosley 1989; NSW NPWS 2001). Today, the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (GBMWHA) includes eight (protected area) conservation reserves and covers 1,032,649 hectares (UNESCO 2020). There are 12 adjoining areas including seven adjacent national parks and one conservation reserve, which total 165,100 hectares (NSW Government 2009; UNESCO 2020). The GBMWHA contains a diverse range of Eucalypt habitats including wet and dry sclerophyll forest, Mallee heathland, swamps, wetland, and grassland (UNESCO 2020).
In addition to the natural values that are protected by the WH listing, the GBMWHA area has a history of First Nation site occupation extending at least 14,000 years (NSW DECC, 2009). Sites of cultural significance include the first region of occupation during the Pleistocene glacial period, engravings, grinding grooves, a concentration of unique stone arrangements and some of the most distinctive rock art incorporating the use of pigment and engraved forms including the Red Hands Cave (NSW DECC, 2009; NSW NPWS, 2001). Due in part to the remote and inaccessible nature of a large proportion of the GBMWHA, and in part to an inadequate approach within the EIS for the SEEP, archaeological surveys of the area have been limited. There is potential for many more important cultural/biocultural heritage sites to be yet uncovered. The potential adverse impacts of the WDDP are a topic of acute interest especially in the context of ongoing cultural heritage loss.
In Australia today, it has become clear that regulatory failures have resulted in a disproportionate number of First Nation places being degraded, if not lost entirely. The Juukan Gorge controversy highlights that destruction has been enabled by ill-fitting regulatory regimes (Borschmann et al., 2020; Hutchens, 2020). In this setting, we must work to better understand human-environment connections within protected places and showcase both the value of natural and cultural heritage assets (Gillespie, 2020). Such a process requires that we consider how communities value places in light of natural and cultural heritage perspectives. Considering increasing development means more critical reflection on these twinned values within our protected places is necessary.